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Seizing Serendipity

Sunday, 5. October 2014 23:52

Photographer/writer Kayla Chobotiuk begins her brief Juxtapozarticle, “’Salt’ by Emma Phillips” with the statement, “Sometimes the best subjects aren’t planned or scouted, but simply happen by chance.” Certainly some of the most fortuitous turns that a creative process can take happen mysteriously, seemingly “by chance.” But I rather think something else is happening.

A number of artists have commented on the idea that at least a part of their art comes from a god, or a muse, or inspiration, or a daemon, or some other supernatural being or higher power. Julia Cameron has said, “Creativity requires faith. Faith requires that we relinquish control.” It is a theme that comes up repeatedly in her writing: “I learned to get out of the way and let that creative force work through me. I learned to just show up at the page and write down what I heard.”

Regardless of what you think of Cameron, or of supernatural beings for that matter, there does seem to be, at least in the minds of many artists, a recognition of ideas appearing spontaneously and mysteriously from somewhere outside themselves. Many artists will talk about tapping into the universe when they are working.

The idea then becomes to develop a process that creates conditions that allow for the arrival of those new and sometimes surprising ideas. This arrival event is called serendipity. Defined as “the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for,”serendipity is sort of a “happy accident,” and is recognized in scientific discovery and business as well as art.

The accidental aspect of this theory troubles me a bit. It is difficult for a rational person to believe that many of the world’s greatest scientific discoveries, business advances, or works of art were the result of happy accidents. But if not some sort of accident or supernatural intervention, then what? My answer is the subconscious, and the ultimate process by which we get there is called flow (discussed previously here, here, here, and here).

Flow theory says that artists who are in flow are not even aware of themselves, resulting in ideas seeming to come from some mysterious otherwhere. Essentially, what happens is that in flow consciousness all but disappears, allowing the subconscious to take control in a way that it usually does not. In flow we can see relationships that elude us in an unaltered state. Possibilities emerge that in a normal, waking state would remain hidden. In other words, flow, or a flow-like state creates a state of mind that enhances creativity, that invites serendipity. The characteristics of flow are much the same as meditation, which also is said to aid in creativity.

Other methods seem to me to be rebranded expressions of flow, or methods of inducing flow. Indeed, Cameron’s exercises are designed to generate the conditions of flow so that creativity will “come.” And there are other ways to invite serendipity into our creative process: James Lawley and Penny Tompkins suggest in “Maximising Serendipity: The art of recognising and fostering unexpected potential – A Systematic Approach to Change” that through preparation one can “invite” serendipity and systematically take advantage of it. Whatever method we choose to prepare, the next steps are always the same, clearly diagrammed and explained by Lawley and Tompkins: recognize the potential of the unexpected and seize it!

What we find is that such events can lead our art to places that we would not have consciously thought to go, and will invariable make it better. It’s a little scary, so some would rather stay on their comfortable, preplanned course. Others, however, would say, “When the universe presents a gift, it would be very bad form not to accept.” I must agree.

Whatever path we take to get there, we must, as Lawley and Tompkins advise, learn to prepare, then to seize those opportunities when they present themselves—if our work is to be the best it can be.

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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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To Make Great Art You have to be Fearless

Sunday, 1. April 2012 23:29

One of the biggest problems for any artist is fear. Fear goes by a lot of names: self-doubt, insecurity, hesitancy, self-protection, risk-aversion, being realistic. And it has many consequences: we procrastinate, we revise rather than release, we decline to enter shows, we don’t send manuscripts to publishers, we refuse to consider marketing, and then we spend our time rationalizing why our work is not getting out there.

In its more severe forms this syndrome can result in the work never even getting done. After all, what is the point of making art if no one is going to see it, rather, what is the point of making art if we’re not going to show it to anyone? So digital images don’t get printed or even taken, stories don’t get written, that piece of sculpture in our heads never advances beyond the sketch stage, the movie exists only in a partial screenplay. The list goes on.

All of this is natural. We want to protect our art. It is, after all, ours, and we know it is fragile. It’s much easier to think this way than to admit the truth: we are fragile and we are so bound up to our work that we often can’t tell the difference. We must protect ourselves. And the two easiest methods of protecting ourselves is to show our work to a very limited set of viewers who will say nice things, or to not show our work to anyone at all. We can just look at it ourselves, or, sometimes, just think about what it would be like if we actually made it.

There are very few artists who have not experienced at least one form of this fear; some have experienced it in all its forms. It is what keeps visual artists entering the same local juried shows and not attempting regional or national opportunities; it is what prevents actors from fully realizing the characters they are trying to create; it is what stops the screenwriter from pitching his/her latest work to anyone other than the friend who wants to produce; it is what causes the composer to play his latest creation only for family and a few friends.

This is a very real, serious problem for a lot of artists. Fear, in one or more of its incarnations, has been the occasion for a number of articles, blog posts, and even books. Writers from Julia Cameron to Seth Godin have discussed it and have offered solutions. Just this past week two articles appeared online. One on Virtual Photography Studio is called “Is the ‘F’ Word Creeping Into Your Business and Personal Life?” which discusses the impact of fear on both your work and your life. The other is “Overcoming Doubt and Fear” on Empty Easel. In this article, Aniko Makay discusses her way of dealing with artistic doubts and fears.

If these articles or the authors mentioned don’t tell you what you need to know, there are plenty of others out there. Just google “overcoming fear” or “overcoming insecurity.” You might consider the following method; it may seem a bit simplistic upon first reading, but it can, in fact, help.

  • Name the risk. This sometimes is not as easy as it sounds.
  • Imagine the worst case scenario of taking the risk.
  • Decide if you can live with that.
  • Imagine the best case scenario of taking the risk.
  • Decide if you can live with that.
  • If you can live with both outcomes, you can live with anything in between. Take the risk.

Given the individual artist, some risks may not worth taking, but many are. We just need to recognize that. Often we get into a cycle of worrying about potential outcomes and not moving forward with our work. It’s an easy cycle to fall into. But taking risks is something that we have to learn to do. To make art we have to be fearless.




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The Value of a Day Job

Monday, 20. February 2012 0:11

There is an idea that artists who maintain day jobs are somehow deficient. If they were really any good, they would quit their day jobs and make their living from their art. Or would they? Consider this list of accomplished artists who had day jobs: Henry Fielding, Charlotte Brontë, Franz Kafka, T.S. Eliot, William Faulkner, Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, William Carlos Williams, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Walt Whitman, Pablo Neruda, Anton Chekhov, Philip Larkin, and there are many more.

Everybody knows stories of actors or musicians or dancers who wait tables between gigs, but the occupations that artists have when not pursuing their creative work are as varied as the artists themselves.

Here are just a few: receptionist, frame designer, medical professional, legal associate, diesel mechanic, web developer, farmer, gallery owner, graphic designer, office manager, editor, store manager, art therapist, home stylist, structural engineer, case manager, marketing director, audiologist, media assistant, library director, coffee bar manager, nuclear analyst, mom, real estate development, language consultant, personal trainer, teacher, personnel manager, nonprofit director, art handler, children’s writer, dance instructor.

Why would artists who sell their work, particularly those who are highly regarded, want a second job, one that takes away time and energy from the work they really want to do? Michelle Goodman in an article for ABC News entitled Memo to Artists: Keep Your Day Job cites six reasons:

1. Peace of Mind, Stability. This is the reason T.S. Eliot kept his day jobs. He had a sick wife to care for, and discovered that both he and she were healthier if he had more income. This is true of almost every artist. The starving artist is likely not to do his/her best work. And, as most of us know, making art is not inexpensive. Having an income allows you to actually make some art.

2. Scheduled Human Contact. A lot of artistic work is done in seclusion, a situation in which not everyone thrives. Most of us need to have more contact than one is likely to get in a restaurant or coffee bar. Having a job that allows or requires you to have some human interaction can make you more balanced and perhaps healthier. That it’s scheduled helps with discipline.

3. Creative Discipline. Almost everyone has time management problems. Many artists, myself included, find it necessary to schedule creative work just as we have to schedule other duties. Because most day jobs require set hours or specific responsibilities, creative work has to be scheduled around them; that structure is desirable for some, and necessary for others. Julia Cameron in Letters to a Young Artist said, “I have seen more artists damaged by unlimited time than limited time.

4. A Source of Material. The people and situations at your day job can provide a wealth of material. Regardless of the media in which you work, the workplace can provide an ongoing stream of ideas which can be adapted, adopted, and recombined for your own creative purposes.

5. Instant Patrons. In most cases, you will find that the people with whom you work are very supportive of the creative work that you do in your “off time.” Some will purchase your work or put you into contact with others who might be interested. It can be the beginning of a tribe.

6. A Day Job is the Artist’s Way. Many artists have and have had day jobs. The reason is simple economics. Except for a tiny minority, art does not pay enough to let artists live the way we might like to. According to Alia Yunis, critically acclaimed novelist, “Almost every artist lives this way — even quote-unquote successful artists.

Being an artist is not about how you make your living; it’s about how you live. As Julia Cameron said, “I don’t know where we got the idea that being a full-time artist meant no day job. Being an artist is a matter of consciousness.”

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Seeking Arts Career Advice? Be Careful

Monday, 9. January 2012 0:00

Over the last six months, I have purchased two books and enrolled in one online seminar, all designed to help me better my photographic career.  Both the books and the seminar came highly recommended by various magazines and blogs.

Unfortunately, none of them lived up to their promise. One of the books offered advice that most practicing photographers already know. It has a nice layout and some pretty good images, and it attempted some interesting concepts. But the writer, perhaps unsure of his audience, reduced the concepts and their application to convoluted inanities. I tried a few chapters only to find that same approach throughout the book. Needless to say, I did not continue.

The second book that I attempted had information that was better; however, the writer had made the presumption that his readership was only marginally intelligent. Constantly on the edge of talking down to his readers, he over-explained everything. There was never any doubt about what he was trying to say, but he said it in the most simplistic terms possible, which, regrettably, got in the way of what good information the book contained.

The online seminar was superior to either book in that it neither talked down to the participants nor was so vague or simple that it had no meaning. And there were multiple presenters, which introduced some variety. There were occasional pieces of information that, properly applied, could be quite useful, but a good portion of the information was recycled, so I’m not sure that I really got my money’s worth.

These three instances are what Mat Gleason calls the advice industry. Gleason, in an excellent article entitled “Twelve Art World Habits to Ditch in 2012,” says:

You gotta do this, and you gotta do that, and most of all you have to buy the art advice book on how you can make it on your own as an artist by doing all of this stuff on your own. Advice is now an industry. Just make the art and sell it for whatever it takes to get it out of the studio and make more. Don’t buy the book. It is probably rehashed if not flat-out plagiarized from the other books. There is no blueprint for a masterpiece and there is no blueprint for a successful art career.

And he is right. You can find people to tell you how to market your art, how to sell your art, how to find a niche, how to modify your art to fit the market. You can, in fact get advice on any aspect of your art career. The problem is that a lot of it is simplistic, vague, overdone, out-of-date, non-applicable, or recycled.

There are some writers who offer worth-while advice. I find that they fall into two distinct categories. The first group is made up of those are likely to make you mad by telling you things that you don’t want to hear or things you haven’t thought of yet or things you thought of but were afraid to attempt. They are not trying to sell you this or that system to insure your success. They are presenting opinions that you are free to adopt or reject, and they provide their reasoning, so you can make an informed decision. These are the Seth Godins and Julia Camerons and Mat Gleasons, and Hazel Dooneys, to mention a few.

The other good advice comes in the form of very specific information presented with the reasons and the results. These are how-to’s that can be quite useful in areas where your technique is weak, regardless of the level at which you are working. (Most photographers recognize Scott Kelby and Matt Kloskowski  as this type of advisor.) Once you master the presented procedures, you are free to use them as you will.

It’s the people in between that you have to worry about—those who comprise the “advice industry.” They are happy to advise you on any aspect of your art—for a price. So before you buy this or that that guarantees to make you “successful,” do your research. You may find out that the information you are seeking is already available for free, or that there are better choices, or there are no magical answers.


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Art is Not a Luxury!

Monday, 14. November 2011 0:54

This week two friends spoke to me about not being able to pursue their art. When I examined my own situation, I found that I too had been neglecting some of my artistic activity. Although the details in each case are different, they all boil down to the same thing: we are too busy to produce art. The unfortunate side effect is that as we do that we find not only something missing from our lives, but something missing from our psyches as well.

One person, whose work is very stressful said, “I just go to work then go to sleep.” Another person is having financial difficulties and finds it imprudent to spend money on art lessons; additionally, he needs to put the time he used to spend on art toward needed overtime. I find that the non-creative or work-related creative aspects of my life have taken over, leaving little time to do any personal work.

Steven Pressfield or Julia Cameron might say that all three of us are suffering from “resistance,” letting that part of our brain that “protects” us make up reasons that we cannot make our art. And there are lots of those reasons, which are nicely summarized by Jenna Avery in “Resistance is Futile:”  “What am I going to get out of it? I’m too busy. I have more important things to do first. I have to overhaul my whole life first.”  The three of us would probably fall into at least one of these categories. After all, we have to survive, and survival certainly takes precedence over personal creative work.

None of us have enough time. Well, maybe some people do, but I don’t know any of them. Rather, I don’t know any people who are active in the arts who have enough time.  Whether it’s being so tired after a long, stressful day that all you want to do is sleep, or doing so much that there is no time to fit in personal art work, having sufficient time is a problem. Julia Cameron advises that we get up earlier, in order to get the creativity back in our lives, and there are a number of artists, particularly writers, who have used this technique.  Many of us, however, already feel like we are barely getting enough rest as it is, or, in some cases, too little. The fact is the human body has to rest in order to be productive at all, so for some, the early-to-rise method is not really practical. The same thing goes for the stay-up-late approach.  Time is limited, and if we are using 16-20 hours a day to accomplish our money-making jobs, it leaves very little for art.

And then there is the issue of expense. No matter what medium you work in, there are expenses involved, and sometimes significant expenses. Many people take classes to improve their skills; those are not free. For visual and plastic artists there is materials expense. If you exhibit or sell work, there are associated expenditures. So money is not only necessary to live, but is also a requirement for doing art.  It’s not just a matter of having enough time. It’s a matter of both time and money.

Since we cannot create more time, we have to somehow rearrange the time we have, perhaps applying smaller chunks to tasks, perhaps planning better. There are a number of possibilities. As for money, most of us have a finite amount, and often not enough to spend frivolously. Money spent on art-making is not frivolous, but it may be of lower priority than housing or food. But while we are saving our pennies, we can engage in creative endeavors that require little in the way of expense: jot down ideas, sketch, write. Essentially, keep creativity flowing, so that when an extra dollar comes along, we can spend on our art wisely.

We can and must figure out times and ways to allow ourselves to be creative, and not at some vague time in the future when we “have time” or “can afford it.” We must make time now for creativity or suffer for it. Art and creativity are not luxuries; for many of us they are necessities.

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Beating the Creative Doldrums: Refocus you Creativity

Monday, 8. August 2011 0:09

Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way series says that the cure for the creative doldrums is to do morning pages, three pages of longhand writing every day. She says that this effort will keep the creative juices flowing. Steven Pressfield in Do the Work says much the same thing: get out of your own way and do the work that needs doing. So what do you do when creativity is not forthcoming?

Last week was such a week for me. Nothing seemed to be working. Nothing was going right. The desire, the need to create was there, but I couldn’t focus somehow. No new ideas surfaced. Old ideas were unsatisfying. I was in a creative funk.

So what did I do? I had previously tried the morning pages and did not find them helpful. I did a little work, but most of it was very routine—the sort of mindless thing that you do on autopilot. But I did require that the things I did at least be related to the creative work I normally do. I decided that my marketing strategies needed a bit of thought, so I spent some time on that. I cleaned the office. I developed a couple of ideas for the blog. I completely redesigned my business cards and sent them off to a new printer that I had recently discovered. I named some unnamed images. I went to two plays, which always causes me to analyze, evaluate, and consider, whether I enjoy them or not.

Only after I had done all that did I realize something—something important. I had thought that what I was doing was “working,” showing up, waiting for creativity to return; what I was really doing was a different kind of creative work, or, to be more precise, creativity with a different focus. It felt like business-y things related to creativity, but each of those tasks required its own creativity, some more than others, certainly, but creativity nonetheless.

Pressfield is right. It doesn’t matter that you do different work, or that maybe it seems peripheral to your main task of making art—so long as what you are doing is not done to avoid the work you want to do. What matters is that you show up and get the work done. It’s that getting work done that causes the creative centers in the brain to engage. Cameron’s version of this is showing up at the page. Almost any work that you do when you show up can and will involve creativity. So this type of work can sustain you during “less productive” times. And even though it may not result in additional marketable artistic output, it can certainly facilitate such an increase in productivity.

So if you find yourself in a creative funk, unable to move forward, at least momentarily, I would encourage you to look in a slightly different direction. What changes could you make that would enhance your overall artistic effort? Aim your creativity in those directions for a little while, and you will discover that it is not only there, but working just fine. It just needed a different kind of fuel for a while.

In my case, I got done some peripheral things that needed doing, and in the process, I discovered that there appeared new theatrical ideas as well as new photographic possibilities.

So spend some time using your imagination for planning and preparation, and for the business side of your art, and you will soon find you are once again ready to focus on your primary work, with the added benefit of having done some work that needed doing.

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