View all posts filed under 'Creativity'

The Morning After

Sunday, 29. March 2020 22:41

The world is different these days. People—smart people anyway—are practicing social distancing and sheltering in place, isolating themselves in their homes in order to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and keep from getting the disease themselves. Some of us whose work depends on gathering in groups are trying to figure out what to do with ourselves. Others of us who teach find ourselves working harder and longer hours than we have in years, trying to figure out how to teach things online that would have been deemed impossible just a month ago. Still others of us who work essentially alone find little change in our lives other than perhaps the way we communicate with others and don’t socialize.

What is on our minds varies from person to person. Many of us are concerned for our personal safety and sanity. Others are concerned with the enormity of the situation. Still others are concerned with the politics that are evident as the US tries to deal with the crisis. Some of us seem totally unconcerned about what is going on and are continuing to live life as though there were nothing wrong while our neighbors are trying to adjust to working from home. Some are viewing the situation as an opportunity to catch up on projects they have not had time for. Others of us are completely panicked and hopeless, wondering how we are going to eat and pay the rent.

Still, there are those who take a philosophical approach to the situation. The number of articles available on the internet about how this global pandemic provides us an opportunity is expanding as rapidly as the virus itself. The type of opportunities pundits think are available are as numerous as the articles and range from self-introspection to transforming the way we live. Some, like David Suzuki think the virus represents an opportunity to make changes in our behavior that will benefit the planet.

This post falls more into this last category. As I was prepping for my first full online lecture on film noir, I ran across the statement that the notion returning to prewar America after World War II turned out to be a myth. It occurred to me that this situation is much the same. Never since World War II, has the nation, the world, been so completely absorbed by a crisis.  We cannot and will not return to a post-COVID-19 that will be the same as the pre-COVID-19 world in which we used to live. What we are now in is not the new normal, but rather the new interim. And it seems impossible to predict what the post-COVID-19 world will be like, how this virus and the crisis that it has engendered will have changed the country and our perceptions of nearly every aspect of reality.

And that’s the point. If we are still breathing, we have already been thinking about how this crisis has impacted our art. Some of us in the arts are wondering if or when we will work again. However, this is going to be over one day, and what I am suggesting is that we ought to turn our attention to what the situation might be after the pandemic. It is almost guaranteed that the world will be different—not just for artists, but for everyone. It has happened before. It is equally almost certain that what we have done before will likely not fit the new normal, whatever that turns out to be. The questions become how our art is going to fit into that new world, and how we are going to have to adapt what we do in order to be relevant in that future.

As Maureen McGovern’s The Morning After assures us, “there’s got to be a morning after.” Unfortunately, since we have no idea what the new world will look like, all we can do is stay adaptable. The time, however, to be thinking and preparing for that morning after in that new world is now.

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Survival Suggestions

Sunday, 15. March 2020 23:28

The coronavirus pandemic has forced many of us into isolation. If you are an artist who usually works alone, a writer or painter perhaps, this is nothing new. You are used to spending the day mostly alone. For others of us in the arts, this a new and not necessarily welcome turn of events. Suddenly, many of us who are used to working with others are being forced into solitude.  This represents a significant disruption to our daily routine and requires some changes in thinking and doing. We are forced to, in the words of the Shaftoes, “display some adaptability.” Here are a few suggestions that may help you come to terms with your new reality.

  • Turn off the television—and your Twitter feed and any other news feed you have. It’s really easy to obsess over the news which tries to grab our attention 24/7. That’s too much. I’m not suggesting that you isolate yourself completely from all news (although that might not be a terrible idea), rather that you decide which news shows/feeds you will watch and when you will watch them and when that time is up, turn them off. It is not likely that you will need minute-by-minute coverage of the current situation. You can use the time for something productive or enjoyable or both, but only if you are able to tune out of the news. The following suggestions will be possible only if you do this one first.
  • No matter your situation, it has been and will be stressful. Now that you have a little more time for yourself, use it to rest. Sleep in. Take a nap. Disengage. Allow your mind to settle. Only then can you deal realistically with your situation.
  • Take some time for yourself. Along with resting, you can use some of this unexpected “free” time to do some of the things you haven’t had time to do. That time may involve doing nothing. It may involve relaxing in the sunshine. It may involve any number of things that you consider enjoyable that you just haven’t had time for. Now you have the time; use it for your benefit.
  • Watch a movie. You know, the one that you have been meaning to watch, but couldn’t spare the time for. Streaming services are still working and will show you the movie that you’ve been wanting to see no matter the time of day or night.
  • Listen to some music. Yes, most of us have music on in the background most of the time. But when was the last time you stopped and really listened to some music? Well, now you have the time. Do it. It will enrich you in ways you can’t even think about until you do it. It will make your day better.
  • Pick a project from your list and do it. You have no excuse, so you might as well do that thing that has been on your list forever—or for a few days. Use the time that you find that you suddenly have on your hands.
  • Go outside. Let the sun shine on you. Enjoy the grass and flowers and birds. It’s refreshing both physically and mentally, and probably something you don’t do often enough. Do it now.
  • Get to that book. Whether it’s a book that you have promised yourself you would read or a book that you promised yourself you would write, now is the time to tackle it. You don’t have to do it all at once, but this is the perfect opportunity to begin.
  • Make a schedule for yourself—build a routine. While some unstructured time can be a blessing, too much can be a curse. Most of us like to operate on a schedule whether we admit it or not, so faced with an indefinite amount of unstructured time, make yourself a schedule to give that time shape and form. Not a list, a schedule—what to do when. You will find that a schedule will allow you to more productively use your time. If you are a teaching artist, you might even simulate your school schedule since you are used to it. Having a schedule and developing a routine can make all the difference in whether your newly-found “spare” time is productive or not.

Certainly these are not the only suggestions for artists to survive our new socially isolated reality, but hopefully these will help if you are having difficulty adapting to the new, hopefully temporary, normal.

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Define It

Sunday, 1. March 2020 23:55

Several weeks ago, a photographer, a writer, and I were having a drink. (Sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, doesn’t it?) We talked about this and that, and finally the photographer, who does a lot of floral images, said that he wanted all his images to be sensual, but was having trouble making that happen.

“What do you mean by sensual?” I asked. It turned out that he did not know exactly what he meant by the word; it was more one of those “you’ll know it when you see it” kinds of things. We batted it around for a while and mostly discovered, at least for him, what sensuality wasn’t. It was sort of this and sort of that and a little of the other thing. He said it was a feeling but couldn’t get much more concrete than that.

“Have you ever tried to really define it in words?” the writer finally asked.

“Well…not really.” was the response.

“Maybe you should try.” she said. And we moved on to other things.

It turned out that the writer’s advice struck the photographer, who has spoken to me about it several times since. First he asked me if I thought it was really a worthwhile pursuit. I told him that, in my opinion, if he did not know where he was going, he could get there only by accident, and went on to explain to him the principle of the “directorial image,” a concrete image that many stage directors use to encapsulate their interpretation and guide the play toward a specific audience reaction. I understand that he is talking about a body of work rather than a specific picture, but the principle to me seemed to be the same.

In our next conversation, he told me that he had been doing some research—mostly into the dictionary definitions. He had explored sensual (of course) and sensory and sexual and erotic and titillating and carnal and on and on. None of the definitions had fit exactly the response he was looking for, but he had decided that knowing where he was trying to go was more likely to yield results than striking out blindly, although it was far less romantic.

In our third conversation, he said that he was very close to having a definition but that it was currently “too many words” for his comfort and “not exactly right yet,” and that he was trying to refine it. “More important,” he said, “it’s already affecting what I’m doing. I think about shoots differently, and my work is consistently getting closer and closer to what I want it to be. It actually helps my creativity; it’s like having an abstract aiming point. This is really a worthwhile exercise.”

And that last conversation made me think that this story was worth sharing. Many of us who work in the arts have never actually defined what it is that we are striving to accomplish. We move from project to project trying to realize the potential of each individual project without stopping to define exactly what we are trying to do. We, like the photographer, may not find an exact definition for what we want to do, but just the attempt to define our artistic goals can help focus our work.

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Change Just One Thing

Sunday, 2. February 2020 23:54

Most pundits agree that to be really creative, we must step outside our comfort zones. Some even argue that “being an artist is about living in the uncomfortable zone.” Even writers who take issue with this idea think that to be creative in our comfort zones we must regularly get out of them to gain “new experiences and learning,” and to be more productive. Regardless of what we read on the topic, it seems that having something fresh and different in our environments can be of great service to both our creativity and productivity.

At the same time, we read over and over again that to be creative and productive we should be working in comfortable places and adhering to a fairly strict routines. How are we to reconcile this opposition of views?

The most obvious way to do this is to change something within our comfortable places and strict routines. The easiest thing to change is something physical. The rationale for this approach is that we become very accustomed to having things in certain places—to the point that we don’t have to think about them. If we move something, it is still present and useful, but it is in a different place and that creates a newness in the environment that can sometimes have surprising results.

As it turns out, several people have mentioned doing this very thing over the last several weeks. One is a theatre artist who decided to move a salt lamp that was on a very small table beside a recliner. Suddenly the very small table was able to hold a book and a coffee cup, and a new reading nook had been created. This changed where she did some of her reading, which, in turn changed some of her reading habits and general traffic patterns. She is still getting used to this new reading place and is tracking how many other changes will flow from just this simple modification.

A photographer I know who has two “changeable” walls in his home. He says that he changes out pictures on these two walls at irregular intervals, and that those changes are so powerful that they transform the spaces, which in turn causes his thinking to change when he’s in those rooms. This, he claims, makes the environments more creative.

Another photographer I know does essentially the same thing with wall calendars. She says that the changing of several images once a month spark ideas that she would not otherwise have had.

And yet another person, a writer, says that in the past he has had trouble getting to end of non-fiction books. What he did to overcome the problem was to move the current non-fiction from his reading spot or bookcase to a very conspicuous place where he would have to pass it regularly. This would discomfit him and he would be compelled to pick the book up and proceed toward the end.

What all these people have in common is that they changed a very small part of their environments, and those changes provided just enough newness or difference to make a creative difference in their work. A small change is enough to push us just a little outside our comfort zone for a short amount of time, so we can have the best of both worlds.

All we have to do is change just one thing. Try it.

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It’s That Time of Year

Sunday, 5. January 2020 21:40

No, not that time of year—rather, it’s that time of year when we begin to de-decorate from the holidays, or re-decorate, depending on who we are. Most of us only do the former, returning our post-holiday environment to “normal.” Few of us think about what de-decoration means in terms of our thought and creative processes.

There is little question that the holidays affect us mentally. Just google “holidays mental impact” or “holidays brain.” Interestingly, the vast majority of articles that turn up on either of those searches have to do with negative mental impact of the holidays, whether it’s depression or stress or anxiety or seasonal affective disorder. Occasionally there is an article that focuses more on the positive. Whether we perceive the holidays as a time for loving and celebrating and giving and socializing with friends and family or a time for depression, stress and anxiety, it’s time to put those things behind us and transition (back) to the non-holiday world.

Although much has been written about how holidays affect us as people, there is little written about how the holidays impact us as artists. Are we more or less engaged with our art? Is it a time for increased creativity or increased productivity, or is it a time for sidelining our creative thoughts and processes?

Regardless of how the holidays affect us as people and as artists, we are, at this time of the year, engaged in the transition out of the holidays and into something else. Our environment may be changing: we may be de-decorating, removing holiday decorations and restoring our rest-of-the-year décor. Others of us are re-decorating, removing winter holiday decorations and decorating with post-holiday winter décor. (There are those of us who are so conscious of their personal environments that they decorate for every season and every holiday on the calendar.)

Whichever way we approach the decorating opportunities, what is important is that this is a period of transition. Some of us are packing away the stress and anxiety that accompany our winter holidays. Others of us are putting away a happy time of socializing with family and friends, of gratitude, of giving and receiving. How we approach that transition may be as different as what we are transitioning from: it might be a time of reflection; it might be a time for reviewing what we have done and not done during the holiday period; it might be a time for reexamining and reevaluating our past work in general; it might be a time for taking inventory. Or it might be a time for looking ahead; it might be a time for actualizing those creative ideas that appeared during the holidays; it may be a time for reinventing ourselves; it may be a time for just moving forward.

Irrespective of how our holidays went or how we see our future, we must understand that how we handle of the transition can be of great impact—on our creative as well as our personal lives. Assuming that we decorated even a little bit, in de-decorating we are changing our environment, and there can be no question that environment impacts creativity. Perhaps instead of simply restoring that environment to the old “normal,” we should take some time to consider, then, going forward, take steps to make our environments more conducive to creativity.

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Broken

Sunday, 22. December 2019 22:24

America, it would seem, is broken. Every day there is another headline about this or that being broken. It’s to the point that there seems to be nothing that isn’t broken. Here are just a few examples:

But these are all political and social systems. We in the arts may or may not be interested in those programs. We should, however, be interested in the following list.

While American theatre in not classified as “broken,” it might as well be. In most locations, professional theatre, if it exists, is far from affordable, thus there are websites like BroadwayForBrokePeople.com, which doesn’t secure inexpensive seats, but does provide links to digital ticket lotteries.

For those of us in the arts who do not work on Broadway or have our work auctioned by the big New York auction houses, things sometimes appear to be broken on our level as well. It is difficult to find representation, or paying gigs, or gallery space, or win at the crap-shoot that is the juried show system, or just sell a piece now and then.

The point, of course, is that everything seems to be broken. No matter where we turn, this system or that industry or program is broken. For example, just a couple of days ago, the Wall Street Journal announced that clothing sizes are broken. Clothing sizes! What’s next?

A better question might be, “What’s not broken?” And the answer is “creativity and art-making.” Neither of these is broken. In fact, it’s a good time for those of us who are creative and interested in making art. There is an abundance of material about and from which we can create. And there are people who are interested in what we do, even if they can’t afford to purchase our work. And performers can find outlets; even if they are non-paying or low-paying ones, still they exist.

And while some systems and programs that impact us are broken, the one that is our primary outlet is not. We can still produce art; we can make things; we can perform; we can create. We need to remember that even though giving birth to works of art can sometimes be painful, it is also a great joy. And we need to remind ourselves that we have the power to present a point of view, the power to share our ideas and feelings, the power to make people feel, the power to change minds, the power to change lives. Art itself is not broken, and never will be. And that is something to celebrate!

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The Gift of Unstructured Time

Sunday, 8. December 2019 21:55

Americans reportedly work more than workers in any other developed country. Some would say that our work ethic is the result of Puritan influence; others might blame it on our no-holds-barred capitalism. Whatever the reason, we spend a lot of time working.

And if we are artists, it’s even worse. Because we like what we do, we tend to spend an enormous amount of time working. Added to that is the pressure to produce, particularly in the current social media environment. Jonas Jödicke has described the present-day pressure to produce this way:

 

So we work. And some of us try to follow the advice of so many successful artists from Khaled Hosseini,  to Julia Cameron and work with discipline, which means working on our art at a set time every day or working a certain amount of time every day. And many of us work at our art literally every day. Working with discipline often requires schedules and organization. And, as anyone who is a regular reader of this blog knows, I, for one, am a great believer in schedules, organization, structure, and lists. For anyone similarly disposed, this bent of mind facilitates the further structuring of our work time.

And structuring our work time can lead to structuring our other time as well, particularly if we are busy.  This leads to structuring all of our time. And while such structure might make us remarkably productive and organized, it can also have a deadening effect on our creativity. We find ourselves locked into our schedules and operating much like machines. What to do?

The solution sounds oxymoronic. We simply need to schedule unstructured time.  That is, we need to periodically set aside an amount of time during which there is no structure, during which nothing is scheduled. We can then use this time to think, dream, create, play the guitar, play with the cat, wash the dishes, weed the garden—or all of the above. That’s the point; it’s a time during which nothing is planned. This can be scary the first time, particularly for those of us who are schedule- and list-driven. And there is the fear of being bored, but creative people can always find something to do, and the discovery of new things to occupy us is one of the positive results of unstructured time. Once we accept the idea of unstructured time, there is yet another danger: planning what we will do during our scheduled unstructured time. This, of course, negates unstructured time. Once we plan what we will do, the time becomes structured. And even if we are addicted to being busy, we can busy ourselves during our unstructured time—just doing unplanned things. It’s like kindergarten recess for creatives.

How much unstructured time we need is an individual matter. Some of us need some every day. Others find once a week satisfying. Still others may need unstructured time only once a month. Length of time also varies with the individual. Whatever our particular needs, having that block of unstructured time will have a positive effect on our creativity and overall disposition. And that’s a gift worth giving ourselves.

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Talk About Your Work

Sunday, 24. November 2019 22:55

Remember when you were in that class and the instructor asked you to explain your work? Remember how you thought, “It’s art; I can’t explain it.” And then you took that other course and the instructor asked you to do the same thing, and this time you thought, “If I could explain it, I wouldn’t have had to paint [photograph, sculpt, compose, write] it.” But it only got worse. They kept asking you to explain what you were doing and, worse than that, they asked your peers to critique your work and say what they thought you were trying to communicate and how well you accomplished that.

It didn’t matter which art you were studying; the teachers were always asking for rationales for the choices that you made. They never let you get away with, “I’ll just let the work speak for itself.” And they continued to ask your peers what they thought about your work. And sometimes you learned that your work did not say exactly what you set out to say, at least to other people in the class.

As is often the case, the teachers were correct in their push to have us articulate our work. Even though we hate doing it, articulation forces us to put our work into prose, which forces us to think about the art differently. This is particularly useful for work that may be mysterious or ambiguous or may not be clear to the viewers/listeners. Probably this was not apparent to us when it was happening in school. The fact is that there is always something to be learned from articulating our work.

Please note that this has nothing to do with the talking about our work that agents, advisors, and gallerists tell us to do. That is a sales technique. And we’re really talking about something different:  the story of how the idea came and the process of making the work rather than an attempt to explain the work itself.

Many artists make articulation part of their process. For example, I know actors who, as part of their technique, walk through all the actions they will perform in a show, but they talk to themselves as they do it. I also know stage directors who have conversations with their assistant directors for the sole purpose of hearing themselves evaluate the things they are doing to shape the show.

Recently I found another use for talking about my work. Some photographs were not quite what I wanted them to be, but I couldn’t put my finger on the precise problem. I had a friend look at them, and he pointed out a couple of things that I had thought about, but did not realize the full impact of until I heard it in words. Then I realized that I could have done it by myself. All I had to do was start talking about what was right about the image which, of course, led me to realize and be able to verbalize what was wrong with the image. Hearing it in words makes all the difference.

So now I talk to myself—even more than I used to—but now I talk about the art and how it works, or doesn’t. It sounds simplistic, but it takes editing out of the world of feelings and ideas and puts it into the world of reason. And that helps, and anything that helps make the work better is worth a try.

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Stay Open

Sunday, 10. November 2019 23:10

One of the most difficult things for student actors to learn is to keep inventing. It seems that as the blocking (the pattern of movement) and the line memorization become solid, there is a tendency to want to also solidify their readings and business. As they solidify these aspects of their roles, these actors tend to close themselves off to other possibilities.

One supposes that this is because they come from backgrounds in church plays or high school where the philosophy of production was to rehearse until they got it “right” and then repeat that for the performances. A number of directors, myself included, believe that that approach is a formula for producing stale theatre; we believe rather that actors should create their characters anew at each performance and that rehearsals create the stable structure that allows this to happen. This approach works best if actors stay open to new insights and ideas and realize them on the stage.

Yet they continue to stop inventing as the rehearsal process moves along. And that’s a shame because trying one new thing, even toward the end of a creative process can generate new concepts and open never-before-thought-of understandings that can only enhance and enrich the creation—if the artist is open to it. Actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman, quoted in Austin Kleon’s recent blog post says, “Really be as naïve as possible, you know as ignorant as possible, because then you can keep yourself as wide open as possible for anything that could be of help, could be of use…”

The need to stay open applies to artists other than actors as well. Artists are notorious for tunnel-vision, particularly as they near the end of a project. But along with that single-mindedness, artists need to remain available to other ideas that may appear along the way. Ask any musician who does jazz improvisation; sometimes a new riff comes because one person in the group played a single note differently.

And this idea is not restricted to performing artists. A photographer may note the particular way a model turns or notice something in an image during post processing that s/he had missed before and suddenly new doors open up. The painter may slip and make an unplanned brush stroke and then realize that it was not a mistake, but one of Bob Ross’ “happy accidents.” A writer can mistype a word and suddenly realize a direction that s/he hadn’t thought of before. These opportunities would have been missed had the artist resisted a new idea because s/he was too close to finishing the work.

And many of us focus not only on the work, but on finishing the work—particularly as we get closer to that goal. Unfortunately, this state of mind works to our detriment if we refuse to let new intuitions into our creative process

As for finishing the work, Pablo Picasso has famously said that to finish a work is to “kill it, to rid it of its soul, to give it its final blow…” The natural extension of this idea is that all art should remain unfinished, and since it is unfinished, new directions and modifications are always possible. Just thinking about our works this way can give us the freedom to continue to explore and invent, even as we move toward completion of a project. In other words, thinking this way gives us what we need: the ability to stay open to new ideas and insights all the way through the creative process.

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Tiny Adjustments

Sunday, 13. October 2019 22:27

On Twitter earlier this week, Andy Williams posed the question, “Photographers: Do you MAKE a picture or TAKE a picture?” Ansel Adams, one of America’s great photographers, answered the question years ago when he said, “You don’t take a photograph, you make it.” I must agree. Of course, every photographer wants to take a good picture, but that’s only the beginning. Adams made prints from his superior negatives, but not without a bit of darkroom magic to enhance the picture. Today, when most photography is digital, we strive to get a good capture, and then we turn to computer software to do our digital legerdemain to improve our images.

It is at the computer that a number of decisions are made which can make or break an image. One of those is the decision on how to crop the image, i.e. deciding what to keep and what to discard. Several years ago, I posted about the importance of framing, determining what information stays within the borders of an image and what gets left out. It’s a task that most photographers do instinctively without overthinking the process.

However, I have a colleague, a fine art photographer, who has developed a process of making 5×7 prints of certain images and attaching them to his refrigerator with small magnets. “It allows me to think about them over a period of time,” he says of the process. “I find that it makes my work better.” He pins the images to the refrigerator where they will stay for sometimes a month while he considers what will make them better. Sometimes he decides to reject them entirely, but usually, he will make cryptic marks, noting what modifications he wants to make in the image. In answer to my question about the process, he said, “These are the problem children. Most images are easy to edit in the computer, but some are more difficult to get exactly right. I find it hard to see exactly what they need unless they are on paper and I can study them off and on for a while. As far as the decision goes, I just look for what will make it better.”

He is a firm believer in creating the best image he can imagine and ruthless when it comes to adjusting what stays in the image and what gets cropped out. This sometimes means making images which do not fit any standard frames; he says that he gave up on standard sizes long ago, and is concerned only with making the best possible image. The other day, I got to see the current collection of images in his kitchen. One long, thin image had a mark slightly less than 1/8 inch from the top with some words I couldn’t read. In answer to my question about what it was, he said it was where the image needed to be cropped. “But that’s a tiny amount,” I said. “Yes, he said, but it will make the image better. The new crop line removed just a little less than 2/100 of the overall height of the image, a tiny adjustment if there ever was one. However, he made that adjustment and reprinted the image. It was indeed better.

And so it is with all art. Tiny adjustments can make a piece radically different: an actor changes one line, which then cascades into an entirely different performance. The addition of two measures completely alters the nature of the musical composition. Minute brush strokes modify the meaning of a painting. The examples are endless.

But to be clear, this is not about perfection; it is about using (usually small) adjustments to make a piece the best it can be. And it’s about understanding that making such adjustments might allow us to reclaim some projects that we had before considered failures.

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