Creativity

Neil Gaiman: Make Good Art

When you start out on a career in the arts you have no idea what you are doing. This is great. People who know what they are doing know the rules, and know what is possible and impossible. You do not. And you should not. The rules on what is possible and impossible in the arts were made by people who had not tested the bounds of the possible by going beyond them. And you can.

Neil Gaiman, “Make Good Art” (read it here)

Procrastination is thinking

“You call it procrastinating, I call it thinking.”

Aaron Sorkin

“Procrastinating is a vice when it comes to productivity, but it can be a virtue for creativity. What you see with a lot of great originals is that they are quick to start but they are slow to finish.”

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Make it new (and not)

According to an article in the Atlantic, the industrial designer Raymond Loewy had a theory about what makes new products desirable.

He believed that consumers are torn between two opposing forces: neophilia, a curiosity about new things; and neophobia, a fear of anything too new. As a result, they gravitate to products that are bold, but instantly comprehensible. Loewy called his grand theory “Most Advanced Yet Acceptable”—MAYA.

The theory applies equally to art.

Could Loewy’s MAYA theory double as cultural criticism? A common complaint about modern pop culture is that it has devolved into an orgy of familiarity. In her 2013 memoir cum cultural critique, Sleepless in Hollywood, the producer Lynda Obst mourned what she saw as cult worship of “pre-awareness” in the film and television industry. As the number of movies and television shows being produced each year has grown, risk-averse producers have relied heavily on films with characters and plots that audiences already know. Indeed, in 15 of the past 16 years, the highest-grossing movie in America has been a sequel of a previously successful movie (for example, Star Wars: The Force Awakens) or an adaptation of a previously successful book (The Grinch). The hit-making formula in Hollywood today seems to be built on infinitely recurring, self-sustaining loops of familiarity, like the Marvel comic universe, which thrives by interweaving movie franchises and TV spin-offs.

But perhaps the most maya-esque entertainment strategy can be found on award-winning cable television. In the past decade, the cable network FX has arguably produced the deepest lineup of prestige dramas and critically acclaimed comedies on television, including American Horror Story, The Americans, Sons of Anarchy, and Archer. The ideal FX show is a character-driven journey in which old stories wear new costumes, says Nicole Clemens, the executive vice president for series development at the network. In Sons of Anarchy, the popular drama about an outlaw motorcycle club, “you think it’s this super-über-macho motorcycle show, but it’s also a soap with handsome guys, and the plot is basically Hamlet,” she told me. In The Americans, a series about Soviet agents posing as a married couple in the United States, “the spy genre has been subverted to tell a classic story about marriage.” These are not Marvel’s infinity loops of sequels, which forge new installments of old stories. They are more like narrative Trojan horses, in which new characters are vessels containing classic themes—surprise serving as a doorway to the feeling of familiarity, an aesthetic aha.

I have always believed in studying older stories, even using them explicitly as templates or models, so Loewy’s theory comes as no surprise to me.

In fact, there is a sub-genre of how-to books for the analytically-minded looking to write a bestseller. These guides dissect popular novels for common elements — a recipe for success. The latest, called The Bestseller Code, sics a computer algorithm on the data and concludes that my Defending Jacob is #10 on its list of “100 novels our computer thinks you should read.” So it turns out my blazingly original work is actually hopelessly derivative, which, if Loewy is right, might explain a few things.

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Creating vs. analyzing

“Do not try to create and analyze at the same time… they are different processes.”

— John Cage

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Elizabeth Gilbert on success

“I knew well in advance that all of those people who had adored Eat Pray Love were going to be incredibly disappointed in whatever I wrote next because it wasn’t going to be Eat Pray Love, and all of those people who had hated Eat Pray Love were going to be incredibly disappointed in whatever I wrote next because it would provide evidence that I still lived.”

Hmm.

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How (and when and where) to write

[There is] evidence that environments, schedules, and rituals restructure the writing process and amplify performance… The principles of memory retrieval suggest that certain practices should amplify performance. These practices encourage a state of flow rather than one of anxiety or boredom. Like strategies, these other aspects of a writer’s method may alleviate the difficulty of attentional overload. The room, time of day, or ritual selected for working may enable or even induce intense concentration or a favorable motivational or emotional state. Moreover, in accordance with encoding specificity, each of these aspects of method may trigger retrieval of ideas, facts, plans, and other relevant knowledge associated with the place, time, or frame of mind selected by the writer for work.

Ronald T. Kellogg, The Psychology of Writing. Read more at Brain Pickings.

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An artist’s name

The ancient masters of Japanese art were allowed to change their name once in their lifetime. They had to be very selective about the moment in their career when they did so. They would stick with their given name until they felt they had become the artist they aspired to be; at that point, they were allowed to change their name. For the rest of their life, they could work under the new name at the height of their powers. The name change was a sign of artistic maturity.

Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit

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Resisting the present

To judge by the clock, the present moment is nothing but a hairline which, ideally, should have no width at all — except that it would then be invisible. If you are bewitched by the clock you will therefore have no present. “Now” will be no more than the geometrical point at which the future becomes the past. But if you sense and feel the world materially, you will discover that there never is, or was, or will be anything except the present….

For the perfect accomplishment of any art, you must get this feeling of the eternal present into your bones — for it is the secret of proper timing. No rush. No dawdle. Just the sense of flowing with the course of events in the same way that you dance to music, neither trying to outpace it nor lagging behind. Hurrying and delaying are alike ways of trying to resist the present.

Alan Watts

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The virtues of hackery

Mario Puzo thought he was slumming when he wrote The Godfather. He was broke, an aspiring literary novelist with some respectful reviews but not many sales, and he hoped that a thriller about the mob might make a quick buck. … In fact, the writing of The Godfather released something fresh in Puzo’s imagination—a streak that was both potboilerish and also a little baroque—and if the result wasn’t “literary,” exactly, it was great pop fiction. … The director of those movies, Francis Ford Coppola, originally felt about them the way Puzo felt about his book; he considered them commercial hackwork compared with his more “artistic” films like “Rumble Fish” and “One From the Heart.”  And as in Puzo’s case, that attitude actually proved liberating, enabling Mr. Coppola to adopt a style that was grander and more operatic—more “epic,” to use the Hollywood term—but also less arty and self-conscious than the one he used for his more personal projects. Mr. Coppola’s “Godfather” enterprise went off the rails in “Part III,” which came out in 1990, when self-importance again seemed to overtake him (along with his star, Al Pacino) and he was no longer in touch with the story’s roots in pop culture and gangster-movie mythology.

Charles McGrath

I suppose there is a more compelling case to be made for artistic ambition, but it is worth remembering that great, lasting work often comes when artists aim low.

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The Artist in the Arena

Brené Brown on dealing with critics real and imagined. Helpful advice for creatives of all kinds, writers included. Of course, the Teddy Roosevelt quote that was so meaningful to Brown, about “the man in the arena,” is one that every writer should keep close by, for those low moments.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

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Gut churn

Jad Abumrad, co-creator of Radiolab, puts a name to a familiar feeling, gut churn: “that radical uncertainty that you feel when you’re trying to work without a template, which is not something I think we as a creative community talk enough about: how crummy it feels to make something that’s new” (4:54). The suggestion that gut churn might actually be a good thing, a sign that what you are creating is truly new and original, is helpful if counterintuitive advice.

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Just keep making

just_keep_making_frame_white_2_lo_grande

Amen. You can buy this poster here.

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Brian Eno: Everything good proceeds from enthusiasm

Everything good proceeds from enthusiasm. The sense of “I really want to know how this turns out” will drive you on through many, many long nights of no results, whereas the feeling of “I think I ought to do this” dries up very quickly.

The big mistake is to wait for inspiration. It won’t come looking for you. It’s not so much creating something, I think, it’s noticing when something is starting to happen — noticing it and then building on it and saying, “Okay, that’s new, that hasn’t happened before. What does it mean? Where can I go with it?”

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David Lynch on Where Ideas Come From

We don’t do anything without an idea. So they’re beautiful gifts. And I always say, you desiring an idea is like a bait on a hook — you can pull them in. And if you catch an idea that you love, that’s a beautiful, beautiful day. And you write that idea down so you won’t forget it. And that idea that you caught might just be a fragment of the whole — whatever it is you’re working on — but now you have even more bait. Thinking about that small fragment — that little fish — will bring in more, and they’ll come in and they’ll hook on. And more and more come in, and pretty soon you might have a script — or a chair, or a painting, or an idea for a painting.

Via Brain Pickings

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Craft

Toshiaki Omori, master shoemaker. Compare.

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Annie Lennox on Creativity

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The Value of Uncertainty

“You have to have an idea of what you are going to do, but it should be a vague idea.”

— Pablo Picasso

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Quote of the Day

“A ship in harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are for.”

— William G.T. Shedd

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Blocked

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

“Yesterday was my Birth Day,” Coleridge wrote in his notebook in 1804, when he was thirty-two. “So completely has a whole year passed, with scarcely the fruits of a month. — O Sorrow and Shame…. I have done nothing!”

In a 2004 piece in the New Yorker, Joan Acocella considers writers block. Why exactly do writers stop writing? (Pictured: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, one of the first known sufferers of writers block, a condition that does not seem to have existed, as such, before the early 19th century.)

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Malcolm Gladwell: Late Bloomers

Prodigies like Picasso … tend to be “conceptual,” [the economist David] Galenson says, in the sense that they start with a clear idea of where they want to go, and then they execute it. “I can hardly understand the importance given to the word research,” Picasso once said in an interview with the artist Marius de Zayas. “… I have never made trials or experiments.”

But late bloomers, Galenson says, tend to work the other way around. Their approach is experimental. “Their goals are imprecise, so their procedure is tentative and incremental,” Galenson writes…

Malcolm Gladwell, “Late Bloomers,” on precocious vs. late-blooming artists, and two very different types of creativity: conceptual and experimental. This article helped me understand myself and my own (experimental) creative method, and it is still a consolation to me. (More here.)