Sunday, October 24, 2010

Enhance Your Creativity

Two decades ago I was chatting with a well-known and highly successful artist at a cocktail party that was being held in the salon of an art collector.

As we were getting acquainted, our eyes fell to a work of art on prominent display. It looked very cutting edge, to the point where it made no sense to me at all.

Yet, the hostess who had chosen the piece knew far more about it than I did, so I decided to keep my opinion to myself. Besides, I was not going to offer an uninformed judgment it to a world-renowned artist.

My problem solved itself when the artist turned to me and said, a propos of the piece we were examining: “He needs to work harder.”

Given that the man who uttered those words produces works that seem effortless in their grace and beauty, I understood that he was saying that it takes a lot of very hard work to make art look easy.

It’s the art world version of Dolly Parton’s line: “You’d be surprised how much it costs to look this cheap.”

Great art, then, is more perspiration than inspiration. Perhaps this allows us to overcome the idea that if we destroy the Protestant work ethic we are going to give rise to a world filled with brilliant manifestations of spontaneous creativity.

Since we have already done significant damage to said work ethic, we should know that when a culture overcomes it, it produces jejune splatterings and pompous psychodramas that pretend to be art.

Yesterday the Wall Street Journal published an article by the superb novelist, Allegra Goodman. In it she describes a moment when, as a teenager, she came to realize, from reading Aileen Ward’s biography of John Keats, that talent and inspiration were not enough to make great poetry. It was more important to engage the hard work of editorial revision. Link here.

In her words: "Like many literary teenagers, I believed that art was a matter of instinct—that the artist's first impulse is the most authentic, that revision is something you do to essays but hardly applies to poetry or fiction. I pictured revision as drudge work, spoiling all that was fresh and original. But what if revision actually improved ideas?"

The key to good writing is the writer’s ability to edit his writing, to step back from it, and to look at it objectively with fresh eyes.

To achieve greatness, a great writer will have to know how bad initial drafts are, and will be able to overcome the chagrin he feels when he recognizes that the good feelings he had while writing the draft did not translate into supple or even interesting prose.

A great writer will go through many, many drafts. Coleridge notwithstanding, no one produces great lines of poetry without reworking them over and over again.

[FYI-- I am referring to Samuel Coleridge’s contention that he dreamt his poem “Kubla Khan” and simply wrote it down when he woke up. Whether this is true or false, the notion has surely led many young artists astray.]

This is not just about art: being able to step back from your work, and to look at it with fresh eyes, is crucial in other occupations.

If you are an executive or a professional you should try to step out of yourself to see how you look to others. Do you look like you are in charge or do you look like you are scared? Do you look like you grasp the situation or do you look like you are in over your head?

This is not introspection. It does not involve empathy. It requires a harsh objectivity, an ability to judge your work  without thinking that you are judging yourself.

Perhaps you will be surprised-- I was not-- to learn that if we follow the advice that the therapy culture has been meting out, we will all become bad artists, unsuccessful executives, and probably not very good people, either.

As Goodman says: "We grow up hearing that we should just be ourselves, and listen to our inner voices. But what if your authentic self won't shut up? What if your inner voice is boring? In revision you cut excess verbiage. Revising, you can experiment with other voices."

As for those therapists who believe that artists are in closer touch with their unconscious minds, Goodman writes: "It's great to tap into your unconscious, but remember how impressionable the unconscious can be, how quick to absorb the tropes of television and romance and life-affirming or cautionary memoir. Revision means testing and questioning conventions, forging a path through the cultural clutter that we mistake for our own creativity."

It’s not just about prose stylings; it’s also about ideas. Goodman is saying that many of our most dearly held beliefs are unexamined ideas that we pick up willy-nilly from television or the movies. Once we discover that these ideas have some value as cultural currency, we adhere to them with conviction.

It is essential to test one’s beliefs, to question them, to look at them as though they might not be gospel truth, as though they might not be the perfect expression of the warm feelings we had when we thought them up.

For Goodman the process of revision is more science than alchemy, more experimental than inspirational. She concludes: “Like a scientist, I test my ideas and hone the words I use as instruments. Revision is a form of experimentation, art a method for discovery.”


Anonymous said...

One minor may not the the time put in on that piece of art, but the cumulative time spent developing the craft. The jazz musician does improvise his solo "on the spot" without editing, but a powerful solo will no doubt be preceded by 1000s of hours to accomplish the magic of a few minutes.

Dennis said...

The jazz musician does spend untold hours in practice to learn the instrument and to develop a vocabulary with which to work. It is as much a language as what one uses for writing or any other form of communication.
There has to be an almost "compartmentalization' between the conscious and the unconscious mind. In jazz and for that matter other forms of music to analyze is to paralyze.
At some point one does has to ask themselves why do I think the way I do and the best way to do that is to write it down. It is easy to think an idea than it is to make sense of it in a logical manner.

Cane Caldo said...

Who can bother to work towards excellence while among a people who cannot discriminate? We live in a time that denies that any sort of objective worth can exist, much less be recognized.

Dennis said...

Why does it matter if, supposed, we live in a time where people cannot discriminate? Because that has always been the way of life. One works towards excellence because one wants to be the best one can be. Eventually that talent and work is recognized. All the great art, music, et al happened in the same environment where most people are concerned just about survival.
I never have understood the idea that because others seem to be uninterested then working towards excellence is not worth the time or effort. All real success is inner directed by the individual and has little to do with others. To allow others to determine one's direction in life is to be controlled by others and to become a slave.
We become the people we are by how we handle the challenges we face in life. Talent/creativity is only about 5 to 10 percent of any worth while goal. The rest is hard work.
The magic of that "few minutes" of ultimate success in one's endeavor is worth the work if one has ever felt it. To communicate, no matter whether that is through words, sounds, paints, et al, ideas about the joys, sorrows of life, et al is to affirm life as one lives it.

Cane Caldo said...

"One works towards excellence because one wants to be the best one can be. Eventually that talent and work is recognized."

Last things first: Wish it were so, but too many instances of excellence are never recognized. Anyone who's ever worked for someone else knows this truth.

You're making an assumption that your desire for excellence is pervasive and immutable among the populace as a whole. I'm dubious. Here's one of my very favorite quotes (which I've probably put here before.)

"For when once people have begun to believe that prosperity is the reward of virtue, their next calamity is obvious. If prosperity is regarded as the reward of virtue it will be regarded as the symptom of virtue. Men will leave off the heavy task of making good men successful. He will adopt the easier task of making out successful men good." ~G.K. Chesterton

You're right that one must pursue excellence for its own (his own) sake, but I wasn't really asking what this fellow,or that gal, would do. I know what they do: They watch Animal Planet and tell everyone they love nature. They think "Two-and-a-Half Men" has a point about male-female relations...and these are the people with whom I sympathize!

I was asking really asking: Why should they change when there is no profit in it? Would a reasonable person expect change?

Cane Caldo said...

One more point.

"All the great art, music, et al happened in the same environment where most people are concerned just about survival."

Perhaps, but the motivation was a wealthy class willing to pay for such things. I'm sure there are outliers, but I'm having a hard time thinking of any great work of art that wasn't commissioned or encouraged by some nobleman's purse. Part of this is because the nobility were fundamentally separate from the masses. They had no problem saying what they preferred was greater than the tastes of commoners. I favor democracy, but it's been hell on art.

Dennis said...

Excuses, excuses. Mozart wrote a few while out of favor. Handel wrote a few while he was out of favor. Frede Grope's Grand Canyon Suite." Gershwin's
"American In Paris" This is to assume that great music only covers the classics which is not the case.
Excuses, excuses.
There may be many a case where "excellence" in your opinion is not recognized, but one would never know if someone did not make the effort. You make an assumption that I believe that excellence is pervasive, but it does not have to be. Excellence is an individual's goal. This is not to infer that excellence cannot come from anyone who is will work for it and will accept that failure is part of the learning process. In most cases too many people are afraid of failure and they content themselves with that which they know or they make excuses for themselves or posit that other people are just not good enough to appreciate excellence as defined by them. Miles Davis somewhat reached that point late in his career.
Excuse, excuses.
One gets what one expects. One will never enhance one's creativity if they are not willing to work for it and face the challenges of possible failure or that of not being recognized. Life is.

Cane Caldo said...

1. Don't mistake the argument for the arguer.

2. Re: Mozart, et al.--Nobles still defined what was great; they were the audience to whom composer's wrote. Gershwin's success was under the oligarchies of Broadway and the Hollywood studio system. You prove my point.

3. I've never once forwarded the idea that the pursuit of excellence is anything else than personal; in fact I've based my case on it. There is a virulent strain of perverse incentives that punishes those pursuers, and rewards those clever enough to play the various social games instead. This is the one useful lesson from huge success of reality TV: most people have really crappy taste.