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Daydreaming and Mindfulness

Monday, 28. October 2013 0:28

For all its faults, what struck me about the book I recently finished was how accurately it depicted the goings-on in the mind of the artist. The main character, a painter, would sometimes completely lose track of what was going on around her because she was so involved in daydreaming. She spent a lot of time planning, foreseeing the paintings that she wanted to create.

We all daydream, and many would argue that it is from daydreams that inspiration comes. It is certainly in daydreams that we imagine our creations or discover an insight or recognize a new idea. Many artists find daydreaming useful, perhaps even necessary to doing their work. How else would the image of the new piece of work come if you could not let your mind drift from the here-and-now to other times and places?

The other side of the coin is what is called mindfulness, staying in the present moment. Everywhere you turn in blogosphere, you run into articles about the value of mindfulness to the artist. It’s a topic I have spent some time on myself here and here, and actually work at myself on a daily basis.

The benefits of mindfulness are well known to actors, who must stay in the present if they are to do even passable work. This approach to the world: living in and attending to the present comes up again and again in creativity theory. We must be in the present to create; once we let our minds wander to the past or the future, we have left the moment in which we are actually doing the work. If we happen to be in flow, mindfulness descends upon us as a condition of the state, and we really have no choice. Additionally, there are the psychological benefits associated with mindfulness: loss of anxiety and worry.

The question is how each of these disparate activities fits into the creative life of not just painters or actors, but any artist.

The answer is, of course, balance. We must be able to allow our imaginations to take flight, to travel to those places where new ideas reside or the seeds of new images germinate. Then we must bring those ideas and images into the present. If we stay “away,” we will become those dreamers who never produce, the composers who never write a note, the writers who never commit words to paper or screen. We become imaginers and planners instead of doers. We must go into the worlds of imagination, seize the ideas that we find there, and bring them back to the present where we can develop them.

On the other hand, if we stay only in the present, we can miss some of the wonders that our imaginations can produce. Mindfulness practice says that when ideas intrude, we should acknowledge them and return our attention to the present. This sometimes means that an idea may be lost. And some of those ideas may well deserve to be followed and entertained, not because we are helpless to prevent it, but because down that path lies the next painting or play or sculpture. The trick is to not get so lost in that world that we don’t make it back to this one, but we do need to be able to let our imaginations wander and invent and discover.

As artists, I think, we would do well to take a middle path, perhaps not that philosophical middle path that avoids the extremes, but rather a practical one that encompasses, reconciles and balances the opposing activities of mindfulness and daydreaming and allows us to use all of our potential to create.

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The Downside of Discipline

Monday, 17. September 2012 0:01

We all know that inspiration is fickle; it comes and goes, and appears when you least expect it and deserts you when you most need it. There are a variety of ways that successful artists have developed deal with this situation.

One of the ways to deal with this situation of uncertainty is discipline. Artists as diverse as Elizabeth Gilbert, Khaled Hosseini, Julia Cameron, William Safire, Chuck Close, and Gabriel García Márquez, have all discussed the necessity for discipline as a requisite for success in art. These are not the only ones; web page after web page is devoted to the topic. It’s something I have written about before. Hazel Dooney has said, “It’s when I don’t feel like talking, writing or drawing that I need to most. Waiting for inspiration is actually procrastination.”

So you adopt working in a disciplined manner, and all goes well. Then one day you sit down at the easel, the potter’s wheel, the piano, the computer, the rehearsal table, wherever it is that you work, and nothing comes. You are dry. Ideas, images seem to have deserted you.  And you sit there and sit there and sit there, doing what you are supposed to be doing, and still nothing comes. What do you do then?

One of the things that you cannot do is command fresh ideas and inspiration to appear. This is the downside of discipline; it doesn’t guarantee that you will get what you need. You have allotted the time and the time is not, at the moment, being fruitful. It feels like a waste. It isn’t.

And what you should not do is give in to the temptation to get up and go do something else. That is also procrastination. This is the time to work, and if you choose to do something else, it is certain that you will produce nothing. While exercising discipline cannot guarantee ideas and insight, it can maximize the possibilities. What you produce during this time might not be great—particularly when ideas are not flowing—but it may well lead you somewhere great. Give yourself the time to develop, to experiment, to explore, to create.

And that’s what you can do: use the time that you have set aside for work to work. Perhaps you need to explore in a different direction. Almost all of us have notes on ideas and images that we do not have the time to immediately explore. This is the time for that. Perhaps, you need to try approaching your work in a different way or from a different direction. This is an opportunity to experiment with a directional shift. You might use the time to explore a new medium for your ideas. You might want to use this period for research that will further your work. There are also a number of other ideas to be found in Daniel Grant’s excellent essay called “What Artists Do While Waiting for the Next Inspiration.”

Put those alternatives in the back of your mind and continue to exercise your discipline so next time—and there will be a next time—you will know how to use your work time time to deal with uncertainty of inspiration. Again, to quote Dooney:

The truly creative not only adapt and evolve in response to uncertainty, they relish it. They might be disciplined in their work habits but inspiration is often unruly and unreliable. Attempts to control it, to corral it, make dull art. An ability to collaborate with uncertainty has always been the mark of a great artist.

 

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Want to Do Better Art? Develop Discipline

Sunday, 18. March 2012 22:52

No matter how much imagination and creativity and talent you have, it’s of little use unless it is applied. And often the application requires something that many in the arts tend to avoid: discipline. From experience I know that discipline is a trait lacking in many theatre arts students, and I can think of no reason that students of any other art would be different. These students, like most of us, get into the arts because it satisfies a felt need, or we have talent, or we find it really appealing. Then to succeed, we have to figure out how to take it to the next level, and the level after that, and the level after that.

And that takes imagination. It also takes discipline. This is an idea that comes up again and again when artists talk about what it takes to make art. Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner says:

There is a romantic notion to writing a novel, especially when you are starting it. You are embarking on this incredibly exciting journey, and you’re going to write your first novel, you’re going to write a book. Until you’re about 50 pages into it, and that romance wears off, and then you’re left with a very stark reality of having to write the rest of this thing. […] A lot of 50-page unfinished novels are sitting in a lot of drawers across this country. Well, what it takes at that point is discipline … You have to be more stubborn than the manuscript, and you have to punch in and punch out every day, regardless of whether it’s going well, regardless of whether it’s going badly. […] It’s largely an act of perseverance […] The story really wants to defeat you, and you just have to be more mulish than the story.

A number of artists have commented on the relationship between discipline and inspiration. Douglas Eby in a post on “The Creative Mind” quotes Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love in a TED talk, “Just do your job. Continue to show up for your piece of it. If your job is to dance, then do your dance. If the divine, cockeyed genius [muse] assigned to your case decides to let some sort of wonderment be glimpsed for just one moment for your efforts, then Ole. And if not, do your dance anyhow. Ole to you, nonetheless, just for having the sheer human love and stubbornness to keep showing up.”

Notice that Gilbert is not just talking about writing, but about any art. Painter and photographer Chuck Close advises:

The advice I like to give young artists, or really anybody who’ll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you. If you’re sitting around trying to dream up a great art idea, you can sit there a long time before anything happens. But if you just get to work, something will occur to you and something else will occur to you and something else that you reject will push you in another direction. Inspiration is absolutely unnecessary and somehow deceptive. You feel like you need this great idea before you can get down to work, and I find that’s almost never the case.

To paraphrase Seth Godin, the first rule of doing work that matters, no matter what it is, is to “go to work on a regular basis.” To be brilliant, we must not only go to extremes with our imaginations, we must do so on a regular basis. Discipline is also a requirement.

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Need to Revive Your Creativity? Try the High Desert

Sunday, 21. August 2011 23:52

There was no posting this past weekend because I spent it in the high desert. This time it was central and northern New Mexico.  The trip was to explore Santa Fe, but it became much more than that. As always, I returned with feelings of being refreshed, inspired, and disappointed that I had to return to my normal life.

Santa Fe itself is an art fair on crack–everything from affordable earrings to six-figure artwork by world-renowned artists. There are not only hundreds of individual artist/vendors at tables, in tents, with wares spread on blankets, but there are hundreds of galleries with more high-dollar work than I have ever seen in one concentrated area. Santa Fe may be the only city in North America where you will find a clothing store sandwiched between two art galleries.

But you have to get out of the cities and towns to find what the area really has to offer:  an amazing austere, unique landscape that exists in solitude and silence, surprising outcroppings of rock, mountains, arroyos, canyons, rivers, crystalline air and Ansel Adams clouds, warm summer sun with a cool breeze, an amazing canopy of stars overarching the cool evenings.

Count me among those who are in love with this part of the world. Admittedly, I am much more familiar with west Texas since I have spent much more time there. It is much less an obvious tourist destination, but it has the same vast expanses, the same quiet, the same ancient solitude.

There’s something magical about the high desert, something very seductive.  It is a place that gives me focus—I begin to think about what is important to me, instead of what is important to all of those who make demands on me, particularly in terms of art. I think about art a lot, but a trip to the high desert settles my soul, makes me reevaluate and reconsider old ideas and allows new ones to take hold. I always come back with a new approach, a new way of seeing, a spiritual rejuvenation.

I’m not sure what causes this: the ascetic, ancient landscape, the unbelievable stillness—almost a living presence, the amazing weather—winter or summer, the character of the land and its people. It is certainly more than being in a different place: the lack of familiar television or eating places. There is a different set of smells on the air, a different feeling, and, outside the cities, a pleasurable lack of traffic. I have been to other remote places, other pleasant places; no other impacts me the way the high desert does.

I am not the only one who seems to be influenced by this unique locale.  It has been sought out as a place to work and create by various artists. Artists as diverse as Georgia O’Keefe, Donald Judd, and D. H. Lawrence, among others, have found the open beauty of North American high desert irresistible. One can never be sure what they found in the high desert. Maynard Dixon said, “You can’t argue with those desert mountains — and if you live among them enough — like the Indian does — you don’t want to. They have something for us much more real than some imported art style.”

In the midst of that reality, I find the freedom to let my mind drift, really drift, in a way that it cannot in the surroundings of my everyday existence. And in drifting I rediscover where I want to go and how I want to get there. I often find myself wanting to stay.

It may be a place you would like to stay as well—or at least visit. So whether it’s west Texas or New Mexico or some other area of high desert, go. Find out. Discover this place of magical artistic renewal for yourself.

In addition to peace and solitude, you may find that the high desert engenders a lot of questions—it does for me. By way of warning, if you happen choose New Mexico as the target of your artistic wandering, there is a question that is unique to that “land of enchantment.” That question is, of course: red or green?

 

 

 

 

 

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Breaking Out of that Non-Productive Funk

Sunday, 10. April 2011 23:00

The other afternoon I was having coffee with a friend and began to talk about a creative problem that I was having. I could not get much done. I found myself piddling with the work instead of really being productive, and I realized that the problem was becoming a pattern. All of which made me unhappy, but I seemed unable to break out of it.

It’s a problem that most creative people have from time to time. It’s not exactly writer’s block; it’s more like a stall in the creative process, a non-productive funk. My guess is that it’s brought about by our old friend, insecurity.  We all—well, most of us—have moments when we doubt our own work. We wonder whether we are, to paraphrase Stuart Smalley, good enough or smart enough or whether people like our art.

That kind of insecurity plagues highly successful artists as well as the lesser-known. Dean Koontz has said that he is subject to “ceaseless self-doubt that sits like a demonic imp on my shoulder from the moment I begin the first sentence until long after I finish the last, informing me in a whisper – occasionally in a stentorian rant – that I am composing this story with less success than any three-legged toad might experience if it attempted to herd sheep.Nichole Kidman is beset by paralyzing fear: Every time I star in a film, I think I cannot act. I’ve tried to pull out of almost every one I’ve done because of sheer terror.

In those moments of self-doubt, it’s easy to lose the path to productivity. We begin to second-guess ourselves. We quit believing in ourselves. Then it’s easy to piddle, to procrastinate, to mark time while we appear to be working, to pretend to be moving forward when we know within ourselves that we are not.

So what are we to do? How do we find the path again? How do we break out of the whirlpool of non-productivity? My friend suggested that I needed more stimulation. It was a thought that had never occurred to me. But it was enough to set me thinking about finding a way out of my creative funk and into a more productive mode.

And so I thought about it. And, as serendipity would have it, I came across a couple of other ideas. Seth Godin, for example, said “There will always be someone telling you that you’re not hip enough, famous enough, edgy enough or whatever enough….Shun the non-believers” And I would add, “especially when the non-believer is yourself.”

But how do you do that? Perhaps my friend was right. Perhaps I did need more stimulation. So I explored ways to get more, not necessarily artistic inspiration, but stimulation in general. I introduced more variety into my routine. And that was just enough to begin to lead me to a solution. And that I think is the solution—not necessarily additional stimulation; you may be over-stimulated already. The key is to do something different, anything different, to break your pattern, so you can be free to consider your situation from a different perspective.

Once you’ve found that different perspective, the whole problem not only looks different, but feels different. In my case, I was able to look at the situation far more objectively and discover that, in addition to added stimulation, a different approach to my working procedure was necessary. It wasn’t a big change, but it made a huge difference.

What the key might be for you I have no idea. But I would be willing to bet that it will become apparent once you begin to do something different. Try it and see.

 

 

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Inspiration, Theft, and Copy Protection

Sunday, 5. December 2010 23:55

Inspiration is a word with many meanings, particularly when used in an artistic context.  In some cases, it means simply to animate action; in others it means to make something similar. Some would call the latter idea stealing; some would call it sampling; some would call it homage, some would call it being influenced. Legally, I am told, you can appropriate an idea but not the exact representation of a thing, unless, of course the thing you are copying happens to be in the public domain, as fewer and fewer things seem to be.

To prevent such appropriation, we rely ever increasingly on the copyright. Johanna Blakley in a TED talk, however, notes that the fashion industry has no copyright protection and finds that, because of that lack of protection, fashion designers “have been able to elevate utilitarian design…into something we consider art.” They can “sample from all their peers’ designs…and can incorporate it into their own designs.”

Not only does Blakely argue that this inability to protect is a virtue, but she feels that it is responsible for the significant profit in the fashion industry. As evidence, she points out the differences in the reported income of non-protected industries versus similar protected industries. The non-protected ones are so far ahead as to make it no contest.  Some artists who agree with this approach refuse to copyright their works, electing to go with the more flexible, and some say more progressive creative commons licensing scheme.

Some argue that this is the way artistic ideas develop, or at least used to before the world became as litigious as it seems to be today. One artist would look at the work of another and react to it, often building on it, sometimes incorporating it, sometimes quoting it, which seems to be a more palatable practice (although no one except motion picture directors and critics seems to know exactly where the line is between copying and quoting).  In any case, according to some, this is how movements are built, or according to Blakely, how global fashion trends are established.

Some artists go further, encouraging the theft not only of ideas, but of anything:

Out of the closets and into the museums, libraries, architectural monuments, concert halls, bookstores, recording studios and film studios of the world. Everything belongs to the inspired and dedicated thief…. Words, colors, light, sounds, stone, wood, bronze belong to the living artist. They belong to anyone who can use them. Loot the Louvre! A bas l’originalité, the sterile and assertive ego that imprisons us as it creates. Vive le sol—pure, shameless, total. We are not responsible. Steal anything in sight. – William S. Burroughs

Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is nonexistent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery—celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to.”  – Jim Jarmusch

On the other hand, some artists are very protective. Damien Hirst, who himself has been known to borrow the ideas of others, threatened to sue a 16-year old artist for using a photograph of Hirst’s diamond-studded skull in collages. And I know at least one artist, a photographer, who becomes furious if someone steals her ideas; I don’t know that I blame her.

Blakely says that the solution, at least in the fashion industry, is to create pieces that are of such quality that successful knockoffs are impossible or to put together a signature look that is too hard to copy. I think the best approach is to put those two ideas together. Whether you are in the copyright or the creative commons or some other camp, create pieces of the highest quality and develop a style and content that is so distinctive that copying, if possible at all, would be would be obvious even to the most untrained eye.

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Internet Inspiration

Sunday, 28. November 2010 23:40

While I was stumbling around the internet the other night (Yes, it’s true; I use StumbleUpon to find curious and interesting websites I might not find otherwise.), I landed on a web site called The Inspiration Blog. This called to mind other arts inspiration web sites that I have run across. I have seen a quite a few and dismissed them, but somehow seeing this one caused me to wonder just how many of them there are out there.

The short answer is a bunch. As a matter of fact if you enter “art inspiration websites” into Google, you will get 3,340,000 hits (at least that’s the number I got last night); if you enter “photography inspiration web sites,” you only get 1,480,000. I’m sure that you could play this game all night if you wanted, just plugging in a different art in front of “inspiration websites.” Or you can go generic: “arts inspiration websites” (3,740,000 hits). That’s a lot of websites devoted to arts inspiration.

Then there is the variant form of the game: enter “arts inspiration workshop.” You get an amazing 5,260,000 hits. Even allowing that some of those may be duplicate websites or references or duplicate workshops, that’s a lot of workshops.

Having gone this far, I thought I would try another source, so I went over to Amazon, and found that Amazon catalogues 4,941 entries about “art inspiration,” with 1,919 of these in the books category. That’s a lot of products and a lot of books.

One has to conclude that there are a lot of people out there who are looking for inspiration in the arts. Who knew? Well, a lot of authors and webmasters and workshop coordinators seem to have known, or at least seem to have thought that there were a lot of blocked artists in the world, and thus a market for inspiration. That means that there are a lot of people who are in the inspiration business, which is a whole topic in itself.

I have never been to an arts inspiration workshop, and I have never read a book designed to inspire the reader artistically, although I have read a few about creativity. But I have visited more than a few arts inspiration web sites, and, frankly, I have never found any of them to be terribly inspiring. They may be for some people, but for me they do virtually nothing. Picasso said of inspiration, “the artist is a receptacle for emotions that come from all over the place: from the sky, from the earth, from a scrap of paper, from a passing shape, from a spider’s web.” He could have as well added “from the world wide web,” had there been such a thing then. Although I have never gotten anything from an arts inspiration web site, I have run across images and words on the web that resonated with me, but they appear in places that I stumbled on, or they came from websites that I visit regularly because I appreciate the quality of the work posted there; I’m sure that I’m not alone in these perceptions.

My problem with arts or any kind of inspiration web site is that they are aggregates; some are even aggregates of aggregates. Now aggregates are fine, except that for an aggregation to exist there must be an aggregator. And an aggregator is by definition also an editor, a filter, if you will, because he/she must decide what to put in and what to leave out, so when you go to an aggregate website, you are submitting yourself to someone else’s taste, to someone else’s artistic aesthetic in determining what is and what is not inspiring.  I agree with Picasso; I think inspiration comes “from all over the place,” and I’m pretty sure that I do not want my potential inspiration to be filtered, or edited, or censored.

How about you? Do you ever find inspiration on the web? Do you find it on inspiration websites? Where else do you find it? Or are you one of those artists who have no use for inspiration and trust only in their own abilities?

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