Don’t Overthink Your Work

Sunday, 29. January 2023 22:21 | Author:

There’s a lot to think about when we begin a new project. What is the nature and scope of the work? Is it unique and original? Can it be accomplished in the allotted time frame? What is the allotted time frame? Do we have the proper materials to complete the work? How will this project be shaped? Can we fund it? Who will be the audience for this project? What is it about? What are we trying to say? What impact do we want to have on our audience? Is this a project that we should do? Is this a project that we should do now? Why do we want to do this project in the first place?

Having answered these initial questions, we begin work, only to find that there are still other questions: Does this part of the work go here or somewhere else. If we place that part here, how does it change the meaning and impact of the whole work? Would it better be left out? Should this element be expanded? If so, how much? What does that mean to the overall work?  Are we spending too much time on this part or that part? Are we still saying the same thing that we set out to say or has the message changed? Are we making progress at an appropriate rate? And so we begin to second-guess our choices and decisions.

As we question and second-guess, we may find that we are thinking so much that we are forgetting the feeling, emotional side of our project. We might even get so tied up in considering where this piece goes or whether that image is appropriate that we forget to allow ourselves to dream and create based on feeling and imagination. And whether we recognize the danger or not, once we begin to forget these things, we are overthinking, and risking being stuck.

If we get stuck in overthinking, there are two possible results: (1) the work we produce is stiff and overly self-conscious, overly intellectualized. It appears artificial and inauthentic. It’s more of a treatise than a work of art, not what we had intended at all. (2) The other possibility is that the work gets stalled. We overthink and second-guess to the point that we are immobilized. In our continued thinking, we have lost the art of the piece and are only concerned with technique and message.

This is not to say that no planning or thinking is necessary. We certainly need to know whether we are writing a short story, novella, of full-length novel. However, perhaps we would do better if at the beginning we answered basic questions, thought about the shape of the project, and then just jumped in and did—without thinking too much along the way. Many of the questions we ask ourselves as we create can be answered intuitively as we work. We might go further if we let our initial thinking set the path, then turned off the thinking and trusted our instincts, letting our imaginations out to play.

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When Your Muse Goes on Vacation

Sunday, 15. January 2023 22:12 | Author:

Regardless of what the creativity pundits say, most artists rely on inspiration for their impetus to work. That inspiration may come in the form of the traditional lightning bolt of creativity or simply a niggling idea. Whatever the form, artists rely on them to move them to create. And we all know that one idea can generate others, so that ideas can stack up, and we are forced to jot them down so we can keep working on the current project. But sometimes that doesn’t occur; sometimes inspiration doesn’t strike; ideas don’t happen.

There has been a lot of conjecture on the causes for lack of inspiration or “writer’s block” as it is sometimes called, and some psychologists have provided methods for overcoming it. We can look those up and try them out and they may or may not work, but when inspiration has left the building, we are at a total loss.

How long inspiration stays gone is also a mystery. It could take a brief overnight trip, or it could be gone a week, or a month, or even longer. No matter how long it’s gone, it will seem like forever, and we often do nothing—except bemoan the absence of inspiration. We seem to be helpless without our inspiration.

So when our muse goes on vacation what should we do? Well, we could go on vacation as well. Of course this works only for those of us who are independently wealthy. If we are working artists, we must keep producing, inspiration or not.

Exactly how do we do that? There are number of books dealing with artistic blockage. Some try to identify the sources of the problem or the places we are likely to “hit the wall.” Some are overly general and some overly specific. Many are aimed exclusively at writers, albeit of various genres. And while some have some interesting exercises, most come down to the same advice.

And that advice is that we go regularly to the theatre, studio, office—our place of work, and we pick up the brush or pen or pencil or chisel or keyboard or notebook or camera and we do the work—we essentially pretend that we are inspired, that our muse has not temporarily left us and we do the work. Yes, it may be uninspired, but unless we give into depression at the short-term loss, hardly anyone will know. They may realize that our work is not up to our usual standards, but then everyone has ups and downs. And the next day we do that again, and the day after, and the day after that if need be.

Essentially, we are performing a variant of “fake it ‘til you make it.” We crank out our work, knowing that it may not be our best, and the work moves forward, and we keep doing that until one day—and it may or may not be long in coming—a new idea appears, then another, then another. And finally our muse is back; our inspiration is again at work, and now we can really move forward with far less effort and do our best work yet. It’s just a matter of continuing to work while our muse is on vacation.

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Managing Information Overload

Sunday, 1. January 2023 21:35 | Author:

It hits us from every direction, and there’s no end in sight. Every time we do a search on Google, we get far more information than we asked for, not only in the hits, but in the accompanying ads. Interspersed in news articles and at the end of the article as well are enticements to click for more information that may or may not be related to the article we were reading. Unless we have premium music channels, there are periodic ads pushing information at us. “Free” streaming services hit us with unrelated information at unannounced intervals, breaking our train of thought about the show we were watching. Nearly every web site is supported by ads that demand our attention. And, of course, for those who still read newspapers and magazines, whether digital or physical, there are ads scattered among the articles that are supposed to attract our attention.

It’s more than we can keep up with, more than we can pay attention to: information overload!

But what can we do about it—besides stick our head in the sand and ignore all incoming information? Not a very practical solution since some of us need information to operate, and some of us want information because it enhances our lives and allows us to make informed political and business decisions. So there must be some way to manage what information gets to us.

The first step we can take to reduce out input of information is to limit our sources of information to those we trust. We all have a list of those, but probably don’t restrict ourselves to the list because it requires too much thought and a lot of hopping about. If that’s the case, it’s time for the next step: get a news reader (just Google “news reader” or “RSS reader”) and select one of those. This is used to aggregate our sources which can be done by source or subject or both. Once done, all we have to do is go to the news reader to find our already-limited information. Most are cumulative and will retain links until marked “read.”

The second step is to set aside a time to interact with our reader. This can be done in one of two ways: one is to scan the items in your reader and mark articles to be read later either by using the reader itself or by transferring the links to an app like pocket, which is designed to do the same thing. The other method is to scan and read the articles that seem interesting or appealing right then.  I recommend the second method, having found that unless there is a specific time set up to read those “later” articles, we are likely not to do it. They just sit in the “to be read later” app or folder forever. And in some cases the links eventually go bad as sites clean up old information and delete old articles.

The third step is to exercise some discipline as we read those articles. Skip the ads, Don’t take the click bait. Read the article and move on to the next one that looks interesting. Otherwise, the time spent with our reader will become as overwhelming as the mountain of information we’re trying to restrict.

And there is nothing to prevent us from having multiple topics in our readers, or if there is a desire for even more separation, having separate readers for separate subjects.

Time spent setting up some sort of information input management is time well spent, which, of course, leaves more time for other activities, like making art.

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Art Productivity with a Post-Pandemic Shortened Attention Span

Sunday, 18. December 2022 22:39 | Author:

We are just now beginning to understand the impact of the pandemic on our psychology and physiology. And things are not looking wonderful. For example, Many experts argue that the pandemic has “accelerated a shift in attention spans.” Some say it is the pandemic coupled with the increasing amount of time we spend online that have shortened attention spans. Still others say these factors have not reduced our attention spans, but rather have reduced “our ability to engage with new ideas,” so “it’s harder to get our attention in the first place.

Regardless of the exact nature of the problem, no one denies that it exists. The problem remains that we have difficulty giving our attention to projects for sustained periods of time. While this is a problem for nearly everyone, it is particularly acute for artists. As artists we must engage new ideas at every turn, particularly when working on a new project. Many of us are used to working for long hours at a stretch, and a significant percentage of us are finding that difficult in the post-pandemic world. It makes our work attempts more frustrating. Since the condition that we are experiencing was built up over time, the possible solutions are not likely to be immediate, but we must at least begin looking for them.

While he does not acknowledge the exact nature of the problem, senior art critic for New York Magazine and Pulitzer Prize winner Jerry Saltz, offers one such solution: “Artists maybe looking for a prompt to get them working: Try approaching a day in your studio as a jam session. Not doing things that take a long time. But working out things spontaneously in response to what is being worked out. What’s deeper inside will come out this way too.

This idea can be developed even further and our work can become a reflection of the way we are currently thinking; it can become broken into very short segments that do not require long spans of concentration: we can work on one detail in a painting or sculpture. We can read an act or a few scenes of a play at a sitting instead of the whole thing. We can write a page or few pages—or even a few paragraphs—at a time instead of the dozen pages that we used to target. We can break a photo editing session into segments so that we are fresh and creative for the short time we are committing to each segment. We can even juggle tasks so that we work on them for short times before trading off to the next one.

And those of us in collaborative arts need to remind ourselves that our collaborators are likely experiencing the same problems and frustrations that we are, so the structure of the collaborative process may need alteration to be successful.

We should, of course, be aware that there may be new frustrations in modifying our work routines; however, the reward of actually accomplishing something (and thereby maybe tricking ourselves into longer involvement than we anticipated) makes that frustration worth it.

The key is to use short pieces of time productively instead of becoming frustrated because we cannot maintain concentration for the longer periods of time that we used to use. Doing this we can again become productive rather than wallowing in frustration and accomplishing nothing.

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Lose Yourself in the Work

Sunday, 4. December 2022 19:04 | Author:

Steven King’s novel Billy Summers is many things, but one of the things it is, is an ode to writing. At one point a character talks about the act of writing and how the world of the author disappears as the author enters the world that they are creating, how the writer is able to see the smallest details that they are describing and how the world they are creating becomes as real, the specifics as clear as any in the real world. Repeatedly King comments on how real time disappears when one is writing, how the writer becomes so absorbed in the imaginative world of the book being written that they almost cease to exist in the world we normally inhabit. This is the ideal condition for creating imaginative realities.

And, of course, this applies to arts other than writing as well. It certainly applies to theatre and film. Whether one is an actor involved in a scene or a director working with actors and designers, one needs to be completely involved in the process. The same holds true for a painter or a sculptor, a dancer or a choreographer, a singer or songwriter, a composer or a musician.

Whatever our art, we must enter the imaginative world completely and fully, paying attention to the smallest of details. If we do this with our whole being we will be completely immersed in the work. Time in the real world will disappear. The entire real world may disappear, and only our work will exist. We may or may not be in flow. When we come back to reality, much time will have passed without our noticing, and we may be tired. But it will be a good tired, and the work we have done will be our best.

But there are obstacles. There are many things for us to think about. There are large issues: inflation, politics, climate, racism, fascism, reproductive rights, LGBTQ+ rights, health care. There are more local issues: weather, traffic, education, housing, food costs, neighbors. And there are personal issues: money, health, relationships, mental health. All of these touch us one way or another. It’s a wonder then with so much to occupy our minds that we have any capacity left for our art (and I’m sure I’ve missed some). But we manage the distractions as best we can and press on.

Or at least we try. Those many things to think about prey on our minds when we try to create. In training beginning actors we advise them to leave their problems and worries at the stage door—such get in the way during the rehearsal and performance. Yet we are seldom completely successful at getting all students to do this. And, unfortunately, this is an even greater problem in a post-pandemic-lockdown world—not only for students and actors, but for teachers and directors as well.

Still, we must try. And we may well emulate that practice we teach beginning actors. We might well make a ritual of leaving our worries and concerns at the door of our studio. We might even lock them in a locker or box, which can be either real or virtual. But we would do well to drop our concerns at the entrance to our workspace; they will surely be there when our work session is over—ready to overtake our minds again. But for the time we are in our creative space, our minds can be free to work only on our imaginative reality, on creativity, on making. If we make this a practice, pretty soon it will become habit. And that habit will be reflected in our creativity and productivity. We will experience the joy of time creatively spent as do King’s characters.

 

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Make Something—Anything!

Sunday, 20. November 2022 21:50 | Author:

Why is it so hard to take advice, particularly when we know the advice to be good? Certainly no one can tell us how to create, but often those who study the creative process have ideas that can help aid creativity, particularly when there’s a difficulty. Thus we have individuals like Julia Cameron, Austin Kleon, and Maria Popova, just to name a few. And consistently these advisors and many others tell us that when there is a problem with creativity or productivity, the answer is to keep making whatever it is that we make—to keep plugging away and the block will dissolve and our creativity will flow. I have even offered this advice myself.

Why then, when we find our flow of creativity blocked, do we not heed that same advice? Maybe it’s because we are all somewhat egotistical when it comes to creativity. Perhaps it’s because we are stubborn. Whatever the reason, we don’t—until we do.

This happened to me recently, and I hope that I have learned from it. My creativity and productivity were practically nil. There was no particular reason for this, so far as I knew. Ideas were just not happening, but rather than worrying about it, I just used the time to rest. But it kept going on. Still it was not a major problem, that is, until I realized that I had a project coming due soon.

Every year I create and send a holiday card out to friends and acquaintances. And it was time for that to happen. The deadline is self-imposed, but it comes a while before the holidays to allow for printing, mailing, and all the logistics that go into such a project. Since I have done this project for a number of years, not doing it was not really a consideration. So I finally decided that it was time to make the project happen. I already had images that I created for the project, but they were far from their final form, and that was the problem.

So I jumped in and began to work only to discover that some of the images did not really work the way I had thought that they would. So, instead of pushing, I went back to some images I had created earlier to see if there were any possibilities there. And there were.

And then an interesting thing happened. As I began to examine possibilities, new ideas formed, new possibilities presented themselves; I found new ways of working with the images I had started with. Before it was over, I had not just one card, but five. So I picked one for this year—not the one I had started with, but one of the others, and will use the others in the coming years. And I’m finding that my mind does not seem to be done with this project even though images have been selected, captioned, sent to the printer, and returned. So I will enjoy the new stream of ideas and probably continue to develop those ideas, even though they support a project that only happens once a year.

The point of this is, of course, to remind ourselves to follow good advice, and when we are creatively blocked to make something—anything—to get the ideas flowing again.

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Yes, Voting Matters

Sunday, 6. November 2022 22:11 | Author:

The Astros won the World Series. I know because two people texted to tell me. Otherwise I would not have known. Because I don’t follow baseball, I have no interest in who does or does not win the World Series, or any other game for that matter. Simply put, baseball does not interest me or impact my life.

Unfortunately a number of artists take the attitude toward politics that I have toward baseball. The difference is, of course, is that no matter how much we wish it, no matter how we try to ignore it, politics does impact our lives. Even those of us who are so absorbed in our work that we live like hermits, closing ourselves off from the rest of the world, particularly the news, will be impacted by politics in some way or another before we are done.

Given that, it would be well to pay at least a small amount of attention to what is going on politically and what the choices are in any given election, because if we don’t, we are likely to be taken off-guard by changes suddenly forced on us by the political system.

This year particularly, we need to look at the choices before us. Never have the lines been so clear-cut between the opposing parties. One party seems intent on establishing authoritarian policies, removing reproductive rights, eliminating Medicare and Social Security, reducing privacy rights, allowing hatred, bigotry, racism, and anti-Semitism to govern public forums, and supporting failed theories of trickle-down economics. The other party is vociferously opposed to all of those things, and is taking what is to my mind a far more positive approach to solving the problems facing the nation by advancing practical solutions.

Again, if we think that none of these issues will touch us, we are sadly mistaken. Some of these policies have already been implemented at the state level, and have certainly impacted, if not us, someone that we know. So these are real issues that really impact our lives, not just talking points. The very least we can do is inform ourselves on the issues and of the threats to democracy that are now part of political discourse, and vote. Compared to the possible outcome of the current election, the time it takes to learn about the issues and vote is a very small investment.

And we should not hide behind the “but it’s only one vote” pseudo-defense. As a matter of fact, there are a number of elections that have been decided by a single vote and even more that have been decided by miniscule margins. So our votes do matter.

And this year they matter more than ever. This year there is an unambiguous difference between the parties and the outcomes they envision for the country. This year the choice is about what kind of country we will live in, perhaps for a very long time. This year the election is important, perhaps more important than any in recent memory, and even if we don’t campaign, or contribute, or volunteer, we need to do our part. We need to vote!

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Why Do We Make Art?

Sunday, 23. October 2022 22:12 | Author:

Last week reading an essay in The Marginalian about Loren Eiseley’s musings on the meaning of life by Maria Popova I ran across a statement about consciousness’ “irrepressible impulse to make meaning out of indifferent fact.” This led to my musing about making meaning of life, which in turn, led to musing about meaning in art, and wondering if the two were somehow related.

The meaning of life is a question which is too big for me, but the question of meaning in art is a different thing, and one that I thought was worth examining. It is obvious on the face of it that not all art, or even most art, is meant to reflect the meaning of life, so we can dismiss that idea immediately. There may well be pieces that attempt this, but it is not a significant percentage.

There is no argument that art has meaning, at least some art. Perhaps even most art in some way reflects on some aspect of the human situation. Other art may not; its existence is its only meaning. And art is not really utilitarian, although some of it does cause viewers to think, to consider; other art simply provides pleasure because it is interesting to observe. Given that, why have art at all?

Some artists seem to be impelled to tell stories regardless of the media in which they work. We find stories in written work, film, in song, in instrumental music, in dance—virtually everywhere. Such stories reflect not only all aspects of life, but speculate about possible futures or focus on fantasies. Other artists are not interested in stories but rather impressions or feelings that they create work to communicate. Again the variety of media is extensive.

And artists are motivated by any number of things. Some are motivated by social conditions, some by domestic situations. Still others by dreams. Others by a conversation they overheard or something they read. Some by nature. Some by the news. Some want to better the world; some just want to entertain. In other words, artists can be motivated in an endless number of ways. And the variety of art work they produce is also seemingly endless and runs the entire gamut from profound to trivial.

Yet we label all these things that they create as “art.” If they do all fall into that single category, what is the impetus for their creation that can apply throughout that category?

Although the motivation, media, meaning, and depth of art varies from artist to artist, the impetus seem to remain the same, although the strength of the impetus also seems to vary from individual to individual: in some it’s just a tickle; in others it’s a necessity.

That impetus is simply the human urge to create. Whether what the artist makes is insightful or superficial, large or small, complicated or simple seems not to matter at all. Whether the artists sell their work or hide it in the attic also seems to have little impact. How many people see the work often makes no difference. Whether the artist receives recognition or not is of no import. What matters is the making. And it seems that’s all that matters—all the rest in ancillary.  Of course, we can find counter-examples to all of these instances, but on the whole, the making is what’s important.

Keep making!

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Work-Life Balance for Artists

Sunday, 9. October 2022 22:23 | Author:

Achieving a decent work-life balance is difficult for most Americans. If those Americans are in the arts, the task is even more difficult. The reason for this is, of course, is that most people who are in the arts are obsessive individuals whose primary obsession is the work they do. Given that, it is, of course, difficult to achieve any sort of work-life balance. This is the reason that artists historically have such bad family lives. They often feel compelled to spend more time on the play, composition, book, poem, sculpture, or painting than they do on relationships or family matters.

For many artists, art is all that matters, so art is their life. Everything else is secondary. In such instances, any kind of work-life balance is really impossible because such artists are working literally all the time—until they decide to take a brief break. But that’s all it is—a break, not anything approaching balance.

The key seems to be to set firm limits on the time the artist spends at work and they time they spend in other activities. For example, I know three artists who have achieved something of a balance in their lives. All are teaching artists as it turns out. One produces art as a part of his teaching load; one has reduced his artistic output to one faculty show per year: and the third does a mix of producing work as part of his teaching with a side job now and again. So I don’t know that we could label any of these full-time artists. Still they are making their living working in the arts and all three have achieved a balance of sorts between work and the rest of their lives.

Interestingly, they have all done it the same way. They have set limits by regulating their time at school as “work time” and their time away from school as “home time.” There is, however some crossover. Personal phone calls happen during work hours, and work phone calls happen during home hours. Of course, occasionally, work demands more than the scheduled time, and all three then put in more time for their work, but for the most part, the separation is complete, and all three seem to be content with their arrangements.

Then I know artists who also teach and produce art as part of their school work, who devote themselves to the work in the same way a completely obsessed working artist who was not a teacher might. These artists spend a great deal of time “at work” and even when they are officially “not at work,” they are still developing ideas and working at their art. They fall into that category of artists whose work is their life, and, as one would expect, their home lives are far from traditional and stable.

It is not the goal of this post to decide which of the artists mentioned has a superior life. That is a decision that each artist has to make for themselves. However, if we are to achieve any sort of meaningful work-life balance, we will have to follow the example of those artists who establish a set time and/or location for work, and devote the rest of their waking hours to other aspects of their lives.

Whatever way we decide to pursue art and live our lives is up to us, and it is not a one-size-fits-all choice. We must each find our own path and hope that the path we choose is fulfilling both in terms of our art and our lives.

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All Good Art is Escapism

Sunday, 25. September 2022 22:19 | Author:

On a British television series that I watch, the detective asked a woman about the stack of books she was carrying. She said that it was her summer reading and the books were historical romances. “Escapism,” said the detective, and the woman agreed. The implication was that escapism is a lower form of literature. And that set me wondering which genres of literature were escapism and which were not. So I ran through as many genres as I could think of and discovered that all of them, except textbooks and some non-fiction, were to some degree escapism.

Since escapism is simply a “mental diversion form unpleasant or boring aspect of daily life, typically through activities involving imagination or entertainment,” it stands to reason that almost any written fictional work and some non-fiction would fit that definition. While not necessarily written as escapism, most books and short stories are designed to capture the imagination of the reader, to take them out of themselves and involve them in the world of the narrative for the duration of the read.  So whether or not they mean to, such works function as escapism.

And books that do not grab or continue to hold readers’ interest are simply set aside—unless there is some overriding reason for the reader to continue. So whatever their authors have to say will be lost to any potential readership.

But what about other arts? Obviously, performing arts function the same way, attempting to engage their audiences for the duration of the performances regardless of what message they are trying to get across. This is simply because if they cannot hold the audience’s interest, they will never convey their message. So directors, producers, showrunners, and choreographers work very hard to ensure audience involvement in their productions.

And other arts are much the same. Painters, photographers, and sculptors want their audiences to forget their lives for a moment and join with the artwork they are looking at, so that the artifact and the audience are the entire world for a moment or two—or perhaps longer. So, in addition to saying whatever they have to say, such artists work to make their pieces appealing, knowing that audience engagement is at least half the game.

So what does this mean to aspiring or working artists? It means that no matter how pithy our content, no matter how challenging our subject matter, no matter how important our message, what we have to say must be set into a form that is engaging and interesting to our audience. Otherwise, our audience will never hang on long enough to understand our full message. What we produce must be not only accessible to our audience, but engaging as well.

So we might take the time to study those works that are unabashedly labeled “escapism” to discover what techniques we can appropriate to use in our own projects in order to better engage and maintain audience interest. Our work will be the better for it, and our audiences will appreciate it.

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