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Addicted to the Creative Process

Monday, 5. October 2015 0:13

Theatre, I often tell students, is a drug. Once you’re addicted, the only choices you have are to keep feeding your habit or go through a very painful and complex withdrawal. Those who succumb often embrace the drug and obsess over it.

This was brought home to me over the last couple of weeks in talking to two different actors about addiction-related matters. One, a method actor, was concerned about a role that he had taken might lead him to a negative mental place. So we spent a couple of hours devising ways to deal with that likelihood, arriving at what I think will be a successful procedure. His vacating the role because it might be unpleasant or even dangerous never occurred to either one of us. One does not simply say “no” to one’s addictions.

The second actor was concerned about how his artistic career decisions, i.e. which roles to go for, which graduate schools to consider might impact his partner, another actor. He said, “I know how I am. Once I start, I won’t stop.” Although momentarily in remission, he’s addicted, and while he might toy with the idea of giving it up, he’s not really serious about it. The relationship will have to accommodate his artistic needs or fail.

There are, of course, other addictions in theatre. There is the fame addiction, which, so far as I can determine has very little to do with anything artistic. There is the “applause addiction.” This is literally the need to hear applause regularly. It has caused some very talented people to break off their formal education and work in the (low or non-paying) semi-professional world instead of forgoing the applause for a time to move into the professional world with a much wider and more discerning audience.

These are not the addictions from which the two actors mentioned are suffering. These actors are addicted to the creative process. They are far less concerned with applause than they are with creating full characters out of a few words in a script and a little direction. Fame is nowhere on their radar. These are people that must do shows to satisfy their creative cravings.

Addiction to the creative process is not unique to actors. All artists seem to have it. Painters have to paint; they will paint with any kind of paint on any surface available. Writers have to write and will scribble on any sort of paper that is about. Photographers will shoot anything any time when the creative fever is on them. Dancers are always moving to whatever music can be heard and sometimes to music that no one else can hear. They’re addicted.

Some will find other things in life to be more important and will go through withdrawal to secure those things. The rest of us, however, will acknowledge our addiction to creativity, recognize that we really have no choice in the matter, and go forward. For many of us that going forward means not only acknowledging our addiction but embracing it. And that means, for some anyway, converting the addiction to an obsession (written about earlier, here and here).

Like most other addictions and obsessions, the need for the creative process will not bring happiness or satisfaction or ease. It will not bring peace of mind. Instead, it will bring a wide range of ever-changing emotions, a constant, sometimes manic, striving, and a sense of purpose. And that’s worth having.

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A New Take of Refreshing Creativity

Sunday, 15. June 2014 23:34

Almost every expert on creativity will tell you that you have to take time off, probably on a regular basis, to keep your creative batteries recharged. Leisure is so important, at least according to Eric Ravenscraft writing on LIfehacker, that we should put it on our to-do lists rather than waiting until we “earn” it.

Whether it is the leisure itself that is important or the time away from work I cannot say, but every report I have seen stresses taking a break from work to refresh creativity and thus improve your art.

There are, of course, lots of choices of what to do with that break time. Some of us have tried just doing something different: getting up from the computer, easel, workbench and finding something else to fill our time for a while—maybe something as simple as taking a walk. Sometimes that works, but many times we find our minds wandering back to whatever creative problem we just left. Some of us have tried yoga or meditation, and we have discovered the same problem: our minds keep drifting and we have to constantly work on focusing them (although some would argue that focusing attention and concentration is a good skill to have).

A friend of mine who is a photographer and a writer claims that he has found the ultimate creativity-freeing technique. He did not initially set out to do this; rather, he decided that he wanted to learn to play the guitar, and to learn to read music as well. He not only took lessons, but worked with several self-teaching books. He said that while picking out a tune was not too difficult, reading music and associating the notes with the correct string and fret position required intense concentration, as did the scales that came later. Since this man is a bit obsessive, he was practicing at least an hour a day every day.

He says that after a week’s practice, new ideas for photography and writing began to appear. The longer he practiced the more ideas he had. Initially, he thought that it was one of those complimentary activity things: he was working on one art and it spilled over onto another one. Then he realized that with regard to the guitar, he was not making art; rather he was trying to develop a skill, and that what was making the real difference was that he was spending at least an hour a day concentrating on something that was not his not his main area of creativity, and that developing the necessary skill required complete involvement and the exclusion of all else.

Now he maintains that this study is responsible for his new flow of ideas. He is actively concentrating on developing a new skill that is difficult for him so his mind cannot not wander the way it might with other activities. He says the results are much the same as meditating for an hour a day. The complete occupation of his consciousness sixty minutes a day allows his subconscious to create new concepts.

So now his writing is coming more easily and his visual ideas keep flowing, and he is developing beginning guitar skills. He says that he may never “really play” in front of anyone, even friends, but intends to continue studying because he is enjoying the learning experience and really appreciates the ancillary benefits.

So, if you want to freshen you creativity, you may want to learn to play a musical instrument; there are plenty of teachers out there. Or you may want to consider some other skill-based activity, if not a musical instrument perhaps wood-carving, or furniture-making, or gourmet cooking or anything that requires complete concentration to learn the fundamental skills, and that same amount of concentration to master the activity.

My friend’s results have been so impressive that I may try this out myself. Maybe you should too.

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Phoning It In

Sunday, 26. January 2014 23:52

We’ve all experienced it at one time or another: a teacher, a student, an actor, a photographer, an artist, a writer—phoning it in. The results are usually not terrible; they’re just not as good as they could be. So phoning it in is something to be avoided, at least in my estimation.

There are a hundred reasons for it, and none of them really matter. What matters is the reduction in quality. When we phone it in, our work may be passable, sometimes even good by certain standards. But it’s not our best.

Because of all the activities in which I am currently engaged (and cannot eliminate), I feel that I am getting very close to phoning in this blog; and that is something I do not want. To avoid that a change is necessary. Rather than just taking some time off as some have advised, this blog will be moving to a bi-weekly publication schedule. How long this will last I am not sure. That will probably depend on how this new schedule fits and functions.

This move is not due to lack of material, rather for lack of time to deal with the material that I have, material that continues to grow on a weekly basis. What is lacking is the time to think it over and allow myself to see connections and patterns and decide what is really worth talking about.

As those of you who have read this blog for a while know, I am a firm believer in artistic discipline, so moving to a longer time frame will still keep my publishing regular but will provide a little more time for thinking and development. I don’t know that the quality will improve, but hopefully it will not diminish.

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Trash It!

Sunday, 8. December 2013 23:27

There are times in the life of a project when things are not going the way we would like. Every working artist experiences these times. The question is what to do about them. Do we forge ahead? Do we modify our approach? Do we change our technique?

The answer probably depends on the nature of the project and the exact difficulty. Sometimes all it takes to get things moving again is rewriting a sentence or changing a brush. Other times it may mean concentrating a little harder, thinking further ahead of ourselves, doing some more research, editing more severely. In extreme cases, what some consider unthinkable may be the best choice: trashing what we have and starting over. This option is unthinkable only because it requires that we admit that what we have is not good enough and probably cannot be made good enough following the current path. And that’s a form of failure, and most of us don’t want to admit failure as a possibility, even when making that admission, trashing our present effort, and starting over might well be the most efficient way do our best work and complete the project.

Starting over does not mean that we must deal with a different topic, or even have a different approach. It is simply the admission that we need a fresh canvas, metaphorical or literal, on which to bring the project to life.

Michael G. Moye told me once that he knew that he was writing well if he threw away 10 pages for each page he kept. He was not exaggerating; he meant it quite literally. At that time he wrote longhand on legal pads. His approach was a form of severe editing-as-you-go. He would write a page, look at it, and if it was not to his liking, throw it away and begin again. He is a consummate craftsman.

Since most of us don’t have Moye’s discipline, we have difficulty deciding when to crumple the paper and start over and when to just strike out a portion and re-work what’s left. Probably the earlier we make that decision, the more efficient our workflow will become. Instead, most of us put that decision off as long as possible, clinging to the hope that we will be able to make what we have done so far work. Putting it off can have serious implications

For example, I once heard a director, at the end of final dress tell her actors to take a short break and come back because they were going to re-block the first act—of Scapino! For those of you who don’t speak theatre, she was going to change the movement pattern for the first act of one of the most physical shows in the canon on the night before the show opened.  For that director, the prospect of putting what she had seen in rehearsal in front of an audience was more onerous than the pain and effort of re-blocking an entire act. She had waited until the very last possible moment to start over; the result was a very unhappy company going into an opening with a complete lack of confidence.

It takes a long time and a lot of “almosts” before an artwork is actualized. We must be willing to admit that not every attempt is going to make it all the way to the finished piece and that we have to be ready to trash what we have and begin afresh if the situation demands it. Sometimes that is the most efficient and effective way to realize a project.

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The Real Function of the Audience

Sunday, 10. November 2013 23:33

A couple of weeks ago, I exhibited in an art show to which almost no one came. So we stood around and chatted and nibbled the refreshments and wondered why, not that that information would have really been useful. Then, last week I wrote a blog that seemed to have been read by no one, to judge from the lack of feedback.

In both instances, final outcomes were not what conditions would have predicted. An “I’ll-get-back-to-you” at the art show actually did, and purchased three pieces. And statistics showed that an average number of people read the blog; they just hadn’t seen a reason to comment on it or press a “like” button.

But these instances did make me think about the connection between our work and our audience. Theatre, the textbooks tell us, requires an audience—it’s an essential ingredient. At the other end of the spectrum are visual artists and bloggers, of course, who are pretty sure that no one is paying attention to anything they are doing. Does this then mean that the connection of the audience to art varies with the medium? Or is it that different artists approach the question of audience differently? Or is this one of those questions that requires that we look deeper?

A starting point might be to try to determine the relationship between creating art and the audience for that art: do we make art for the audience or some other reason? The answer probably depends on what sort of art we are making as well as how much we are willing to cater to audience taste.  Commercial art, for example, must please a certain audience; pop art usually caters to the perceived taste of the anticipated audience.

Regardless of what we are creating, at the most fundamental level, we make art for ourselves. Then consideration of the audience comes into play. How much consideration is given to the audience depends on the artist and the work. For example, those who work in performing arts take audience expectations into consideration—will the audience understand it? Will they like it? Will they hate it? And it’s not all trying to please the audience; in some cases, performing artists will push the envelope of audience acceptance for a variety of reasons. Playwright Harold Pinter has been noted to perceive the audience-play relationship as a battle.

On the other hand, those visual artists and writers mentioned earlier who don’t yet have an audience or who are completely removed from the audience seem to be completely unaffected by any potential viewers or readers. It’s not that they are more “pure;” it’s just that they are, for the present, unaware of how people might react to their work so they don’t think about it.

Like them, we continue to make art for ourselves, maybe considering the audience or maybe not. Then we abandon it to whatever audience is available. That audience responds to our work in some way or the other, and thus exists a conversation between the artist and the audience. It can be can be warm and friendly or, as in the case of Pinter, it can be adversarial, or it can be anything in between. And it can operate on an emotional, intellectual, and spiritual level or some combination. And it certainly can be and almost always is asynchronous. And in that conversation is the importance of art.

No matter why we set out to create art, no matter how much or how little consideration we give the audience during that process, the fact is that the audience functions as the other party in the conversation that is our art, and, for good or ill, completes our work.

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Bukowski v. Beethoven

Sunday, 30. June 2013 23:07

In a recent Brain Pickings post, “So You Want to be a Writer: Bukowski Debunks the ‘Tortured Genius’ Myth of Creativity,” Maria Popova quotes a poem by Charles Bukowski which contains the following lines:

unless it comes unasked out of your
heart and your mind and your mouth
and your gut,
don’t do it.
if you have to sit for hours
staring at your computer screen
or hunched over your
searching for words,
don’t do it.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

if you have to sit there and
rewrite it again and again,
don’t do it.
if it’s hard work just thinking about doing it,
don’t do it.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

when it is truly time,
and if you have been chosen,
it will do it by
itself and it will keep on doing it
until you die or it dies in you.

The poem says a great number of things that ring true, particularly about the need to get out what is inside. And I have talked before about how for most artists, it’s not a question of “want to” but rather a situation of “have to.” With all that I have no argument.

However, the implication of these particular words seems to be that writing should just flow out of the author and that thinking hard about it, or considering the work difficult, or having to search for the right words, or rewriting means that you should abandon writing all together. I cannot help but find this a rather narrow and naïve view of writing, and, by extrapolation of making art in general. This seems to say that if you have difficulty getting what is in your head, heart and gut onto the canvas, or paper, or into whatever your materials are, you should do something else.

Admittedly, sometimes the limitation is that the artist is not yet ready. He/she may not know enough yet about any number of things, may not have developed enough expertise to do the subject matter justice, simply may not be mature enough as an artist or a human being to deal with the topic properly.

However, to suggest that the work must flow perfect and unhindered from the artist in a somewhat mystical fashion is to deny the experience of many creative people. Consider Beethoven for example. According to Billy Joel, in an interview with Andrew Goldman in the New York Times, “[When you hear] Beethoven you hear the struggle in it. Look at his manuscripts, and there’s reams of scratched-out music that he hated. He stops and he starts. I love that about Beethoven, his humanity shows in his music.” Joel compares Mozart: “Mozart pisses me off because he’s like a naturally gifted athlete, you listen to Mozart and you go: ‘Of course. It all came easy to him….’ Mozart was almost inhuman, unhuman.” Whether or not we agree with Joel on Mozart, most of us would consider Beethoven a significant artist despite his creative struggles and rewriting.

Even though Bukowski seems to disagree, most believe that art is not easy, and that there are many sources for the difficulties. On the other hand, most of us would agree with Bukowski when he says:

unless it comes out of
your soul like a rocket,
unless being still would
drive you to madness or
suicide or murder,
don’t do it.
unless the sun inside you is
burning your gut,
don’t do it.

Make what you are compelled to make; art will happen.

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Respect Your Audience

Sunday, 17. March 2013 23:25

A reader commenting on last week’s post cited the negative side of making the work match the movie in the artist’s head, and, in at least one case, re-working a published project once the technology became available. What is key here is the idea of re-working, re-doing, or modifying. When I wrote the original post, I was not thinking of work that had already been made public, but rather a work that existed nowhere except in the artist’s imagination. When the artifact already exists in the world, and the artist capitalizes on new technology or decides to modify that artifact for whatever reason, we have a completely different situation.

George Lucas decided that not only was he would use new technology to modify the original Star Wars trilogy in 1997, he would do so with a great deal of publicity and major re-release. If Lucas had done what other director/producers have done, he would have issued a “director’s cut” or “ultimate edition” on DVD when he found the technology, such as he did in 2004. This would have caused much less backlash. This is also the traditional way to make such changes in the cutting or modification of a movie.

Stephen King used a quieter approach when he rewrote parts of The Gunslinger, the first novel in The Dark Tower series. He modified the work, and the new edition was published—fairly quietly and with a full explanation from the author. Those who chose could pick up a copy of the rewritten work; those who were not interested could reread the copies they already had in their possession.

Lucas’ error, at least in my opinion, was concentrating on how he, the artist, felt about what had been and should have been created and ignoring the relationship between the audience and the artifact. Such a relationship develops, sometimes quite rapidly, and exists quite apart from any relationship the artist has with the artifact.

This is a lesson I learned not long ago. A collector of my work is also a person that I have to see fairly frequently in connection with my day job. One of my images hangs in his office, so I see it every time I visit. And every time I see it, I wince because I matted it “incorrectly.” Yes, it’s a detail; but to me, an important detail—something that was a “make it work” decision that doesn’t quite work anymore— for me. Finally I told him that I was thinking about re-matting it for him. He quickly informed me that I might see things that he didn’t, but that not only was he satisfied with the presentation, he actively liked it and would not appreciate my tampering with it. This made me re-think the whole idea. I can certainly modify matting for future prints of this particular piece, but I will probably leave his alone. It is, after all, his. He paid for it. He sees it every day and has feelings about it. I, on the other hand, see it only once in a while and in a completely different mental/emotional context.

If the piece in question is still in our imaginations, we can delay or modify or anything we want. If, however, the piece in question is in someone else’s possession or has been widely disseminated, we might want to be careful about modifying it. Just as the makers have a special relationship to the art they are making, so do the audience and collectors of those same pieces. The audience/collector relationship is very different, however. Someone sees something in our work that resonates, and decides that he/she has to own the piece in order to have that experience on a daily basis. Then that relationship further develops over time, and sometimes becomes just as passionate as that of the artist. And we, as artists need to be respectful of that relationship: it’s the very reason that we have an audience.

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It’s Always About You

Monday, 4. February 2013 0:41

Acting coaches and directors reassure beginning actors who are concerned about portraying characters who are genuinely evil in some way that it is not themselves they are displaying on stage, but rather a character, and remind the actor that his/her job is to portray the character without judging the character. We then tell the same actors that they must find a point of empathy if they are to portray the character honestly. The actuality is that the actor is portraying a character filtered through him/herself. Not only are the playwright’s fingerprints all over the character, so are the actor’s. It’s called interpretation, and every actor does it differently, because each actor is an individual; consider all the different portrayals of Hamlet you have seen. And because he/she is the filter, the actor cannot but reveal something of him/herself in the portrayal.

The same is true for writers. Milan Kundera has the narrator in The Incredible Lightness of Being ask rhetorically, “Isn’t it true that an author can write only about himself?” This idea is echoed and amplified by Donald Murray, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and teacher, who said “all writing is autobiography.” Even those writers who seem to be leaving themselves out of their narratives manage to reveal personal information as they tell their stories.

Although it may not be quite so obvious without the words, the same applies to the visual arts. Ansel Adams has said, “There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer.” The artist is always visible; very few have trouble deciding whether Georgia O’Keeffe or Robert Mapplethorpe created a particular flower image. The Auteur theory holds that a film “reflects the director’s personal creative vision.” For example, we can easily distinguish the difference between a John Ford western and one by Sergio Leone.

We expose ourselves with our work; we can’t not do it. Our creative vision demands that we work within our own aesthetic. So we put into our art those things that we think are important, editing out things that, in our view, shouldn’t be there. And it’s all there: not only how we think about artistic elements and how we think about our subject matter, but who we are. Some of what we say about ourselves with our art will certainly be misunderstood, and some will be discernable to only a limited number of viewers; but some will be obvious to everyone.

But then, isn’t that part of why we are doing art in the first place? We have things that need to be said, ideas that need to be shared, emotions that deserve to be expressed. So we put it into our performances, our paintings, our photographs, our paintings, our poems, our sculptures.

The good news is that we are not revealing everything. Anyone who studies the work of any artist and pretends, on that basis, to know everything about the artist, is foolish, if not delusional. There are aspects of any artist that reveal themselves, and there are some things that just don’t come through—even to the most perceptive of viewers. So you can still have some secrets.

The bad news is that we are often so close to our work that it is difficult to determine just what it is revealing about us. Most of us know, one way or another, what we are trying to do with our work, but we seldom stop to think about what our work is saying about us.

And even though it may be initially uncomfortable, exposing some of ourselves through our art is something we need to be aware of and come to terms with. Remember that regardless of what the subject of your art may be, regardless of the medium, or technique, or approach, it’s also always about you.

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You Don’t Choose Art. It Chooses You

Monday, 6. February 2012 0:57

In Tropic of Capricorn, Henry Miller writes, “No man wants to be an artist. He is driven to it.” This is an idea that is echoed by a number of artists. Author Paul Auster, for example, goes even further: “Becoming a writer is not a ‘career decision’ like becoming a doctor or a policeman. You don’t choose it so much as get chosen, and once you accept the fact that you’re not fit for anything else, you have to be prepared to walk a long, hard road for the rest of your days.” And it’s not just writers.

Douglas Eby writing in “The Creative Mind” discusses “An Intense Inner Pressure to Create” that is experienced by a number of people. The article concentrates on the feelings that gifted adults get from the creative process, the emotional and spiritual balance involved, and the need to create “regardless of payment or recognition.”

According to Sir Ken Robinson, the urge to create does not impact only adults, but children as well. According to Robinson, a person needs only to find the correct medium to fully develop his/her creativity. His books are full of examples of how finding the proper medium for creativity has changed people’s worlds, whether they came to their element early or late in their lives. As he points out, it is not so much about living a creative life, but of finding the proper channel for your particular creativity.

In considering this, I thought of several creative people that I know. A musician that I have known for a very long time began piano lessons around age five or six. To my knowledge, he has never done anything else as an occupation, nor has he wanted to. It is as if from that very early age, he was where he needed to be creatively, and now, many decades later, he is still enjoying sitting at the keyboard doing his work.

Another artist, a visual artist who works in photography, print-making, and sculpture has followed much the same path; he has been doing serious drawing since he was very young. His life has been a straight line of artistic development, working primarily in two dimensions until he got to art school, where he began exploring three dimensional possibilities. Today he makes and teaches art.

Another musician that I know said that he came to be a musician “late.” By late, he means during his college years. He had sung and taken music lessons since he was a young child, but had considered music a hobby until he was a college sophomore, when he finally recognized that this was really what he was about. He then took all the time and energy that he had put into pre-med studies into a vocal music and has never looked back.

Many of the students that I have encountered find a place in art, although perhaps not the one in which they started in. Occasionally, someone finds his/her place right away, like the actor I know who began performing at age 4 and never stopped, but did manage to become quite an accomplished scene painter along the way. Another drama student, however, found that she preferred less collaborative creation and switched to ceramics, then to visual art, where she has become quite successful.

My own story is much the same. I have made things for as long as I remember. And I have tried almost all of the arts, failing at some, succeeding at others. Some did not hold my interest. From all I learned; from each I took something that I still employ in my current work.

For me and, I suspect, for most of you, there was never a “decision” to go into the arts. I seem to have been born with that already decided; all that was left for me was to acknowledge that and find the best ways to engage my creativity. So it is with each of us.


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Less than Successful as an Artist? Consider Reducing your Output

Monday, 12. December 2011 1:38

As you may know, there is currently a glut of advice to artists. It doesn’t matter what sort of artist you are, or what medium you work in, advice is abundant and easily found. Some advisors want to charge you for their words of wisdom; others will happily give you their opinion for free. Almost all of the advice out there boils down to one thing: be prolific; produce and then produce some more. This is always followed by sales advice, which is a whole subject unto itself. Lately, however, I have come across suggestions that perhaps high-volume output may not be exactly what we need to be doing.

This is not to suggest that you can become an expert in any less than the 10,000 hours that studies suggest are required to gain expertise in any field. But it is to suggest that in order to be successful, or influential, or even famous, you do not necessarily have to produce a new piece of art every week. Real art takes time, and often requires repeated tries to get it right. And unless you are a hack, my guess is what you want to put out into the world is work that is right, or as close to right as you can get it.

And I am serious about the successful, influential or famous part. Consider, for example, that Dutch painter Jan Vermeer produced less than 40 canvases during his lifetime, or that award-winning poet Grace Paley produced only three books in her thirty-year career, all three of which were critical successes. Robert M. Pirsig has written exactly two books, at least one of which may be the one of the most influential philosophical writings of the twentieth century.  Harper Lee produced a single book: To Kill a Mockingbird. Even Leonardo da Vinci completed “only about 15 paintings in his whole lifetime.”

There are a number of reasons for this level of output. Some artists may have said what they have to say and feel that to keep making unsubstantial work is a waste of time and energy. Some are involved in other equally important activities. Such was the case with Grace Paley: “Part of the reason she had such a small output is that she was busy with other things , not just raising kids but working as a peace activist.”

Sometimes it’s the nature of the work. Daniel Grant in his article “The Art World’s Slowpokes” lists seven contemporary artists with relatively small annual output: William Beckman, Barbara Dixon Drewa, Audrey Flack, Don Eddy, Candace Jans, Scott Pryor, Douglas Safranek. All of these artists are photorealistic painters, an art which require painstakingly detailed painting, which, of course takes enormous amounts of time.

Christina Patterson says that, based on his writing in his notebooks, Leonardo “thought, like all great artists, that nothing he did was ever good enough. He knew that people who thought their work was good enough were nearly always wrong.”

So it’s a matter of quality and judging what is good enough to show other people, at least according to Leonardo. It’s a novel concept in an era when every image that a photographer produces and every painting that an artist makes appears instantly on Tumblr, or whatever the current “in” website is. And if we’re so busy producing that we lose sight of quality, maybe it’s time we reevaluate. Ansel Adams said, “Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.” Maybe that’s something that we should all think about.



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