Post from January, 2013

Let the Work Take Over

Sunday, 27. January 2013 23:51

It is very common to hear fiction writers talk about characters taking over the novel, play, or short story. Characters, it seems, sometimes go their own way, taking the plot along with them instead of performing in the way that the author envisioned. The writer becomes almost a spectator. For those who don’t write, this may sound a bit silly. After all, who is the one whose fingers are on the keyboard? What is really happening is that the story is taking on a life of its own. It’s just a convenience to blame it on the characters—since that’s often what starts the story moving in a certain direction—perhaps one unforeseen by the author.

Creations do that—take on a life of their own, and it doesn’t matter what kind of creation it is. The same phenomenon occurs in almost all arts. An actor’s performance can rise above expectations on certain nights, reaching emotions and insights never before (and sometimes never after) touched. Even the actor him/herself has no idea how or why it happened. They just treasure the experience, and, if they try to explain it at all, write it off to “inspiration.”

It involves creating in flow (discussed here and in several other posts), which almost removes consciousness from the creative process. But more than that, it involves letting the work take over. It’s almost as if the painting or the collage or the poem or characters start telling you what to do next and how to do it, guiding the artist in the creation.  In extreme cases, the artist is unconscious of what is going on. He/she becomes a tool by which the creation realizes itself.

This process may not be as mystical as it’s beginning to sound. There are, of course, psychological explanations. If you read flow theory, you find that what I am talking about here is perhaps a subset of that or an enhanced version of that. This state certainly shares many of the characteristics of flow, but the “sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity” is missing. The creator seems not only to not be in control, but seems almost to be missing. And the creator is certainly not directing the work on any kind of conscious level.

Jackson Pollock put it this way:

When I am in a painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing. It is only after a sort of “get acquainted” period that I see what I have been about. I have no fears about making changes, destroying the image, etc, because the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through. It is only when I lose contact with the painting that the result is a mess. Otherwise there is pure harmony, an easy give and take, and the painting comes out well.

Pollock is not the only artist to have to wait to see what he has been about. An acquaintance, an accomplished sculptor and painter, commented about his own just-finished painting the other day, “Perhaps in a day or two I’ll figure out what I was trying to say.”

This is certainly not to say that all we have to do is sit down at the keyboard, or easel, or wherever we work and art will happen. We all know better than that. Of course we have to learn and practice and investigate and imagine and apply experience. But once we begin a project, we can, with sufficient concentration, move into flow, and then, if conditions are right and we are willing to take a risk and release a little control, we can perhaps move one step beyond to that place where the work takes over. And then we can, like Pollock, achieve that pure harmony that lets the life of the work come through.

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It Sucks, But Not as Bad as I Thought

Sunday, 20. January 2013 22:35

The last post discussed the life of a project. This post focuses on the last step in that process: the end, when “it sucks, but not as bad as I thought.”  The question is why does it suck? Why didn’t we make our art to match our vision? This is, for many artists, an ongoing problem. And for many it’s a secret. They show their work, offer it for sale, but often when they look at it, they only see the flaws. This is true of performing arts as well; many directors and choreographers sit in the back of the theatre occasionally enjoying a moment of brilliance on the stage, but mostly seeing the parts that don’t measure up.  Some potential answers:

1.  Our work doesn’t match our level of taste. Ira Glass says, “All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you.” He goes on to say that some people never get past this phase and quit, but that by generating volume you can eventually create work “as good as your ambition.” I cannot fully agree; I know many people who have long experience in making art of various kinds and who (to their minds) fail to realize the ambition of almost every piece, much as the two very experienced artists referenced in the previous post did.

2.  Our vision isn’t a concrete guide. Artistic vision is seldom a roadmap. It more often is an impression of a finished piece of work without direction of how to get there. This is where experience comes in. Experience hopefully teaches us how to get from vision to artifact in the least painful way.

3. Our vision doesn’t take into account the limitations of the medium or the technology available. Sometimes when we envision a project, it’s all about line and texture and form and color, none of which takes into account how that is going to all come about in reality. Sometimes the things we imagine are not technically possible, either because the material with which we are working won’t do what we have envisioned, or there is some other consideration that we did not take into account.

This may sound like inexperience with materials, and perhaps that is part of the problem, at least in the earlier stages of our development, but later we find that we can envision things that in reality cannot be, at least in the medium in which we work. Sometimes we must master another medium to realize our vision.

For those whose final work is completed by others (directors, choreographers, designers, cinematographers), there is the problem of having a vision that reaches beyond the abilities of those executing the project. Often we do not have full control of the choice of performers, and those with whom we work are sometimes not able to reach the levels that are required to realize our work completely.

4.  We haven’t yet figured out how to overcome mediocrity. Again Ira Glass weighs in on the topic: “It’s hard to make something that’s interesting. It’s really, really hard. It’s like a law of nature, a law of aerodynamics, that anything that’s written or anything that’s created wants to be mediocre. The natural state of all writing is mediocrity… So what it takes to make anything more than mediocre is such an act of will...”

These are just four possible reasons our work doesn’t match our vision; there are surely others. But, regardless of the reasons, it is a situation that we have to live with, so perhaps it would be better to concentrate on that. And there is at least one other factor: how we feel about a project may evolve over time. As a friend of mine said the other day upon examining some work that he had put away for a while, “I don’t hate it anymore.” Perhaps that’s enough to ask.

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Dark Night of the Soul

Sunday, 13. January 2013 22:33

In his superb book, Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative (which you should purchase immediately if you haven’t already—yes, it’s that good) , Austin Kleon has a graphic entitled “The Life of a Project,” which he attributes to his friend, Maureen McHugh, and which you can view in her blog.

For those who don’t need a graphic representation, here are the main stages that McHugh sees in the life of a creative project (as lightly edited by Kleon):

  • This is the best idea EVER!
  • Ok, this is harder than I thought.
  • This is gonna take some work.
  • This sucks—and it’s boring.
  • (Dark Night of the Soul).
  • It will be good to finish because I’ll learn something for next time.
  • It’s done and it sucks, but not as bad as I thought.

If you don’t recognize the sequence, you are probably not one who does a lot of creative projects. As I think about it, I don’t remember very many projects that did not follow this exact pattern or something very close to it—at least the projects I cared about. And it doesn’t seem to matter which medium you’re working in or how experienced you are. This is the pattern that occurs. And the Dark Night of the Soul happens predictably every time, and every time we don’t see it coming. It takes us off guard and scares the hell out of us.

And since most artists are riddled with self-doubt anyway (Something I have discussed previously here, here and here and probably some other places as well), we find ourselves talking and thinking to ourselves: “I’ll never get this to come together.” “What if I’ve lost my mojo?” “What if I never had any mojo to begin with?” “It’s true; I’ve just faked it up til now and have just been lucky.” “I really have no idea what I’m doing and never have.” “I really need to find another line of work.” And on and on. We beat ourselves up every time. It’s like we have no memory of other projects and of having had these exact feelings before.

And so we suffer, and for a time self-doubt takes over. Then, if we’re lucky, we remember who we are and why we do what we do, and we move forward. Sometimes that amounts to the simple recognition that there will be an opening night, or a gallery show, or a commission to be satisfied, and we forge ahead—and move on to the two final steps.

Some regard this self-doubt as a weakness; others regard it as perfectly natural and normal. I agree with the latter group and would go a step further and say that it’s necessary. Brian D. Cohen in “Don’t Believe Everything You Think” explains this position:

But I believe that powerful and enduring art results from the interchange of conviction and doubt, a process of urging something into existence and then questioning its validity. Doubt and uncertainty, with accompanying self-questioning, discomfort, and setbacks, feel unproductive, yet only by passing through this state will anything ultimately worthwhile emerge. Doubt on its own doesn’t get you anywhere. Conviction, the belief in what you do, gives art its authenticity and motive power; doubt, its durability and integrity.

What we have to remember is that if we really care about what we’re doing, the Dark Night of the Soul is going to happen. If we persevere, we will get through it. It’s something we must endure, and, if we are to believe Cohen, appreciate. Without it, we would create less meaningful work, less significant work, and who among us wants that?


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New Beginnings

Sunday, 6. January 2013 23:47

This time of the year we hear a lot about new beginnings and modifying our lives, our businesses, our art. It seems that it’s a time to evaluate where we’ve been and adjusting so that the next year will be better. Some will create lengthy lists of resolutions, but most of us realize that, with a few exceptions, resolutions fail. Other pundits, Like Seth Godin, suggest that we make an inventory, as “a way to keep track of what you’re building.” What is curious to me is that you never hear about this sort of thing at other times of the year.

Why is this time of year the season for appraisal and adjustment? Certainly, nowhere on the planet are we even near the rebirth phase of the natural biological cycle. We are, in fact—at least those of us in the northern hemisphere—just about to step into the depths of winter. Perhaps that is it; this could well be considered “dead time.” Several artists I’ve talked with recently regard January, and perhaps February as “creative time,” which, so far as I can determine, means that they choose to spend this time making art—perhaps because of the unfriendly weather and lack of other activities. This means, of course, that they have already done their evaluation and path-setting, so now they are able to move forward.

Still there exists the question of why the majority of people use January as the marker for judging past performance and setting standards and goals for the coming year. The answer is simple. Most people’s lives are not segmented, but continuous.  They go to work, come home, eat, sleep, relax a little, and do it all again. The cycle is the work week, with months overlaid and seasons providing a sort of background. But almost all cultures celebrate winter holidays of some sort, and these holidays seem to last a little longer than others. So things slow down, and in slowing down there is time for reflection. And then there is that event called the “New Year.” Yes, just another day, but a day when we get to hang a brand new calendar on the wall—which looks for all the world like a fresh start, a new blank page. A new beginning.

And that is something we all crave. Humans, at least those in western society, seem to need to fresh starts. And as artists, we have more of them than most people, because we—and it does not matter what kind of artist—work on different schedules from the majority of the population. Each artist may be a little different, but we all work on projects, and projects have ends. Dancers, choreographers, actors, directors, scenic and costume designers work on “the show.” The production is conceived, rehearsed, performed, and closed. The painter or photographer or sculptor works on a piece or a series, which also has a completion arc. Writers work on the book, the poem, the short story, the essay, the blog entry. None of these conform to the calendar year.

And even though many of us (if we’re lucky) move from project to project, there is usually a point at which we can look back and evaluate what we’ve done, and perhaps discover ways to improve our working procedure or efficiency or whatever might need adjustment to improve our output. Performing arts production teams often hold “post-mortems” to evaluate procedures and approaches. Individual artists rarely do anything so formal, but we do have an opportunity not available to all: evaluating our work and adjusting on a per-project basis rather than once a year. It’s up to us to take advantage of those opportunities.

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