Don't should in my studio

The image for this blog post is a photo portrait of my beloved studio desk.

Creative workspaces are important. I like to encourage people to think about if their set-up is working for them, if it’s showing them how much they value their creativity, and if it’s somewhere they love to be. 

My friend messaged me an Instagram post by the magnificent writer Elizabeth Gilbert. She thought I might relate to it, because I’ve talked to her about my experiments with organising my studio. 

Gilbert’s post started with a shot of a beautiful desk, some paintings, and a notecard system; everything emanated safe spaciousness. The writing was Gilbert’s usual gorgeous, inspiring, wise and romantic take on the creative life. One idea that stuck with me was that creating is a way to celebrate (celebrating is something I’m still learning.)

But what also struck me was that at one point Gilbert’s expression of her strong vision inadvertently generated an oversimplification, drifting away from reality. It revolved around her use of this word: should.

Should up!

The post told me what my creative studio should be like. ‘But the space should be clean, and everything in that space should remind you of who you are. There should be nothing in that space that doesn’t bring your senses to life.’ The message was addressed to ‘you’, which means everyone.

This is inspiring advice. But with that word ‘should’ in there, it just can’t be true. There are more ways that people need their studios to be than I can possibly imagine. Some of them are totally crammed with stuff, and some of them are, yes, dirty.

Gilbert’s studio should be clean and clear.  Her relationship with her creativity is so healthy that I’m confident that she knows what she needs in a studio.

But she doesn’t know me, or what I need.

As a born rebel, my instant response to reading the word ‘should’ shifted my feelings about my studio’s piles of library books, weird trinkets, paint-spattered rags, and protective layer of dust. 

What works, works

These days I know how to keep my studio awesome. I can feel when an object has become dead in the space, sucking life into itself and breaking my heart a little each time I look at it. Now, I just take that thing out of my studio and leave it in the middle of the lounge where it gets in the way fast enough that I do something about it.

I only have one rule in my studio: keep the desk clear. Each time I finish work, I clear my desk, making the space ready for whatever asks to be worked on next. That’s the only ‘should’ I need.

Following my contrary reaction to Gilbert’s post, I realised I’d started to get more controlling in my studio than is good for my creativity. A recent apparent desire for aesthetic clarity turned out to be fabricated by my ego out of online images of other people’s studios! (I suspect this is common.)

I’m happy working in organic, self-ordering chaos. I like everything to be visible at once, so that I know that it exists. This is okay. I make my choices, I take on the risks, and I accept the consequences.

All this is a quibble around my response to one word in a very generous and thought-provoking post. But it made me realise something else really useful.

I realised that I never want to tell anybody what they ‘should’ do in relation to their creativity. I can’t know that; I don’t believe that anybody can.

The lure of legitimation

It’s like when people justify gender roles, sexuality, their leadership theories or anything else they choose to believe by referring to nature or evolution or our ancestral biology. 

Often, the ‘should’ that people use to motivate themselves is explained seemingly objectively, and then projected onto others. People are monogamous, polygamous, anarchist, hierarchical, raw, paleo, vegan, (please continue this list yourself), and believe that others should be too. Or, worse, that other people already really are but don’t know it yet!

In the book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari says that what we know about our ancient ancestors’ ways of life is that we don’t know much about them. He suggests that a better way to look at it is that the repeating pattern of diversity in human choices shows that lots of different ways work.

Why do people even need to legitimate their choices? You make your choice, you take the risks and cope with the consequences – and that’s it. You don’t need authorisation from neuroscience or anthropology or a creative person you admire. Actually, that kind of authorisation isn’t even real.

The only person who can say what you should do creatively is you. 

My new rule

I can definitively say that I should create often. I know this because I’ve tried not doing it, and it never works out well (for me or the people round me). My personality starts to breaks down (a bit like a malfunctioning Westworld host). I become both tense and apathetic. I’ve had points where the voice in my head is only screaming – like, ‘Aaaaaaaaaaaaaah!!!!!!’ So yes, I should regularly engage with my creativity, and that’s a fact.

But I don’t know your story. I can’t tell you that you should create regularly. And me telling you that might only add pressure, making it harder for you to learn about how you work best.

So, my new rule: I should not use ‘should’ when I talk about creativity. I value ambiguity more than satisfying simplification. May, might, most, can, could, probably – there are plenty of words that keep a strong statement accurate. 

You’re the expert in yourself. Maybe you already know what you should do to live the creative life that works for you. If not, you might want to start finding out.