Tag archive for » productivity «

Just Start

Sunday, 22. May 2022 22:20

One of the things that makes creatives creative is the abundance of imagination. We can hardly close our eyes without seeing images, stories, ideas; then we open our ideas and they disappear as quickly as they came. Often they come in the twilight as we are drifting to sleep, in dreams, in daydreams, when we are bored. Those of us who are lucky or who have enough foresight or who have enough discipline will quickly make notes to record these images, ideas, and stories. For others of us, they just disappear.

What do those of us who manage to get these products of the imagination down on paper or into a computer or tablet do with the list once we have it? Often the answer is “very little;” it turns into a list of potential projects, and there it sits. These potential projects often remain potential and are never really realized as projects. Is it just procrastination or some other reason?

For some, it is our working methodology: we hesitate to try to actualize potential projects because we cannot see the end of the project, so we think we don’t know how to begin. That is, we need to know the outcome before we begin the project. Unfortunately, most of our imaginations do not produce project ideas and images fully developed; it is up to us to take the snippets we dream and develop them.

This cannot happen unless we actually pick up the brush or pen or camera, or keyboard or chisel and actually make a start, trusting in ourselves to develop the project wherever the material takes us. That’s the hard part: beginning the journey of creation without knowing either the location of the end or what the end actually is.

But it’s how we have to do it—if we are ever to create anything. It’s the trusting the process that’s difficult. Many of us think that we will only get as far as we do when we put the thoughts into our potential projects list. And maybe that will happen, but what is more likely to happen is that in actually beginning the project, new insights will develop. We will begin to see where the material might go and we will choose which of the branches to follow, and then even more ideas will develop and we will see further down the path of development. And then finally we will be able to see the end. The realization of the project becomes about discovery.

And the good news is that, at any point in this discovery process, we can go back over what we have already done and edit it, making it better, more meaningful, more stimulating, more engaging. Of course, the edits will alter the course of the project, and thus the final outcome.

But what if development stalls? What if the discovery process fails before we reach the end? We do the same things we do when any project stalls: we examine the project to see if it’s really a failure, we salvage what we can, and we deal with it.

We are still in a better position than if we were waiting around to begin—because we have done something. As basketball and hockey fans will quickly tell you, “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” The quote is most often attributed to Wayne Gretzky, but regardless of who originally said it, it applies. No matter how creative we are, we cannot realize a project unless we actually start on it.

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Narrow Your Focus

Sunday, 24. April 2022 22:26

We in educational theatre teach actors not to generalize. There are no generalized actions, emotions, or situations. Everything must be specific: the given circumstances must be specific, and the actors’ responses to those circumstances must be specific as well; this sometimes gives rise to some very specific emotions which are tied to the situation being acted.

It occurs to me that this need for specificity is required in other arts as well. It would be beyond difficult to compose generalized music, or to create a generalized dance. In other arts the difficulty may not be quite so obvious. For example, many are the authors who begin generalized written works only to find out that such are not only difficult, but generally uninteresting. The same holds true for any work of art. Artists need to know not only what they are trying to say, but must decide very specific aspects of that subject. To say that one is writing a play about business in America is a very nebulous thing; to say that one is writing a play about the machinations that go on in a real estate sales operation is a much more specific and practical thing that is far more likely to result in a significant, compelling dramatic work.

The same is true, of course, of painting or photography or poetry. To be really viable, the work of art, and thus the artist, must be very specific, very focused. It is only through the explicit that we can say the things that actually need to be said—without generating a generalized work that, even if well-reasoned, will fail to hold the audience.

But what if artists want to tackle large subjects? How should they handle that? The answer is to narrow their focus, hone in on specific aspects of the topic they want to broach, and by creating detailed and focused work, reflecting the larger topic. For example, can there be any stronger anti-war statement than an artwork which depicts specifics of human suffering as the result of war? Can there be a stronger indictment of unethical business practices than a work which portrays the human cost of such practices?

Not only can focusing on specifics make the work stronger, it can aid the artist in creating the work. Many times, one of the problems of the artist is having too much material to deal with, particularly when trying to tackle a big subject. Focusing on one specific aspect of the subject can help the artist limit the subject matter so that it is easier to deal with; the artist can focus on a singular part of the overall topic instead of trying to deal with a massive subject area that defies organization.

Concentrating on one aspect of a subject can also keep the artist on track in terms of realizing the project. The artist can check the relevancy of parts of the project as they are assembled, thus preventing digressions and irrelevancies.

So instead of wandering aimlessly around a topic or area of concern, artists who narrow their focus have a much greater likelihood of producing really concentrated, meaningful art than those who do not. It is certainly something to consider as we contemplate our upcoming projects.

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When You Don’t Like the Art You Make

Sunday, 13. March 2022 22:46

It happens. Sometimes we make art that we don’t really like. This happens for a number of reasons. The work was a consignment piece; we made the work because it was on the schedule; the work didn’t turn out the way we expected; the reasons go on and on. But it feels strange to have made something and realize that you really don’t like it.

So then what do you do? There are a number of choices: you can destroy the piece, if it’s physical. You can rework the piece if there is sufficient time. You can put the piece into the world, but take your name off of it. You can call it a failure (even if it’s not really) and learn from the experience. Or you can recognize that you cannot love everything you make, let it go, and move on to the next project.

This happened to me recently. I directed a show, a musical, and it turned out to be not one of my favorites. There were a couple of reasons: one was the structure of the play; it was more a concert with narrative inserts than a real play, and it was not a show that I would have voluntarily gone to see had someone else staged it—not to my taste. But it was on the schedule and so I directed it. And it was successful. The intended audience showed up and—judging from their reaction—thoroughly enjoyed the show. And through it all, I nodded, and smiled, and said “thank you” when people told me how good it was.

And it was a good show. We worked the script to capitalize on its strengths and minimize its shortcomings. The musical direction was excellent, as was the band. Choreography, though minimal, was exactly what was necessary. The performers were precisely what the script needed to bring it to life. It was simply not to my taste. A valuable lesson I learned long ago from a visiting professor of English literature was to be able to distinguish between art that was good and art that I simply didn’t like. I learned that my liking or not liking a piece of art had no bearing on whether the art was good. That is determined by standards outside of individual likes and dislikes. So despite it being not to my taste, I did the best job directing that I could do, and even came to like certain parts of the show.

Like all artists, I would like to love everything I produce; however, it doesn’t seem possible, particularly when there are so many considerations in determining what projects one works on. So I think that if we are artisans as well as artists, we do pretty much what I did, or tried to do: make the project the best we possibly can. Put it out into the world. Accept whatever the reaction happens to be. Move on to the next project. Maybe it will be one that we can love.

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Unfinished Projects

Sunday, 13. February 2022 17:27

We all have them: unfinished projects cluttering our hard drives, taking up valuable physical storage space, stacked in the corner, piled on shelves, heaped in closets. Whether it’s incomplete canvasses, photography projects, incomplete stories or essays, unfinished musical compositions, or partially-realized sculptures, they all take up some sort of space and add clutter to our creative lives. As we begin to think about moving forward in the year, perhaps it’s time to address the issue of unfinished projects.

They exist for any number of reasons: in some cases, we simply ran dry or hit a wall, and decided to set them aside until we could have a new outlook. In other cases, we lost interest. In yet other cases, newer projects claimed our attention and we more or less forgot these that we left by the wayside. Whatever the reason, we left these projects uncompleted, but kept all the materials, “just in case…”

I am not suggesting that we need to complete all our unfinished projects or throw them out, but rather that we should review them—to determine which are still viable and which should be consigned to the trash. Actually, there are more gradations to our evaluation than just those two. We might review our incomplete projects and decide they go in one of several categories:

  • Finish this. Whatever has caused the incomplete nature of this project is no longer valid, or whatever has caused the lack of completion is no longer effective. We can see a path to the accomplishment of this project, so we should put in in the queue of projects scheduled for completion.
  • It needs more work. This type of project is not yet ready for full development, but might be put into a category of those that we work on in between other projects. Adding a little here, editing a little there, continuing the project, but not in full active mode.
  • Save the embryo. This project started with a solid idea, but the reasons it is incomplete far outweigh the good idea. The best thing that can be done is to salvage the idea and perhaps install it in another project that does not have the attendant problems; this will allow us to discard all the extraneous material, and, in effect, begin again.
  • Not yet. The idea is still solid, but the block to completion still exists. We can see where this project wanted to go and realize that the reason it has not gone forward is still valid and standing in the way of completion. This project goes back into storage for a time.
  • What was I thinking? This project was simply a bad idea from the outset and stopped for a reason, and whether the reason is still valid or not, the project itself is not worth the effort it would take to revive it. We can see if any of the pieces can be salvaged and perhaps recycled into other projects, either existing or future. The rest can be eliminated, allowing us to reclaim the storage space the project is taking up.

What we might do this year, and perhaps annually, is review our unfinished projects, categorizing them as noted above or according to whatever scheme we find useful. In this way we can reclaim both good ideas that just need further work, and space that could be put to better use. And we can unclutter our creative environment.

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Make a Plan

Sunday, 5. December 2021 21:58

A number of people encourage spontaneity; I am not one of them. I find that whenever I try to operate spontaneously, in any activity from a business conversation to a creative project, I forget something, or leave something out or lose my way for a while, or—in worst case scenarios—end up going in circles. This is the reason that I have come to realize that I will do better if I make a plan.

This is not to say that there is no place for spontaneity. Certainly, I never plan friendly conversations, and often not activities, other than selecting a restaurant. And in creative work, there is always that unplanned time for brain-storming or spontaneously allowing ideas and mental images to connect and merge and play off of each other. That done I find that I am always more successful if I make a plan after this first creative exercise.

The first step in creating a plan is to establish a goal, based on all that free association that preceded it. This gives the project a target, establishing what is to be accomplished. The next step is to prepare a pathway to the target. This is the actual plan, and does not have to be overly complicated or detailed. It should, however, lay out the major steps to be used to attain the goal. Once those two things are done, it’s time to implement the plan.

Some people jump right in at this point; I, on the other hand, like to mull on the plan for a while, turning it over in my mind, trying to determine what needs changing, what might be a better path, what features need to be added, what components are absolutely necessary, what things can be cut, what details need to be addressed. If there is time, I like to let the plan settle into my subconscious for a time.  When I am able to do this, I find that my subconscious will make suggestions at odd moments during the day or evening, causing me to modify the plan to a greater or lesser extent.

And that points out an important consideration in dealing with plans, particularly those related to a creative project. Plans are not carved in stone—or any other unmalleable material. Plans change and reshape themselves, whether in the development or implementation phase. This is to be expected. It is nearly impossible to anticipate all of the issues that may arise between the inception of a plan and its final execution, so flexibility is demanded. In addition to problems, discoveries are possible during the implementation of the plan, and sometimes these discoveries will add to the project or augment it in some way. An open mind is a requisite of plan implementation.

The path to a project’s completion may involve many revisions of the plan, and the occasional detour, and so plans must often be modified on the fly. However, having a plan ensures that there is direction and purpose at every step on the way to a project’s completion.

This approach works for me. Making a plan for each project allows me to resolve issues and get work done and, while at the same time allowing me to be open to new ideas as they arise. Even if I have to change the plan completely, it’s still there to guide the project to completion. Your mileage may vary.

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“Make Bad Art” — No!

Sunday, 26. September 2021 22:57

“Make bad art” is the mantra repeated by many who hold themselves out to be creative advisors, and even some artists. Don’t believe me? Just Google it. I got over 10.7 billion—that’s right, billion—hits. (Your mileage may vary, as it often does with individual Google searches). So what’s this all about?

Some of these writers are concerned about what exactly bad art is. Some wonder why some art is bad. Some celebrate the creation of bad art. Some say that we have to make bad art before we can make good art. Some are even concerned about applying the labels “good” and “bad” to art at all. But most of these pundits take the position that we can’t always make good art, so making bad art is preferable to making no art. Some will tackle all of these concerns in the same essay or blog post.

The problem that I see is that a number of these writers are actively advising people to make bad art like it’s a goal to which one should aspire; that I find problematic. Others are using the advice as a tool or learning exercise, which is somewhat more forgivable.

At least one other writer advises the opposite. Neil Gaiman, in his small book Art Matters, has a whole chapter entitled “Make Good Art,” in which he outlines a number of situations that numerous other writers offer as excuses for making bad art. Gaiman instead, in each instance, suggests that the reader make good art. Gaiman has also given a speech on the same topic (a video is also available which is well-worth the 20 minutes that it takes to watch it).

Gaiman, I think is more on track; I can find no really good reason to make bad art. However, like a number of artists I know, I have always had trouble with calling the work that I do “art” although it is clearly in the “world of the arts.” Given a choice, I would substitute “practice your craft” for Gaiman’s “make good art” advice.

There are a number of reasons for this: (1) it is almost as positive as Gaiman’s “make good art,” eliminating the negative notion of “bad” art. (2) It avoids the whole issue of whether what we are doing is art or not. Whether it is or isn’t, it is certainly craft, and that is something that can be practiced. (3) It is neutral and thus can be applied in any situation—whether other things in our lives are good or bad—without reference to the ongoing situation. (4) It is sound advice and keeps us pointed in a creative and productive direction.

So to substitute in Gaiman’s book and in the speech noted above: “Husband runs off with a politician?” Practice your craft. “Leg crushed and then eaten by a mutated boa constrictor?” Practice your craft. “IRS on your trail?” Practice your craft. “Cat exploded?” Practice your craft. “Somebody on the Internet thinks what you do is stupid or evil or it’s all been done before?” Practice your craft. “Probably things will work out some how, and eventually time will take the sting away, but that doesn’t matter. Do what you do best.” Practice your craft. Practice your craft “on good days too.”

It may not be as clever or delightful as Gaiman’s series of statements on “make good art,” but it’s still sound advice. Practice your craft!

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Look Back

Sunday, 29. August 2021 21:40

Last week I had the opportunity to review some old image files that I had not seen for some time, some up to five years old. What immediately struck me was that a number of the images I had originally rejected as second or third level choices had more potential that I originally thought. Some needed to be tweaked or re-cropped, but they could, with just a little work be first-rate images.

If it’s true of images, might it also be true of writing? I asked myself. Like most people who write, I have pages and pages of written material that I have abandoned but did not destroy. A quick review of some of those yielded the same results: there were a number of worthwhile ideas contained in the abandoned writings. Then, of course, there were the idea files that contained just short paragraphs about topics and ideas, many of which had gone unreviewed for a long period. Most of the topic ideas and the unfinished writings need to be filled out, shaped, and polished, but the some interesting possibilities exist.

The reasons for the abandonments of both writing and images are many. Sometime the idea didn’t play out in a satisfying way; sometimes I hit a wall in writing and could not finish the piece. And then there were those that were simply left unfinished for a number of other reasons, often because they were to be perceived to be less than my best work.

This raises the question, of course, of why work that was rejected in the past suddenly appears to have potential. The answer is that I am now looking at it with different eyes. The images and pieces of writing are fixed, but I have changed with the passing of time. Hopefully, I have evolved since the words were written and the images captured. It’s the same reason that it is useful to put work away for a while before editing. The passage of time gives one more objectivity in reviewing the work, so one can see possibilities more clearly.

My suspicion is that all this applies to arts other than photography and writing as well. Almost all artists I know have partially-finished projects stored here and there which might could be reviewed, dusted off, and made into excellent work which could then be shared or published or produced by whatever avenues the artist chooses. Looking back at older work can also spark ideas for future work, mixing the old ideas with new insights to produce new work.

So my suggestion is that we periodically take a look back at our older work, keeping an open mind to see what can be salvaged, what can be reworked, modified, made better. We can see what new visions result from this review and what we find in the old that can be mixed with new concepts to produce new quality work. Such periodic reviews might just result in more and better work.

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Make the Leap

Sunday, 11. April 2021 21:16

Sooner or later all of us arrive at a metaphorical cliff in our creative lives. We are effectively blocked from going forward—unless we make a leap. What that means exactly is up for discussion. Google says that “to make a leap means to make a choice decision or commitment without any logical reason to do so. To make a leap can also mean to jump and spring forward with force or energy. To make a leap can also mean to commit to a change in the way that you think or in what you do.” Whether or not such a move has a logical reason, it decidedly involves the idea that forward progress requires a commitment and change in the way we think or act that is somewhat out of the ordinary.

Such a move necessarily involves risk of some sort. Otherwise, it’s just another step forward or a short jump “over an obstacle.” “Making a leap” definitely involves the possibility of failure. It is not like Wile E. Coyote falling off a cliff where there is no possibility of getting to the other side. It is more like this image, where there is the possibility of success but the danger of failure as well.

And what does failure mean in this context? It means that, like Wile E. Coyote after the fall, we have to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and climb back to our place on the heights, perhaps learning something along the way. Although it may feel like it at the time, it is not the worst thing that can happen. We may learn about new tools, new techniques, new approaches as we climb back to, not necessarily where we were, but to hopefully some higher place in terms of creativity.  So while taking the leap and failing can be considered a setback, it can also be considered an opportunity.

But what if we succeed in making the leap? Then we can move on to new levels of creativity. Our work can take different directions and make advances, perhaps that we had not foreseen. The momentum of our leap can carry us forward to creative successes we had not imagined. And we can continue forward until we reach the next metaphorical cliff. But, having made one leap successfully, we will be mentally better equipped to make that leap as well, thus ensuring our continued creative evolution.

Possibly the worst thing we can do is to stop on the cliff and decide not to take the risk of making the leap. Then, not only are we blocked from moving forward, but we are, for all practical considerations, stuck on the edge. We may continue to produce the same sort of art that we have produced before, or we may become depressed and despondent because we feel that we cannot move forward. In that case, it is likely that our work will suffer, that we will produce less creatively or that we will cease to produce at all.

So—if we are interested in moving forward with our art—there is really no choice. We have to acknowledge the risk, then make the leap. It is the only way we will be able to move forward creatively. It’s a risk well worth taking.

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Move at Your Own Speed

Sunday, 28. March 2021 22:29

Yesterday, a friend and I were talking about the difficulty of making changes in one’s life. “The thing is,” she said, “you have to move at your own speed.” So very true, and that same advice applies to art as well. We all get caught up in believing that we have to crank out piece after piece because the Internet expects it. We “need to have” x number of postings to whichever platform(s) we are on every day/week/month to remain relevant. And if the quality suffers, well, that’s just the way things are.

Except that’s not true. If the quality suffers, it’s likely that no matter how many pieces we upload, we will lose viewers. We need to move at our own pace, whatever that pace is. It doesn’t matter if we produce three novels or thirty, so long as we are satisfied that they are the highest quality that we can produce at the time. Each artist has their own rhythm. Each artist has their own workflow. And it is the rhythm and the workflow that determine the frequency of quality output of each artist.

And that frequency may be at odds with the “demands of the Internet.” And if it is, that’s okay. I follow some people who post multiple times per day, some who post daily, some who post weekly, some who post monthly, and some who post whenever they have something to say or show, and I find that I don’t appreciate one more than the other. In fact, I would much rather see the quality work of those who post infrequently than mediocre work of some who post daily.

After all, the “demands of the Internet” are nothing more than marketing ideas. Admittedly, we have to market our art, but we don’t have to follow marketing ideas slavishly. Indeed, there are a number of artists who completely ignore Internet marketing advice who do quite well. The question is: are we trying to develop a large social media following or trying to market our art. Those two are not necessarily the same thing, regardless of what social media marketers say. And we need to remember that being active regularly on social media does not necessarily mean posting our work; it can also mean commenting on the work of others or the political situation or any number of other things that keep our names before our followers.

So, perhaps instead of feeling pressured to produce at a rate determined by outside forces, we might take note of our frequency of quality output and then determine the frequency of our public posting of work based on that.

That way we can indeed work at our own speed, and be far more comfortable in producing work of quality instead of feeling pushed and prodded by an external system. Additionally, we can remind ourselves that our speed does not have to match anyone else’s.  Maybe then we can produce and market our best work, saving less successful pieces for reworking and revising until they too meet our personal standard of quality.

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Relax Your Face

Monday, 9. November 2020 0:11

It’s been a very tough, very tense week—at least around here. Of course, you may be asking, “What week isn’t these days?” And, of course you would be right. Almost every week is tough and tense. It’s difficult to get things done, much less be creative. There are just too many things we can’t control that impact our lives. So the tension builds, and we have very few ways to dispel it.

Some try exercise, thinking that a good workout will relieve not only physical tension but mental tension as well. There is something to be said for that. If a person is both physically and mentally committed to a particular exercise regimen, engaging in that exercise will certainly relax the mind if not the body. Some people practice yoga, which also purports to engage the body and the mind and the spirit, and to some extent it does. Like any other exercise, while a person is doing it, the mind is engaged in the poses and not in the day-to-day worries that plague it. Some people meditate, that is, they focus their concentration on something other than the problems that assault us daily. Meditation is said to relax the body as well as the mind, and so is just as useful for relieving stress as any exercise program, although not perhaps as useful for toning the body.

Those activities, along with a number of others, are really useful for maintaining for general stress control, but they involve time and commitment and may or may not impact the momentary frustrations and pressures that get in the way of our creative work on an hourly basis. We all know that we should just let those things go, but doing that is far more difficult than saying it. Should we rant and vent our frustrations or should we somehow attempt to not let difficulties get to us? Is there some other thing we might try to deal with stress and tension? It turns out that there is: relax your face.

Yes, I know that sounds silly, but it’s not. The first person who ever told me to relax my face was a yoga instructor who was not talking to me specifically, but the whole class. I thought it was silly too—until I tried it. Then I noticed that as I relaxed my face, other tension left my body. I have since heard it from other yoga instructors, who sometimes say, “Soften your face.” It means the same thing: to consciously relax the muscles of the face.

Evidently, we hold tension in our faces, and when we consciously relax those muscles, other muscles in our body respond as well. Personally, relaxing my face also tends to relax my neck and upper shoulders. And it doesn’t take very long at all.

Does it generate as much relaxation as a yoga session or thirty minutes of meditation? No. But it does work, and it is nearly instantaneous. Give it a try. When you are struggling a problem that is causing you stress or tension. Stop. Take a moment and relax your face. It can make a huge difference. Just that little relaxation can make your work a bit easier and sometimes can facilitate creativity by removing that temporary stress block.

Let me know how it works for you.

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