I first penned this essay back in 2008, but never published it myself. This is a slightly edited version to bring it up to the current date. Pottery by Cindi Cusick; digital painting by Kathleen Farago May.
In his best-selling 1990 book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “chick-sent-me-high-ee”) defined and explored the concept of “flow” as our experience of optimal fulfillment and engagement. Flow, whether in creative arts, athletic competition, engaging work or spiritual practice, is a deep and uniquely human motivation to excel, exceed, and triumph over limitation.
Csikszentmihalyi gives me a form of self-confidence through his concept of “flow” that I confess I never gained from the term “art.” As a society, we tend to think of “art” as primarily the creative arts – music, visual art forms and creative writing being the three that most readily come to mind. But those of us not blessed with talent in one of these areas are often left feeling like the ugly duckling or the Cinderella in a world full of artistically graced swans and stepsisters.
From childhood, I recall the many lessons (piano, ballet, tap, violin and voice) my mother was enterprising enough to involve me in – all of which gave me my true appreciation for music, but none of which “stuck” in the sense that I ever felt from them “optimal fulfillment and engagement.” Instead, I felt sick on the curvy roads to and from the lessons, mortal fear at recitals, self-consciousness about my too-thin body at dance reviews, and basically overwhelmed by what I call the perfectionist’s script for self-defeat: with so many things to do, how could I ever do any one thing well?
To escape from the pressure, I’d retreat to my bedroom where hundreds of paper dolls waited to come to life under my direction. Silly as it sounds, for an only child with a vivid imagination, the world of girls and boys cut out from Simplicity magazine – evenly matched in size and each with his or her own intricately developed emotional and psychological makeup, set of academic skills, and personal history – was the key to power. This game cast me as the director, organizer and creator. I set up detailed schedules for each person and then watched with glee as my random schedule-making schemes placed Janice in a science class with Tom, a boy she had a crush on, or Jeff in choir with Candy, a girl he had broken up with and no longer wished to see.
Aside from the social element, students gained skills that helped them determine their future careers; they made friends who would be with them for life, and siblings supported each other through difficult family issues. So empowering was this “flow” that I played with these dolls long past the “appropriate” age, and can vividly recall nervously throwing the covers down to hide all my dolls in their classrooms (individual squares on a quilt, actually) when my father unexpectedly knocked on my door when I stayed home from school with a cold as a high school freshman.
That very year, another form of flow superseded that of the dolls. My English teacher, Debby Douglas, was handing me back my umpteenth paper marked with an A++ and she must have seen something in my face that betrayed a certain disappointment and realized that I needed encouragement that defied expectation; I was used to getting these A’s no matter what I did. “Other students get A’s,” she said, “but you need to understand that what you do is in a whole other category: this is something you do like no one else. You should really pursue it.” From that moment on, I had my flow. I knew where I wanted to go, what I wanted to do – the world revolved around words, writing, communication: that was my music, my “art.”
And yet, still that word “art” did it’s best to make me feel left out. Because, save for bad lyrics written during some romantic squabble, I was never a creative writer. In college, I won contests for critical/analytical essays dissecting the language of Spencer and Shakespeare poems, short stories by Hemingway – even the lyrics of songs by Joni Mitchell. I was a nerdy writer, while those around me were poets, painters and potters, violinists, vocalists and artistic visionaries.
And then one day, years later, when I had my own business as a freelance writer, I decided to face the challenge. I knew I’d envied my friends who were musicians and artists too long. But why? Was it because I had not yet found that “deep and uniquely human motivation to excel, exceed and triumph over limitation”? “What is my art?” I asked myself. What is it that truly puts me into the world of “flow”? My writing did it, yes. But often, in order to make a buck, I was forced to write about topics for which I held no real passion. So what was my passion? How could I make a difference?
It was then that I remembered the paper dolls. And through a good, hard look at the nature of that experience, I realized that I had not just been playing a game; I’d been grooming myself, teaching myself, preparing myself for my future contributions to the world. My true gift was bringing people together, connecting and directing them to do great things, allowing them to support one another, and providing them a means to learn their true callings.
This realization took a shape that rapidly sprung to life in the form of a non-profit organization, Greater Opportunities for Women, to help low-income women in Kentucky learn about their talents and develop better job skills while supporting one another in a group, attending classes together for ten weeks. While developing and implementing this complex program, I felt like “an artist” in the truest sense, staying up all night in a rush of inspiration to finish creating an aspect of this intricately detailed work. I was like the conductor of a symphony, directing a team of volunteers to work together to pull off complex pieces of the “music” that I could not perform alone. It was near the end of my four-year endeavor that my dear friend Paul Ramey pointed out that unlike that of a writer, musician or visual artist, my social form of art was four-dimensional because it touched the realm of possibility and actualized people to realize their dreams.
Once when one of the 60 women who attended the program decided to drop out, my mother remarked, “Unlike the paper dolls, GO Women don’t always stay where you put them.” Always perceptive, my mother hit the nail on the head with this statement. And ultimately, control freak that I was, perhaps that’s why I eventually handed the executive director role off to someone else. Perhaps I just couldn’t maintain that level of artistic intensity for longer than four years; after all, artists have their “periods.” But I probably learned more from the adventure than anyone else; I learned that art, for me, is whatever gets me “in the flow,” whatever challenges me to go beyond my limits, and to excel and triumph in new ways.
Today I have the privilege to work in publishing, bringing my writing, editing and organizational skills to bear on a variety of publications, both in print and online. I feel that familiar sense of optimal fulfillment and engagement when I am organizing materials for a story, writing e-mails to sources explaining the kind of quote I need from them, helping another editor create a framework for their publication, or proofreading a magazine to ensure it is as error-free as possible. I love working with words, I always have, and this is what gets me in Csikszentmihalyi’s flow. This is my art.
Watching my fiancé, John, build our new house, and hearing his thought processes as he develops his plans, reminds me precisely of the mental steps I go through to create an essay or an article. I can tell he is entering into his flow when he is planning to build, and fully immersed in it while carrying out those plans. It’s a joy to experience.
I will never cease to be inspired by friends who deliver truly creative writing, stirring pieces of music and awesome visual arts that communicate a unique personality and artistic sensitivity. I know carvers, dancers, quilt makers, film directors, photographers, potters and pianists, gourd painters and guitarists, sculptors, singers and songwriters – who all make me feel awe and amazement. But I am just as inspired by those who express their art in non-traditional ways. One friend creates art through yoga, another through massage. I know beekeepers, camp directors, financial analysts, hair dressers and hikers, mentors and mothers, pastors and pharmacists, who all make an art of what they create when in their flow. Some even make an art out of helping others to die gracefully and with dignity.
“Come, my friends. ‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.” These words from Tennyson’s Ulysses, some of the few that stick in memory from my studies in English Literature, continue to send chills up my spine each time I hear them. Just as Ulysses rallied around him his old sailing buddies to go upon a new, and perhaps final, quest, we are never too old to set out on a new voyage, and see the world in a different way than we ever could before.
We all have to challenge ourselves to go beyond our limits – limits we have largely, though often unwittingly, set for ourselves. Whatever challenges you, whatever you wish that you could do, but fear you can’t – I encourage you to give it a try. You might just become a new kind of artist – with a whole new sense of flow.