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Saturday, September 25, 2021

Column: Time on trial

I spend way too much time picturing an activity and thinking, “What is the least amount of time this can be done in?” It’s not simply that I want to finish a chore as fast as possible, I just wonder at which point in the practice of folding clothes it becomes impossible to fold any faster.

I thought it was fair to say that if there was anything that took great dedication (in the form of time), it was art — at least good art. To an extent that’s true. After all, how many years might it take to master a skill and produce consistently good work? But there’s no rule that enforces the amount of time it takes to make something worthwhile. Perhaps my laundry experiment is inappropriate for proving the same for art, but laundry is a technical chore and art is something beyond its technical aspects. Let us consider the possibility that something great doesn’t necessarily need to take a lot of time.

Before I start to talk about myself, I have a disclaimer: I do not consider myself to be an artist. Beyond being a slightly arrogant writer, I have not gained the level of skill or accomplishment to join that community. I can’t draw to save my life, I’m an average photographer, I can’t even read music. What I can do is talk for a bit about how time relates to creativity, something I have a little bit of.

I used to get a rush out of writing essays under a time limit, especially those tests where we’re supposed to write multiple essays in one sitting. There was something very rewarding in being able to write a few halfway-decent essays in less time than most of us would spend on the average take-home. Under the pressures of time, I realized how little I knew about the subject I wrote about, but how much I could talk about the little that I knew. I imagine it is the English-student equivalent to defusing a bomb.

It definitely took some creativity to come up with a good thesis and argue it thoroughly in a small time frame, and I recall that several of those essays — which I had only 45 minutes or so to read, think and write about — were some of the best essays I’ve ever written.

How can I claim near brilliance for ideas under the stress of the clock and yet find myself dumbfounded many times when the clock is not an issue?

The simple realization is that creativity is independent of time. Of course, the technical aspects of a work of art or any kind of creative work take effort and skill, which can eat up a lot of time. But for the 30 minutes or so of explaining an argument in an essay, the solution you plan to arrive at only takes a moment to be understood in your head.

This is called epiphany.

Sketch-artists and painters experience it all the time, when they notice that their last line or stroke makes their work look amazing for a short instance before they continue on and lose that line in the blur of more. And no matter how much time and effort they put into their work, they cannot replicate that moment, which they can now consider no more than a chance encounter.

Without this aspect of the arts, Don Draper would have been out of a job a long time ago. The creative director in the fictional ad agency of “Mad Men” spends entire days thinking about a product or service he’s trying to sell until the moment (usually near the end of an episode) when he has a subtle sense of epiphany clear in his face and he writes the greatest idea of his career on a napkin. His advice to an aspiring writer: “Think about it, deeply. Then forget it, and an idea will jump up in your face.”

A stroke of genius or a sudden inspiration — they are names for the same thing. Behind many of the great works of creativity, most of which took plenty of time to create, lies a moment of great importance. This moment of epiphany can hardly be measured in time. It’s more of a unit of creativity — it is the very source of the work that brings about art.

Take this as a lesson in stopping and smelling the roses, because sometimes the roses mark the end of your path.

NICK FREDERICI spends too much time checking his email; fuel his addiction at nrfred@ucdavis.edu.

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