Tag archive for » creativity «

Don’t Overthink Your Work

Sunday, 29. January 2023 22:21

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

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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Lose Yourself in the Work

Sunday, 4. December 2022 19:04

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

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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Why Do We Make Art?

Sunday, 23. October 2022 22:12

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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Art Doesn’t Love You

Sunday, 28. August 2022 21:04

A friend of mine, who is an actor and director, tells a story about when he first learned that theatre didn’t love him. Seems that he was hung over at 9 am, putting on makeup for a morning performance of a children’s show when he discovered this truth. Some time after he learned that, he tried to leave theatre, only to come back, a pattern which he repeated at least two more times.

Imogen West-Knights talks about giving up on her dream of acting in a Guardian article, “Why I Quit Acting.” Theatre didn’t love her either. The stories go on and on about those who gave their all to theatre and got very little, if anything in return. Even those who succeed in the eyes of the world find themselves dissatisfied with performance; just google “quit acting.”

And it’s not just theatre. None of the arts love us, regardless of whether it’s photography or painting or sculpture or dance or poetry. They demand our allegiance; they exert an influence over our lives and relationships, but they give very little back, particularly in terms of worldly success. The most we can expect is the bit of joy we get from the creative process. And that is often laced with anguish. We spend hours, sometimes days or weeks—or even months and years trying to create, and the return: acknowledgement of the artifact, but very little for the pain involved in its creation. It’s a very lopsided relationship that we have with our art.

Yet those of us who don’t quit continue to do it. Even those who quit one art, such as Ms. West-Knights, pick up another. It’s because those of us who are addicted to art have a strong urge to create, to tell stories, to invent, to make. So completely quitting everything creative is difficult for us, if not impossible. And even though some individuals succeed, for many, it’s a sad life. There are many articles connecting sadness or depression and creativity. But we still keep doing it.

And we continue to do it, in one form or another. And we all have the satisfactions that come from creating as well as the attendant pain. We do it because we must, because we are driven to create regardless of the toll it might take on other aspects of our life.

Not that there are not rewards. There are, although for most of us they are small. We sell a piece here; we get a good critique there. And all the while we get to create, and that’s the bottom line for most of us: satisfying the urge to create. So we continue to act and direct and photograph and paint and sculpt and dance and write because, for us, there is no other way to feed our addiction to creation.

And the fact that our chosen art does not love us does not deter us. We persist, not because we think that we are going to “make it big,” not because we think we will become famous, but because we must. We seem to have been born with an imperative to make things, to tell stories, to create. And so we continue to actively demonstrate our love for our art, unreciprocated though it is.

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Endings

Sunday, 14. August 2022 22:55

Having just retired from my long-time day job, endings are very much on my mind: not only the ending of jobs and projects, but the endings that we craft for our creations, and the comparisons between the two.

Even though we all know that all things must come to an end, there are sometimes emotions attached to arriving at the end of a project (or a job), particularly if that project has held some great interest for us or has been especially difficult or especially rewarding or both. We may be happy that it is over, or the opposite, but we are likely to have feelings one way or the other. And these feelings may be complex: we can be both sad and happy at the same time over the same termination. How long these feelings may last is another issue: they may last minutes, hours, days, or weeks even, depending on the project and how attached we were to it.

Crafting endings for our audience is a different thing altogether. Every created work that is experienced through time must have an ending, and unfortunately, there are as many types of endings as there are types of stories, songs, plays, poems, or stories.

And endings are difficult. Obviously, the primary reason for the ending is to bring the project to a satisfying conclusion. If pieces that I read and write are to serve as a guide, this is not as easy as it sounds, particularly with regard to short pieces. In fact, one of the last pieces I read came to an abrupt conclusion with a six-word sentence voicing a semi-philosophical statement; it was as though the author got to the end of what they had to say and simply tagged a short statement on the end so the reader wasn’t just left dangling. Authors are tasked with bringing the narrative to an end in a way that wraps up the piece and is aesthetically pleasing to the audience. Therein lies the problem. In my experience it is one of the more difficult tasks required of an author, particular if the work is not a formal academic paper of some sort.

Additionally, very often endings serve a twofold purpose: there may be loose ends to tie up. There may be a call to action of some kind to be embedded. There may be a sequel to set up. There may be any number of secondary purposes. This compounds the author’s problem in that they have to create an ending that satisfies the requirements of any ending plus insert the elements to accomplish the secondary goals as well, making the process all the more complicated.

And what do endings inside projects and the ending of projects have to do with each other? Simply that they both have to with wrapping things up and finding a stopping point, in one case for the author and in the other case for the audience. However, it should be clear that although they bear the same name, they are two entirely different processes, and have in common only that they come at the end of projects.

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When It Clicks

Sunday, 31. July 2022 20:40

Sitting in rehearsal on an evening not long ago, it clicked, and I suddenly understood that the show would indeed come together. In the world of educational theatre, that is never a foregone conclusion. I cannot explain what factors came together to provide me with this information, but it was suddenly there, and so I relaxed a little. This did not mean that there were not still things to do, but that bones of the show were solid, and the rest was more-or-less cleaning up.

Educational theatre is not the only area in which this phenomenon happens. I have known it to happen both in photography and in writing, although it happens in a slightly different fashion. In photography, it often happens with an edit. Most shoots result in a number of less-than-great photographs. Sometimes a re-crop or some other edit will move that image from uninspired to brilliant. And sometimes that comes as a surprise. The photographer expected the change to make the image better, but did not predict the degree of improvement the edit would make. Again, there may be other clean-up to be done, but the “click” has happened.

In writing it is much the same, and, as in photography, often happens in the editing stage. The author will rewrite a sentence, or insert a new sentence, or move a paragraph, and suddenly, “click.” The whole piece is better. Not that it was necessarily bad before, but now it, like the play, has demonstrated that the piece will come together, and will be far more successful that it would have done otherwise.

Perhaps it’s just a natural part of the creative process, but I know from experience that an artist can work to complete a piece and never really get an indication of whether it will be successful or not. It certainly does not mean that the piece will be bad, or ever mediocre; if fact, it may be great. It’s just that with some projects there is never a “click,” a prior indication that all of the elements have or soon will all come together in the best possible way.

Whether this happens in other media I cannot say, but I rather suspect that it does. Creativity is, after all, the process of making connections between sometimes disparate components, and in that process it is quite likely that a key piece will snap into place much like the key piece in a jigsaw puzzle, and “click.”

Please note that that “click” is simply a recognition that a piece is coming together. It is strictly from the creator’s point of view and has nothing to do with whether the piece will be well-received by its intended audience. It is probably just the conscious representation of the largely unconscious knowledge that all the components of the piece are in place and nothing has been left out—and nothing more. And though, as noted, it doesn’t happen with every project, it is comforting when it does happen. Making art is hard, and anything that tells us we are on the right track is welcome.

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Make Bold Choices

Sunday, 19. June 2022 21:56

In actor training we stress making choices, encouraging actors to make bold choices.  While it would seem that making choices is basic to creating anything, but this does not seem to be the case. Evidently making conscious choices during the creative process is not intuitive to everyone who takes up an art. To many beginning actors, this seems to be a foreign process; they make no choices at all, particularly not strong ones. This has led me to wonder whether the same is true for other arts and artists as well.

Most of us come to art because of a natural aptitude. It’s something we don’t think about very much; we just do it. We draw; we paint; we photograph; we act—all because it’s an easy thing for us to do. Then we get to the point where we are no longer progressing and we make a decision to continue as we are or to get some training to help us get better. Training comes in lots of formats: it may be formal classes, or it may be a self-directed course of study, or it may simply be a disorganized study of the work of masters. Still we may not be making conscious choices in our work, and, of course, making no choices is really making choices, probably weak ones.

But what about flow, some may be asking. Surely, in flow, we are working almost subconsciously. That is true, and I am, as most of you know, a great proponent of flow and a great believer in the contributions of the subconscious to the creative process. However, I have also observed the differences between actors who make decisively bold choices and those who do not—or even between work done by the same actor before and after making conscious choices. The difference is remarkable, and the work is always better after strong choices are made. This phenomenon is also observable in other arts, for example, making strong choices almost always means the difference between a good photograph and a mere snapshot. Drawings made with a conscious choice are invariably better than off-hand sketches.

It is as if the conscious choices that the artist makes serve as a foundation for the subconscious work and mixed-conscious work that follows during the process of creation.

But what about those projects that just seem to evolve? The idea appears out of the air and is then turned into preliminary notes which then develop into a full-blown project. How does this idea of conscious choices come into play with them? My suggestion would be that at some point in the process, if we want to make the project all it can be, that we stop and look at what we’ve done so far and make some conscious choices about where the project should be going. These will provide a strong foundation for the project, ensuring a strong finished project.

It may be that that making bold choices is already a part of our process that we don’t fully acknowledge, or perhaps we call that part of the process by another name. Regardless, it would be well to examine our process and verify that this happens early on in the creative journey. As in the case of the young actors noted above, our work will only benefit,

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Is the First Idea the Best?

Sunday, 5. June 2022 22:28

Last week I was discussing an issue with a set piece with the scene designer of a show I am directing. Actually, it was more of him thinking out loud. Finally he said, “The first idea is always the best, isn’t it?” I agreed, knowing that this was not necessarily the case. In this particular instance, he had considered many alternatives; then we brainstormed some more. He returned to his first idea as the best choice; it was more a matter of picking the best rather than returning to the first.

Many teachers and students say that in taking a test, your first answer is usually your best.

Regardless of this anecdotal evidence, an even larger number of writers say that the idea of your first idea being your best is not true, Helly Douglas, among others, has written an article on “Why Your First Idea is Never Your Best: Developing Amazing Writing Ideas.” Another explanation is provided in “The scientific reason why your first idea is rarely your best one.” The notion that the first test response is the best is refuted in “Myth: It’s Better to Stick to Your First Impulse Than Go Back and Change Multiple Choice Test Answers,” which appears on the Association for Psychological Science web site.

However, the notion that our first ideas are our best ones persists. Roger Waters for example, in Pink Floyd: the making of The Dark Side of the Moon, says that the first take is usually the best take. It is much the same idea. However, it did not prevent the band from doing multiple takes of pieces that make up their albums. I have often found that in headshot sessions, the first shot of a particular pose is often better than those that follow; still I shoot more than one.

Given these contradictions, how should we proceed in our day-to-day artistic pursuits? Much the way the scene designer in the first paragraph actually proceeded: take the first idea, then consider alternatives, perhaps develop one or two of these concepts and see where it leads. We may find that our first idea was, in fact, the best alternative; however, we may find that something radically different is a better choice. At first glance, this looks like a long drawn-out process. It isn’t really. Our minds work very rapidly, and once we hit on an idea, most of us find that it blossoms almost automatically, sometimes reforming itself almost instantaneously. If we take a moment—or even longer—to examine each iteration of the idea as it evolves, we will discover which will work the best.

This is not to suggest that this is merely a passive activity. Each of us has their own process and methodology. Ideas sometimes pop into mind, but they must be evaluated and perhaps massaged and developed before they can become a full-blown project. And that preliminary process may or may not better the original idea, but it certainly can facilitate moving only our best ideas forward.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter whether the idea that turns into a project was the first idea or the fifteenth. What matters is that we have a way to advance our best ideas and let the lesser ones either support those best ones or fall by the wayside.

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