1 I Walk into a White Room
The task of starting with nothing and working towards creating something satisfying is terrifying. It’s no different for a writer firing up the blank screen on his computer, a painter confronting a virginal canvas or a sculptor staring at a raw chunk of clay. Some people find this moment before creativity begins so painful that they cannot deal with it. They procrastinate, walk away, take a nap, fix lunch or do household chores. Being creative is a full-time job with its own daily patterns and established routines. The most productive writers get started early in the morning, when the world is quiet and they are rested and alert. They might set a goal like 500 words or to stay at their desk until noon but the real secret is they do this every day. As daily routines become second nature, discipline morphs into habit. It’s the same for any creative individual, whether it’s a painter finding his way each morning to the easel etc. The routine is as much a part of the creative process as the lightning bolt of inspiration, maybe more. There is a debate, born in the romantic era, between the beliefs that all creative acts are born of a) some transcendent, inexplicable Dionysian (spontaneous, irrational) act of inspiration, a kiss from God on your brow or b) hard work & perseverance. Twyla Tharp obviously ascribes to the latter.
You have to know how to prepare to be creative. No one can give you your subject matter and content or it would be their creation, not yours. We think of creativity as keeping everything fresh & new, while habit implies routine & repetition. That intriguing paradox occupies the place where creativity & skill rub up against each other. It takes skill to bring something you’ve imagined into the world. It is developed through exercise, practice, a blend of learning & reflection that’s both painstaking & rewarding and it takes time. If art is the bridge between what you see in your mind & what the world sees, then skill is how you build that bridge. Everything that happens is a transaction between the external world and your internal world. Everything is raw material, relevant, usable, feeds into your creativity. But without proper preparation, you cannot see it, retain it and use it. Without the effort invested in getting ready to create, you can be hit by the thunderbolt and it’ll just leave you stunned.
2 Rituals of Preparation
At the beginning of the creative process, when you are most likely to give up or go the wrong way, it’s vital to establish some rituals, automatic but decisive patterns of behaviour. A pragmatist without a spiritual bone in his body practices yoga every morning. He starts each session by ceremonially lighting a candle. It is unnecessary but it implies he is taking it seriously, he is committed. Candle – Click – Yoga. When he is done, he blows out the candle & goes on with the rest of his day. A painter cannot do anything in her studio without propulsive music pounding out of the speakers. Turning it on turns on a switch inside her. There is no one ideal condition for creativity; what works for one person is useless for another. Just make it easy on yourself. You need to find a working environment or state, that’s habit forming. It should make you want to be there. No matter how eccentric, when you enter into it, you are impelled to get started e.g. the simple act of carrying a cup of tea to a table.
Distraction & fear are demons that invade the launch of every project. No one starts a creative endeavour without a certain amount of fear; the key is to learn how to keep it from paralysing you before you’ve begun. Fears include: “Someone has done it before” (it’s all been done before; nothing’s really original; get over yourself), “I have nothing to say” (we all have something to say) and “Once executed, the idea will never be as good as it is in my mind” (better an imperfect dome in Florence than cathedrals in the clouds). A certain writer cleans when the words are not forthcoming. He feels stale and stalled, everything around him looks grimy and caked with dust so he grabs a rag and when everything is clean & shiny, the words flow. He believes he wipes away his self-doubt whereas the author thinks getting up and moving stimulates our brains as our minds & bodies are connected.
There are people who can assimilate incoming data from all angles, from newspapers & magazines, films, TV, music, friends, the internet and turn it into something wonderful. They thrive on a multitude of stimuli but others are not hard-wired that way. They don’t expand contact with the world; they cut it off, retreat to a bubble where they are fully absorbed in the task at hand. Subtracting rather than adding things. The irony of multi-tasking is that it’s exhausting; when you’re doing 2 or 3 things simultaneously, you use more energy than to do each task independently and you are not doing anything excellently. Without it, you have increased focus & awareness. Some artists use background music to block out everything else. They aren’t listening to it, it’s a form of companionship. I seem to do this with films & TV. But how much brainpower & intuition is it draining? Twyla says, “If I started watching movies for pleasure, I’d become addicted. I’d watch all day and never get anything done.” Lessening your dependence is liberating, forcing you to rely on your own ability rather than your crutches. When you have selected the environment, the start-up ritual that pushes you forward, faced your fears & avoided distractions, you have cleared the 1st hurdle.
1. What is your pencil? What is the one tool that feeds your creativity and is so essential that without it you feel naked and unprepared? Do not leave home without it. Always have coloured pencils & a sketchpad to hand? Camera phone for taking photos of graffiti etc for Instagram. Capture an object to draw later?
2. Sit alone in a room & let your thoughts go wherever they will. Do this for one minute & work up to 10 mins of mindless mental wandering. Start paying attention to your thoughts to see if a word or goal materialises. Extend the time until something interesting arises. The Gaelic phrase for this state is “quietness without loneliness.” It is the opposite of meditation, you are not trying to empty your mind, you are seeking ideas from the unconscious. You are not alone anymore, your goal is your companion. You’re never lonely when your mind is engaged. What do you like to do by yourself? Solitude is an unavoidable part of creativity. Self-reliance is a happy by-product.
3. Putting a name to your fears helps cut them down to size. After you started drawing in that sketchbook, why did you stop? Fears include: “I’m not sure how to do it” (if you try & it doesn’t work, you’ll try a different way next time. Doing is better than not & if you do something badly, you’ll learn to do it better). “It may take too much time.” Every day you don’t practice you’re one day further from being good. Are your creative efforts worth it to you? Is it something you really want to do? Then make it your priority. If you examine your concerns closely, you should be able to identify & break down what is holding you back.
4. Try to do without distractions for a week. Go on a diet for your creative health. See what happens to your sense of self if you stop looking in the mirror. Instead of relying on the image you see reflected in a glass, find your identity in other ways, what you do rather than how you look. It also forces you to focus on others instead. Without numbers, looking at the clock or scales. If you are engaged in what you’re doing, time doesn’t matter. It passes swiftly without notice. Self-imposed silence, don’t speak. A reminder of what is and isn’t worth saying. Other distractions include social media / computer / phone etc.
3 Your Creative DNA
Like DNA, we all have strands of creative code imprinted in us. They govern our creative impulses, which forms we work in, the stories we tell and how we tell them. Think of it as your creative hard-wiring, identity or personality. All of us find comfort in seeing the world either from a great distance, at arm’s length or close-up. Some people like to wander through an art museum standing back from the paintings, taking in the effect the artist was trying to achieve, while others get closer because they are interested in the details. We want artists to take the mundane materials of our lives, run it through their imaginations and surprise us. If you are by nature a loner, crusader, outsider, jester, romantic or melancholic, that quality will shine through in your artwork. There is a dichotomy of involvement vs detachment. Immerse yourself in the details, commit to mastering every aspect but step back to see if the artwork scans, if it’s intelligible to the audience. Don’t get so absorbed that you lose what you’re trying to say. Dive In. Step Back. Dive In. Step Back.
The Greek Zoe (zoology) means “life in general, without characterisation.” Bios (biology) characterises a specific life, the outlines that distinguish one living thing from another. Which do you tend toward? Many people take their urges, biases, work habits for granted but a little self-knowledge goes a long way. If you understand the strands of your creative DNA, you can see how they mutate into common threads in your artwork. You can see the story you’re trying to tell, why you do the things you do (both positive & self-destructive), where you are strong & weak (to prevent false starts) and how you see the world & function in it. Sometimes you can be in DNA denial. An art student was given a painterly exercise involving assigning colour to movement but he gave a text-heavy response which suggested he ought to a writer. How many people get sidetracked from their true calling by the fact they excel at more than one artistic medium? This is a curse rather than a blessing. Your choice should be based on pure instinct and self-knowledge.
5. Choose a man & woman together and write down everything they do until you reach 20 items. Come up with a story about them. Then pick another couple & note only things that happen between them you find interesting, that please you aesthetically or emotionally. It will take longer as you are applying judgement to observation. You become selective, edit, filter. What appealed to you in the 2nd? Moments of friction or tenderness? Physical gestures or gazes away? Varying distances? What you included & what you left out speaks volume about how you see the word. Patterns emerge and you will be revealed.
6. What name would you choose if you could change it? Would it belong to someone you admire? Would it make a statement about what you believe or how you want the world to view you? Can it be shortened? There is power in names. If your name is original, it makes you strive for originality. A change in one’s name seems like a betrayal of one’s birthright or identity but the author disagrees. It’s a commitment to a higher calling, not uncommon amongst creative souls. Japanese masters were allowed to change their name once, when they felt they had become the artist they aspired to be. It was a sign of artistic maturity. It can be a rebirth or self-fulfilling prophecy, owners taking possession of heroes or heroines.
4 Harness Your Memory
The memory is worth mining for inspiration. Creativity is about taking facts, fictions & feelings we store away and finding new ways to connect them. Metaphor is the lifeblood of art. It is our vocabulary for connecting what we’re experiencing now with what we’ve experienced before. It’s not only how we express what we remember but how we interpret it for ourselves and others. Genius is the act of perceiving similarity among disparate things. You are linking A to B to C to come up with H. You do not have a workable idea until you combine two. Metaphor “transforms the strange into the familiar.” If all art is metaphor, then all art begins with memory. Muscle memory has its uses in the creative process, perhaps more for acquiring skill than developing inspiration. Skill gets imprinted through action such as a young person with a drawing pad in a museum copying a great artist. So get busy copying. That’s not a popular notion when we are instructed to find our own voice but it’s sound advice.
Traveling the paths of greatness, even in someone else’s footprints is a vital means to acquiring skill. It’s similar to shadowing, following around a mentor and learning from them. Muscle memory gives you a path toward genuine creation through simple recreation. Other examples are virtual memory, which is the ability to project yourself into feelings and emotions from your past and to let them manifest themselves physically and sensual memory, where the sudden appearance of a smell, taste, sound or colour instantly floods the imagination with images from memory. Most people think they have to be constantly looking forward to be edgy and creative but the secret of creativity is to go back and remember.
9. You can gain much information and meaning from a poorly composed photograph of a child. It reminds you how every young person grows up with an overwhelming sense of possibility & how life is just a series of incidents in which it is either enlarged or eroded. How you adapt is your choice. Take a family picture & study it. What do you see that is indisputably similar to your life today, to the person you’ve become? What is vaguely similar? What bears no resemblance or suggests nothing memorable? What ended up the opposite? Why? Note the people, events & emotions that come to mind e.g. nostalgia, regret, isolation, pleasure. The goal is to connect with something old so it becomes new.
5 Start with a Box
Some people rely on simple file boxes or carefully arranged index cards. The more technological put it all on computer like Evernote. You could use a huge unit with flat pullout drawers to keep sketches, reference materials, notes, articles. If working on several projects at once, keep the overlapping materials out of sight when tackling one of them. There’s no single correct storage system. Anything can work so long as it lets you store and retrieve your ideas, those intriguing little tickles at the corners of your brain that tell you when something is interesting without quite knowing why. A perfect archive gives you material to call on, to use as a spark for invention. It contains your inspirations without confining creativity because it’s unedited, unfiltered.
The author believes in starting each project with a stated goal. Maybe nothing more than a personal mantra such as “keep it simple” to remind you what you were thinking at the beginning. Write it down & put it in the box. However, the archive is not a substitute for creating. It does not compose, write a poem or create a dance step. It is the raw index of your preparation. It is the repository of your creative potential but it is not the potential realised. Sadly, some people never get beyond the box stage. Maybe they like the comfort zone of research as opposed to the hard work of creating. Maybe they are looking in the wrong places or taking procrastination to extremes. They are trapped in the box. Learn to respect your file’s strange and disorderly ways. A collection of half-baked inspirations & unformed aids, it can seem like a haphazard tool while you’re filing it but the order emerges in hindsight.
10. Where to begin? There’s a difference between a work’s beginning & starting to work. Start writing about a important point in the story & trust you will find the beginning eventually.
You cannot just dance, paint, write or sculpt; you need a tangible idea. Twyla calls it scratching, digging through everything to find something. It can appear like borrowing or appropriating but it is an essential part of creativity. Everything we need already resides within us in our experience, memories, taste, judgement, critical demeanour, humanity, purpose & humour. When people ask “Where do you get your ideas?” They are actually asking, “How do you get them?” Ideas are everywhere and a good one turns you on rather than shuts you off. It keeps generating more ideas and they improve on one another. A bad idea closes doors instead of opening them; it is confining & restrictive. Big ideas come upon you mysteriously, unbidden, sometimes unwelcome but there is always an ulterior motive behind them e.g. you want to catch people’s attention, to create something enduring & immortalise yourself or make a pile of money. Scratching is what you do when you cannot wait for the thunderbolt. Freud said, “When inspiration does not come to me, I go halfway to meet it.”
1st you must generate an idea, usually from memory, experience or activity. Then you have to retain it, keep it from disappearing, inspect and transform or alter it to suit your purposes. Sometimes, you cannot imagine the artwork, you can only generate ideas when you put pencil to paper, brush to canvas, when you actually do something physical. You improvise, maybe dashing off sketches right and left until one pleases the eye. No gap between impulse and action. Stop your mental filters from blocking your creative urges. Just do it and consider the results, consequences or truth later. Another suggestion is, somewhere between consciousness & dreaming, wake up & write down whatever idea is in your head without your conscious mind censoring it.
With reading you’re literally filling your head with ideas & letting your imagination sift them for something useful. If you stop reading, you stop thinking. You can scratch for ideas in a museum, theatre or exhibition or by following in the footsteps of your mentors using their paradigms or patterns as a starting point. But it is a dangerous habit if it turns you into an imitator rather than a creator. Art is not about minimising risk & delivering work that is guaranteed to please. Artists have bigger goals. If you read for inspiration, read the top-drawer writers & their masterworks first. If you want inspiration from art, look at the masters. Scratch amongst the best and you will automatically raise the quality of the ideas you uncover. You do not need to think ahead, you have to trust the unconscious rush & let it hurtle forward unedited & unencumbered. Let it be awful, awkward & wrong. Don’t rein it in; you can fix it later.
11. Gathering chaos into a satisfying order is a challenge. Take a handful of coins, paperclips or any everyday item and toss them onto the desk. Sometimes they fall into a random pattern that is pleasing. If not, move them around into strange or familiar geometries, lines, stacks, shapes until you find a suitable arrangement. There in a nutshell is the essence of creativity: There are a number of possibilities but only one solution looks inevitable. It’s a useful mental warm-up to feel more optimistic about resolving disorder.
12. Read archaeologically. Take an author or subject & begin with the most recent text, then work backwards. Start where the author ended & finish where he started. It reveals how the writer developed their recurring themes, philosophy & style. The surest method for finding the path through the maze is to start at the end and work your way back to the beginning. With a painting, it is useful to see what the artist produced before & after. You are not reading for pleasure but for inspiration & growth. Own it, scribble in the margins, circle sentences & connect them with arrows. Transform the author’s book into your own. You can also read fat (related texts by the writer’s contemporaries, commentaries or biographies). Use a dictionary; digging into a word’s multiple definitions is useful too.
13. Sit on the floor, bring your knees to your chest, curl your head down like an egg. In this minimalised, shrunken, fetal state, you have nowhere to go; you cannot become smaller, you can only expand & grow. Stick with it as long as it remains interesting. Naming positions is optional. The starting egg position is your base and you are following your impulses to see how far you can travel from home. It is an exercise that teaches you how to accomplish the most difficult task in any creative endeavour: begin.
14. Give yourself a little challenge like paint something based on a phrase in the first book you come across or only in shades of green. Having a handicap to overcome will force you to think in a new and slightly different way.
15. When scratching turns into frustration, take a walk but have a goal. It’s easy to lose and exhaust yourself in rich resources like art galleries & museums so visit with purpose. You can turn any venue or destination into a valuable field trip. It’s your world, own it.
7 Accidents Will Happen
The most productive artists have a plan in mind. They know what they want to accomplish, how to do it and what to do if the process falls off track. But you never want the planning to inhibit the natural evolution of your artwork. A plan is like the scaffolding around a building. It is vital for putting up the exterior shell but when you start on the interior, it disappears. It has to be sufficiently thoughtful & solid to get you up & running but it cannot take over. Transforming your ideas rarely goes according to plan. The most interesting paradox of creativity is in order to be habitually creative, you have to know how to prepare but planning alone won’t make your efforts successful; you have to know when to let go. Your creative endeavours can never be thoroughly mapped out ahead of time. You have to allow for the change in plan, the accidental spark, the stroke of luck.
Some people resent the concept, accepting the role of chance suggests that our creations & triumphs are not entirely our own and that we are undeserving of our success but luck is a skill. You have to be prepared to see it; something holds meaning only for the person whose mind is ready to draw an inference. A generous spirit contributes to good luck. Give & you shall receive. 80% of success is showing up. It’s tempting to rein in the unruliness of the creative process, especially at the start. Planning lets you impose order on the chaotic process of making something new but when it’s taken too far, you get locked into a status quo and creative thinking is about breaking free so it’s vital not to overplan. Another trap is the belief that everything has to be perfect before you take the next step. It’s important to be prepared but at the start, perfectionism is more like procrastination. You’ve got to get in there and do.
Limits are a blessing and bounty can be a curse. No matter how limited your resources, they’re enough to get you started. Deadlines are useful if they get us moving with urgency & passion. It’s tempting to believe that the quantity & quality of our creative productivity would increase if only we could afford everything we’ve imagined but many artists dry up the moment they have enough money. For every artist who it empowers & inspires, there is another who gets lazy & self-satisfied. Whom the gods wish to destroy, they give unlimited resources. Necessity will continue to be the mother of invention. You have to choose the right medium; the portrait whose lines fascinate but in which colour is a distraction might have a sculpture inside it dying to come out. Mistakes such as relying too much on others, waiting for the perfect set-up, over thinking structure, feeling obligated to finish what you’ve started and working with the wrong materials are deadly.
16. Creativity is an act of defiance. You’re challenging accepted truths, principles & conventions. You are asking “Why do I have to obey the rules?” “Why can’t I be different and do it my way?” Every act of creation is also an act of destruction or abandonment. Something has to be cast aside to make way for the new. You often see this with students who challenge teachers; they know that to find their own voice, they must defy, even mock their artistic mentors. Pick a fight with the system, your routines. For one day, be contrary with anything & everything you do. Turn things upside down. Ask yourself why you need this ritual, what solace & protection does it bring, what state of mind, what good does it produce? Do the opposite to get your brain humming & rewire your circuitry.
17. What are the conditions of your perfect world? Which of them are essential & which can you work around?
19. Think about who you invite into your creative life. New collaborators bring new energy into your static world. You have chemistry. It does not matter what genre you work in, you need to rub up against other people. If you’re a painter, it may be a model who inspires you, fellow artists or a gallery owner who eagerly shows your artwork. Somewhere along the line, you’re going to need the contributions and judgement of other people. Work with the best partners you can find.
Every work of art needs a spine, an underlying theme, a motive for coming into existence. It does not have to be apparent to the audience but you need it at the start to guide you and keep you going. You might think you don’t need a supporting mechanism for the art you’re constructing, a controlling image, a collateral idea. You might think getting lost is a big part of the adventure but you’d be wrong. Try explaining it to yourself as if you are 10 years old again, a simple instruction that gets you talking with clarity & purpose. You can also discover the spine by recalling your original intentions and clarifying your goals. What was the first thing you dropped into your box for the project? Remember how you started. The spine will remind you this is the story you’re trying to tell, this is the effect you’re trying to achieve. One of the great rewards of being creative is that you get to do it; like the artist who spends all day in the studio because he loves the mechanical act of applying paint onto canvas. But there’s a danger. The sheer pleasure introduces the temptation to linger, to fall in love with the creative process rather than driving toward the end product. Take this to extremes and you’ll never finish anything.
20. There are affinities between seemingly different objects that we comprehend pictorially but cannot verbalise. Create a gesture or movement that would need many words to convey its meaning. Make a picture that’s worth 10,000 words.
21. Pick a favourite work of art and try to determine what spine, if any, the artist built into it. Entering into the convolutions of an artist’s mind can be as bewildering as trying to explain a dream. Based on the Faust legend, Doctor Faustus by Mann is about a composer who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for 14 years of unbridled creativity. Seek out the hidden architecture or infrastructure if you want to understand how a work of art gathers substance & integrity.
22. The process by which we transform the meaning of one thing into something different is an essential part of human intelligence. Everything you create is a representation of something else and hence, enriched by metaphor. In creativity, MQ (metaphor quotient) is as valuable as IQ. IQ tests involve your ability to see patterns and comparing which object does not belong or completes a sequence. Comparing drives metaphor. a) How many objects can you see in 3 minutes of cloud gazing? This is visual translation. b) While doing a mindless chore like washing the dishes, try to become the rhythm, hum it, give it a name e.g. scrub or rinse. What other tasks have a matching rhythm? c) Hear a mechanical sound e.g. car alarm / signalling. Lock the tempo and mimic it when you speak. See how the world begins to move to your beat. What does it make you think of? This is aural and visual stimulus. d) Focus on a superstition like knocking on wood to bring yourself luck or tossing salt over your shoulder. What image springs to mind? Follow your thoughts wherever they lead. e) Study a word’s linguistic roots. Where does it take you? f) Find two works of art you can connect to each other. What is the connection? Is this what the creators intended or are you seeing something they could not? Find parallels between painters. You are making them your own by putting them together in new and interesting ways. This is curating. g) Imagine your life if you had another person’s wealth (or looks, tastes or biases) or that person had yours. This is empathy.
The better you know the nuts and bolts of your craft, the more fully you can express your talents. Skill gives you the wherewithal to execute whatever occurs to you; without it, you are just a font of unfulfilled ideas. Skill is how you close the gap between what you see in your mind’s eye and what you produce; the more skill you have, the more sophisticated and accomplished your ideas. Craft comes before creativity. You should never worry that basic exercises aimed at developing skills will suffocate creativity but it’s also important to recognise that demonstrating great technique is not the same as being creative. Odd as it may sound, personality is a skill. You can develop traits that will draw people & make them want to help you learn & improve. Confidence has to be earned & refreshed constantly. You have to work as hard to protect your skills as develop them. The one thing that creative souls have in common is that they all have to practice to maintain their skills. Art is a vast democracy of habit or conditioning. Practice without purpose is nothing more than exercise and too many people practice what they’re already good at, neglecting the skills that need more work.
Experience sometimes closes the door; you tend to stick with what has worked before rather than try anything new. Inexperience erases fear, it provides us with a childlike fearlessness. A sense of innocence, naiveté, denial, where you don’t know you can fail. You do not know what is and is not possible and therefore everything is. Hemingway said, “The thing is to become a master and in your old age to acquire the courage to do what children did when they knew nothing.” This brand of unknowingness lets you take incredible risks without appearing to consider the consequences. Switching or rotating genres is a way to maintain inexperience & hence, enlarge your art. Analyse your own skill set. See where you’re strong and where you need dramatic improvement and tackle that 1st. You double your intensity with skill. Leonardo’s breadth of interests was remarkable; so was his ability to bounce from one area of study to another and find relationships between them. This refreshed him, kept his passion for the new alive. Without passion, all the skill in the world will not lift you above craft. Without skill, all the passion in the world will leave you eager but floundering.
23. Before you can appreciate your skills and where you might need improvement, you need to take inventory. How would you assemble your own skill set? What do you have, what do you need and what can you do to develop it?
24. Thoroughness, like discipline is one of the most valuable skills. The patience to accumulate detail keeps you grounded and sharp. Before you approach a topic, write down 20 things you want to know about it. Let’s say you decide to paint a landscape. A portrait will lead to an entirely different set, so will a sculpture, a short story etc. Asking questions tasks you with learning as much as you can before putting paint to canvas, chisel to stone, finger to keyboard. The more you know, the better you can imagine.
25. There’s no deadline on a painting; it’s done when it’s done. “The most important thing is not what the author or artist had in mind to begin with but at what point he decided to stop.” Most creative endeavours don’t allow precise planning but it’s vital to have some sense of how long a project is going to take. Think of all the things you want to accomplish in the next few months. How much do they overlap? Do they conflict? Draw big and little circles depending on the importance of the task. Deadlines scrawled within the borders of each. Use this method for prioritising your time.
26. Take away a skill, a vital one. Would you still be able to create? How would you overcome the loss? How would you compensate? What skill would come to the fore to rescue your artwork? Matisse was bedridden with only the use of his arms & imagination in his final years. So he came up with a new way of working: paper cut-outs. They are the essence of his art. It’s doubtful he would have ever made them if some of his other skills had not been taken away. Pick one of the skills from your inventory & remove it. What’s left? What can you accomplish without it? What does it say about your work habits, your art, your potential?
10 Ruts and Grooves
Monitor your momentum by asking, “Is this piece moving forward or staying in place? Am I in a rut or a groove?” Being blocked is often a failure of nerve with only one solution: Do something – anything. A rut is more like a false start. You know you’re in a rut when you are bored, have deja vu, fail to challenge yourself and feel like the world is moving on while you’re standing still. Perhaps, you feel frustration & relief when you’re done rather than anticipatory pleasure (I can’t wait to get back here tomorrow). It can be the consequence of a bad idea, bad timing, bad luck or sticking to tried and tested methods that don’t take into account how you or the world has changed. “We’ve always done it this way” is not a good enough reason to keep doing it if it isn’t working. When an otherwise smart habit or ritual loses its potency and you continue doing it, you’re in a rut. Dealing with ruts is a 3-step process of seeing, believing & repairing. You have to make a habit of reviewing your efforts along the way, seeing where you’ve been & where you are to ensure you’re still heading in the right direction, if any. Admit you’ve made a mistake and find a solution.
When optimism turns to pessimism during the creative process, you are in a serious rut. Often it’s not the work alone that triggers the shift but something else. What’s happened? Trouble with a partner, money, health? What’s making you hate the material you’re producing? Change your environment, scenery, do something uplifting like take a hot bath or call it a day. Set yourself an aggressive quota for ideas; it stirs your competitive juices. Instead of panicking, people focus & have an increased fluency & agility. They are forced to suspend critical thinking, put their internal critic on hold & let everything out; they’re no longer choking off good impulses. We get into ruts when we run with the 1st idea that pops into our head, not the last one. Sometimes, you can’t identify a good idea until you’ve considered & discarded the bad ones. This method is no different from a painter running through sketches until he gets something he likes. His studio floor is littered with crumpled sheets of rejected drawings. In effect, the artist is running through his quota of 60 ideas. If you’re in a creative rut, a) Identify the concept that isn’t working b) Write down your assumptions about it c) Challenge the assumptions d) Act on the challenge.
Grooves come in all shapes & sizes and they’re usually preceded by a breakthrough idea. Many creative thinkers have had an epiphanic moment where they make a quantum leap forward in ability & vision. It may not be obvious to the untrained eye but you yourself know and it shows in your artwork. You can find your groove via a breakthrough in your craft but you can also find it through other means, in congenial material, in a perfect partner, in a favourite character or comfortable subject matter. Rembrandt found his best subject in himself. Throughout his career, he painted, etched & sketched self-portraits. It was comfortable & convenient; after all, he was always available when he needed a model. The call to creative life is not supposed to be torture. Yes, it is hard work and you have to make sacrifices. Yes, it’s noble, you’re volunteering in an army of sorts, alongside a phalanx of artists who have preceded you, many of whom are your mentors & guides, upon whose work you build & re-fashion but it’s also supposed to be fun.
27. Pick a verb and act it out physically. Movement can stimulate anyone to think differently, generate ideas & creative momentum that takes you to unpredictable places. An exercise must be doable, not frustrating, if you want it to yield productivity. It must tax you enough that your creative muscles adapt and get stronger but not enough that you abandon the effort.
28. There’s no guarantee we can repeat a creative day tomorrow. Hemingway had the nifty trick of always calling it a day when he knew what came next. He built himself a bridge to the next day. There is no better creative organisational tool. Extend your mini-groove. Leave yourself begging for more. Don’t drive yourself to the point of being totally spent. Some people, if only for sanity and maintaining a routine, give themselves a creative quota. Painters stop when they fill up a measurable section of canvas or the clock chimes 5pm. After generating ideas, your tired brain regroups & refreshes itself overnight. What your consciousness can’t handle, your subconscious can. If you’ve been following a don’t-stop-till-you-drop routine, rethink it, keep something in reserve. Ask yourself, exactly what is it? Is it raw energy or desire? Is it a few more ideas left unexplored? Is it something you meant to say to someone? Write a note, put it away and start the next day by looking at it in order to tap into the day before. John Updike said, “Each day, we wake slightly altered and the person we were yesterday is dead,” so you approach the task as a new person & improve it.
29. Know when to stop tinkering. Some people are lucky in having artificial and arbitrary stop signs that put an end to their fussing. Painters and sculptors have gallery exhibitions. Knowing when to stop is almost as critical as knowing how to start. It’s trickier when you are working on your own, for your own reasons. When it’s time to stop, you get the feeling there are no loose ends, no clutter and all parts are in their proper places. There are no more problems & the solution feels elegant & inevitable. According to Twyla, in order to force herself to let her creations go and find satisfying closure, she ends by naming the piece.
30. Turn ruts into grooves. Pick a bad habit e.g. drinking coffee and do something to make it good, even just viewing it in a positive light. You do not need elimination, just moderation.
11 An “A” in Failure
Every creative person has to learn to deal with failure because like death and taxes, it is inescapable. “If you’re not failing, you’re not taking enough risks.” Failure cleanses & humbles, it helps you put aside who you are not and reminds you who you are. Private failures are great, the ones you commit in the confines of your room, alone, with no strangers watching. They are the 1st drafts, the not-so-good ideas you reject en route to finding the one that clicks. The more you fail in private, the less you will fail in public. In many ways, the creative act is editing, exercising your judgement and removing all the lame ideas. When you fail in public, you are forcing yourself to learn a whole new set of skills that have nothing to do with creating and everything to do with surviving. You do your best work after your biggest disasters. You have nothing to lose, you’ve hit bottom and the only place to go is up. A fiasco compels you to change dramatically. And you can learn more from failure than success. It’s vital to be able to forget the pain of failure while retaining the lessons and reasons for it. It’s easier to move on from something unsuccessful than after an effort that was acclaimed.
Maybe you have a failure of skill. You have an idea in mind but not the requisite skills to pull it off. Your reach exceeds your grasp. Or a failure of concept. You have a weak idea that doesn’t hold up. Instead of growing, it shrivels up. Or a failure of judgement. You leave something in the piece that should have been discarded. Or a failure of nerve. You have everything going for you except the guts to support your idea and explore the concept fully. The thought that you will look foolish holds you back. Repetition is a problem if it forces us to cling to past successes. Constant reminders of the things that worked inhibit us from trying something bold & new. Denial becomes a liability when you see that something is not working and you refuse to deal with it. You have to change how you work. You have to admit you’ve made a mistake and know how to fix it. The repertoire of tweak, cut and add, replace and reposition. However, paints don’t cry foul; it’s harder dealing with human beings or collaborators.
31. At some point you will present your work to the world & it will be found wanting but you will always get a second chance. Unlike film makers with their ability to reshoot and edit, not every art form offers such comfort or tosses you a life jacket. You cannot go back to rework metal, clay or stone on a sculpture. You must just absorb any criticism and do better next time. What if we could predict & pre-empt a less-than-favourable reception, if we could give ourselves a second chance before we find out we need it? Actually we often can e.g. by asking friends to review artwork or writing before it’s published.
32. We all seek approval and validation for our efforts to assure us we are not wasting our time. But that neediness fades as we get older and more confident. We become a better judge of our own artwork. It’s not acceptable to just be a self-indulgent, solipsistic, don’t-give-a-damn-what-anyone-thinks egotist but there comes a time, when you have no choice but to trust your own judgement. As we mature, we need to build criticism into the working process, as we do with failure. Build your own validation squad, a small group of people you invite to see your artwork in progress. Trust them to look at your crudest, clumsiest efforts and reward you with their candour. Pick people who a) have talents you admire greatly (so you know they have judgement), b) happen to be your friends (so they have your best interests at heart), c) don’t feel they are competing with you (so you know they have no agenda) and d) have hammered your work in the past (so they are capable of brutal honesty). All you need are people with good judgement who care about you and will give you their honest opinion with no strings attached.
12 The Long Run
Be in it for the long run. The archives are packed with early bloomers and one-trick ponies who said everything they had to say in their first novel or whose canvases kept repeating the same dogged theme. When people who have demonstrated talent fizzle out or disappear after early creative success, it’s not because their gifts, that famous “one percent inspiration” abandoned them, more likely they abandoned their gift through a failure of perspiration. On average, creative production is limited in our youth (when we are learning), hits full stride in our middle years and trails off in our later years when we become exhausted of ideas, energy and motivation. But applying algorithms to creativity is like biochemists trying to formulate the chemistry of love. The best that can be said is this chart measures devotion to craft. It tells you nothing about quality, about whether a last piece is an improvement on the 1st or whether the two are linked. It charts activity and persistence, not artistic growth. Regardless of how poorly we compare to the talent and quality of our heroes, we can still emulate them; they prove that there’s no reason our creativity must dry up as we age. For some, will and desire fade because they have enough money, are facing poor health or feel they’ve said it all. Some people find their curiosity shutting down as they age but we can fight that lockdown. When older, we generate better ideas and have hard-earned wisdom about how to capture and more importantly connect those ideas.
You can see continuity in all you do, everything is part of one giant piece of artwork. If ideas you lacked room for a particular time lingered and arose later, you are coming close to an ideal creative state, one where creativity becomes a self-perpetuating habit; you are linking your art. Everything in your life feeds into your artwork. You can go into a bubble, eliminate every distraction, avoid the temptation of anything other than the 5 essentials: food, art, exercise, sleep & solitude. It does not have to mean exiling yourself from people and the world. It is more a state of mind, a willingness to subtract anything that disconnects you from creating. Even within our distracted existence, we have to cultivate a version of a bubble if we want to work freely, with maximum fluency in making connections and maintain this as a habit. It does not mean being a hermit. You can function out in the world (indeed, you have to) but wherever you go the bubble goes with you. You know the cost of distractions, yet you recognise the need for balance if you are to maintain the relationships that sustain your creativity.
Mastery is an elusive concept. You never know when you have achieved it and it may not help to feel you have attained it. There is an established convention in art theory which links artistic skill with the ability to draw a perfect circle freehand. The 14th century Italian artist, Giotto, proved himself to Pope Benedict XI by doing this, Giotto’s O. Comparing 2 paintings by Rembrandt, ‘The Painter in His Studio’ and ‘Self Portrait with Two Circles’ made 40 years later, the 1st reveals a painter who is tentative, intimidated and unsure, cloaked in shadow gazing intently at an easel that dominates the foreground with flat, lifeless brush stokes whereas the 2nd shows him drenched in confidence, engaging us directly and the brush strokes are thick & 3D. Far more striking than the development of technique was how Rembrandt portrayed his personal growth. He installed himself between two half circles, as if he existed between youthful & mature mastery, between painting as he found it and as he would leave it. The circle also symbolises eternity & perfection through its association with the halos of the saints. Mastery is also associated with optimism; it masks the insecurities and gaps in technique and lets you believe you are capable of anything. Even in the worst of times, art sustains, protects and lifts us up. It’s the most compelling reason to foster the creative habit.