This blog is f’nice. There’s no real objective to it nor anything in particular I want anyone to get from it. It’s just f’nice. I’ve had this piece swirling around in my head for over 4 months now, trying to work out a structure and clever words to help describe the ways in which I suspect the modern adult world perpetually inhibits creative practice. But the more effort I put into my thinking, the more difficult I found it to even begin writing. So I gave up. But this morning, as I walked my 6 second commute from the house to my shed/studio, I realised that I actually just wanted to write this blog f’nice. To write it simply because I want to. Simply because I suspect I will enjoy the process of writing it. And that sudden sense of liberation from the world of tangible outcomes and insightful take aways finally allowed the words you are now reading to begin to flow.
F’nice is an old colloquial phrase that philosopher Alan Watts attributes to The Pennysylvania Dutch. It simply means that something is for nice. It has no other purpose, objective or intention other than being for nice. “Why are you placing flowers on the centre of the table?” “Just f’nice”. “Why are you sitting quietly in the park?” “Just f’nice.” “Why are you drawing/ painting/ dancing/ singing/ writing (etc)?” “Just f’nice.” Hopefully you get the idea. Part of me feels like I should try to explain it further but another part of me says that feels like hard work and I would no longer be writing this just for nice.
The word nice seems to have some stigma associated with it nowadays. A sort of intellectual snobbery that points and laughs at it for not being a proper grown-up word. I certainly know of some schools that actively discourage pupils from using it as they regard it as a lazy descriptive word. (Presumably these children are encouraged to describe their holidays or meals as “astonishingly pleasant” or “inordinately gratifying”) But what if nice isn’t a lazy word? What if we simply use it in a lazy way? What if nice actually were a way of describing a fleeting experience of freedom from the tyranny of anything having to be about anything in particular? What if nice were used to describe a feeling of being liberated from objective, intention and measure? What if nice were simply a term used describe the human experience of flow and harmony with things as they are? I certainly imagine this is what lies behind the way in which the phrase was used by the Pennyslvania Dutch.
One of the biggest things that seems to inhibit people from immersing themselves in any kind of creative practice is the need to feel that doing so achieves something tangible. There is something about the adult human condition that implies that if something doesn’t have an objective, or measures or grades of progress and achievement then it isn’t worth doing. If too many of our day to day activities cannot be positively correlated with growth, profit or survival then we are led to believe that we are frittering away our oh-so-fleeting human lives. And this may well be a somewhat helpful philosophy in terms of making sure we have enough food, shelter and safety for ourselves and others. But when we apply these criteria to our own creative, artful practices (be they writing, painting, needlework, drawing, poetry, dance or any immersive form that we are able to lose ourselves in) we begin to drain them of their magic. And once we begin to feel guilty about be spending our time in this way we start to enjoy our creative practices less and less, gradually stifling, withdrawing or stopping them all together.
I write this blog in the spring of 2020 from my little studio where I am currently spending at least 8-10 hours a day, 7 days a week due to the social distancing restrictions that are in place to reduce the spread of COVID-19. And, despite the disappearance of much of my paid work, I have been surprised at how liberated my creative practice has felt. My drawing, painting, crafting, writing, music and film making have been prolific. There are not enough hours in the day to act on the new ideas that seem to leap into my imagination. On the surface it would be easy for me to conclude that this is simply because there really isn’t anything else to do with my time. But if I reflect on it a little more deeply I realise that this sweet-spot of creative flow has arisen, ironically, because I am experiencing a sense of freedom within the restrictions. A lifting of the subtle guilt that is normally present because I feel I should be doing something else. A dissolving of the underlying anxiety that I shouldn’t be p***ing around making stuff because I need to be out-there earning money and being a sensible, conscientious 46 year old man. But what I have found most surprising in all of this is that I had little or no awareness of this perpetual guilt and anxiety until I noticed its absence. This lifting of self-judgement and comparison to an imagined societally-mature-adult version of myself has meant that I’ve simply allowed my creative practice to be just for nice. And this feels like a much more wholesome and healthy way to exist.
And, as I inevitably look to the future and wonder what the new ‘normal’ will be like, I’m curious how I might be able to maintain this state of creative freedom whilst venturing back into the wider world beyond these four walls. I need to earn again at some point but also want to avoid surrendering myself to the traps of the societal guilt that I seem to have been smothered by all this time. Somewhat counter-intuitively I suspect that my work is of more, rather than less value to others when it comes from this natural and uninhibited place so it feels like an important way of being to nurture beyond this period of isolation. To try to maintain an ongoing sense of freedom within constraint and simply allow all I do to come from a place of it being just for nice.
Because, if we think of everything we do purely in terms of growth, profit and survival, we miss out on all the magic, wonder and weirdness that has been hiding in plain sight for much of our adult lives, just waiting for a moment of our attention.
The picture used in this blog is an original by Steve created using spray paints and acrylic pens. You can see his full art portfolio here.
love this blog Steve particularly apposite at this time of heroic doing all around us. Im a retired NHS manager feeling uneasy about watching things from a distance and even a little envious of the sheer focus ex colleagues now have. In my quiet moments I know I can and will make a contribution downstream and your words encourage me to settle into this moment and see what emerges.
Hi Bob, thank you for your lovely comment. I can only imagine having retired from the NHS how it must feel for you. I’ve found the fact that I can do little if nothing to help, other than staying at home, oddly comforting in allowing myself to not feel guilty about needing to do something. Ironically this has ended up in somewhat supporting others through the prolific art I have been making and sharing/selling on Instagram that people are finding a welcome escape/comfort at the moment. Take care.
“This lifting of self-judgement and comparison to an imagined societally-mature-adult version of myself has meant that I’ve simply allowed my creative practice to be just for nice. And this feels like a much more wholesome and healthy way to exist.”
You’ve eloquently, in your own way, described a stage of psychological development that authors such as Robert Kegan, William Torbert, Susanne Cook-Greuter, and Richard Barrett have been highlighting as the next step in our evolution, where the individual transforms and becomes more independently, mature of society (thus helping to achieve a tipping point of a collective societal transformation in turn).
It mirrors with Alfonso Montuori’s work where he describes creativity as effectively just “stepping out of our own way”.
What this means is that the person learns to let go of their societally “programming”, the extrinsic expectations and judgements of what they “should be doing” as defined by society (which are often “in their way”), and learns to just be, being pulled along by their deeper, intrinsic motivations instead.
In doing so, they allow a larger, more integrated & “wholesome” Self to naturally emerge from deeper within themselves which eventually overflows and expands upon the previous limited perception of their self.
From my own background, experiences, and research, it’s kind of like learning to truly play again but applied to the larger context of one’s life as a whole. You’re doing things because the experience is its own reward. So you’re stepping beyond the walls of how society expects you to fit in and are exploring a larger “sandbox” of possibilities.
But as you noted in your post, this isn’t always easy because our societal mind (aka ego) always wants to step in our way and take control of the situation, getting us “back on track”, stopping us from exploring too far and “getting hurt” in the process. Yet without this exploration, wonder, and magic of truly adventuring beyond the boundaries and off the map of our known selves, we never truly get the opportunity to discover the potential of our larger Self waiting patiently for us within the unknown wilderness ahead, just over the next hill.
Yes, “there be dragons” ahead for sure. But perhaps they’re slumbering and waiting patiently not for “victims” to eat but rather for riders to carry, taking us to such great heights that we can finally see a broader view of a larger world beyond our wildest imagination.