I wish I had thought of that myself, but credit goes to ‘The Clay Professor’, Steve Hansen, for at least first sharing it on the internet if not coming up with it himself.
And it seems right, doesn’t it? Some days we are self directed, pulling our own strings, and other days we are at the mercy of some alien puppeteer or outside influence/circumstance. Some days we are the definitive origin of our ideas and behavior, and other days we are reactive. Some days we are marching to our own beat, and others we are obviously being spoon fed, acting out the roles, mouthing the mantas, snugly stereotyped. Some days we are the doers, and others we get done upon…….
This was a topic we discussed a bit in my class this last week. I think it has application throughout our lives, but as creative beings it seems especially suggestive. For artists the question is often how to put ourselves in the right position to foster and capitalize on our inborn creativity. We don’t always know where out best ideas come from, its not always like plucking ripe fruit from the tree. Sometimes its like sticking a shovel into the mud and hoping we come up with more than dirt……
How is this related? How is artistic creativity often a question of victim and protagonist? It seems we are at least occasionally a mix of the two, the hand and the puppet. The truth seems that usually the hand can’t fully express itself without the puppet to put things in context, to dress up the potential in recognized ways, but also that the puppet obviously just lies there lifeless when no hand inhabits the framework to pull its strings….. We might even say that wanting to play the puppet can be a sort of intention. These things are not necessarily as separate as might appear at first.
A guest lecturer in one of my grad courses explained it this way: Any time you prepare to sit down and be creative it makes sense to ‘prime the will’. In other words, artists position themselves to be more successfully creative by arranging the conditions such that the muse is more welcome, more at home when it gets there, and more able to thrive in the practice of creative work. Whatever the powers of your own originality it makes sense to be in the best position possible to take advantage of them.
Once upon a time it seemed that if I was having a bad day there was no reason I should sit down and attempt to be creative. The baggage I carried to my studio would overwhelm my process and defeat any possibility of fruitful exploration. My will had been obstructed at square one. I was more dependent on these circumstances than responsible for my own success. A classic victim. But eventually I discovered that even with defeatist baggage in tow simply being creative sometimes had the power to transform my day. Just getting involved in the process allowed for a transformation that I might not have achieved in any other way. That seems like an interesting observation…….
Here’s something related: Warm-up exercises. Say you were going to run a marathon. You woke up one day, after years of sitting on your couch and eating fried food, and you decided that running a marathon would be a good idea. Obviously the couch time and poor diet won’t be doing you any favors, but its also true that even in the best of circumstances you don’t just decide one day to run a marathon and step out the door to do it. You need preparation. You need practice. You need to construct the conditions that will lead to your eventual accomplishment.
And its this longer view that comes in handy. Say you are a novice potter and you want to throw a large bowl. Well, you can try straight off, but it might make more sense to ease your way into the process. You might work your way up to big by starting in a range you are more comfortable with. Challenge yourself but not risk implosion. Trying to do too much too fast only sabotages our goals and harms our sometimes fragile confidence. It can deflate rather than bolster our will. Make intermediate shapes and sizes as a way of establishing and nurturing your confidence. Lay a foundation of accomplishment before you tackle the higher priority projects. Set expectations on the back burner and work on putting yourself in an optimal working condition. Work on conditioning. It only counts as opportunity if you are in a position to take advantage. Stack those odds in your favor. Prime your will.
So, preparation and setting the right conditions are obviously important for the practice of lesser experienced artists, but what about established professionals? Can we give up on these insights once we have mastered our medium? Perhaps we are more naturally in control then, but why would you knowingly operate at less than your optimal capacity? Why would you accept obstacles in your path when you already know the procedure for painlessly removing them?
Famously, well known successful artists have resorted to all sorts of extremes in personal will priming. We do what it takes to bait the hook for our muse and get the creative process kicked into gear. Occasionally this verges on the superstitious. Take, for instance, Truman Capote. He “wouldn’t begin or end a piece of work on a Friday, would change hotel rooms if the room phone number involved the number 13, and never left more than three cigarette butts in his ashtray, tucking the extra ones into his coat pocket.”
Or this anecdote about Friedrich Schiller:
[Goethe] had dropped by Schiller’s home and, after finding that his friend was out, decided to wait for him to return. Rather than wasting a few spare moments, the productive poet sat down at Schiller’s desk to jot down a few notes. Then a peculiar stench prompted Goethe to pause. Somehow, an oppressive odor had infiltrated the room.
Goethe followed the odor to its origin, which was actually right by where he sat. It was emanating from a drawer in Schiller’s desk. Goethe leaned down, opened the drawer, and found a pile of rotten apples. The smell was so overpowering that he became light-headed. He walked to the window and breathed in a few good doses of fresh air. Goethe was naturally curious about the trove of trash, though Schiller’s wife, Charlotte, could only offer the strange truth: Schiller had deliberately let the apples spoil. The aroma, somehow, inspired him, and according to his spouse, he “could not live or work without it.”
What do you do that sets the table for your creativity? How do you prime your will?
Is ambient background music necessary? The radio? NPR? Podcasts? Or an absence of music? Does sound distract or contaminate what you are trying to do? Do you surround yourself with images? Make the studio a haven of resources from other artist’s ideas? Or are other people’s creativity dangerous influences that might adversely change what we are trying to do? Is a clean studio necessary? A knolled studio? Or is it important that order reign in its absence? Do we need to start working at specific times of day? Do the crossword puzzles first? Do we need to get to work only on a full stomach? Does an empty stomach and a sense of desperation get the creative juices flowing? Is coffee a creative stimulant? Whiskey? (Somehow a cold beer and grad school often seemed to go hand in hand for me) Do we warm up before first sitting down? Are the first few lumps of clay exercises designed to get us in the groove? Do we practice brushwork on paper before we commit to painting on pots?
There are so many potential ways we can take better control over our process. What do you do to make your time in the studio more productive? What things are in your control that you have identified as promoting your chances of creative accomplishment?
I’d love to hear what folks have to say, so don’t be shy about sharing 🙂
Make beauty real!
Nice piece Carter. Wonder though if sll our prepsrations are in the service of msking us better hsnds/doers or better puppets/receivers.
We prepare the hand so it can bring forth magic from even the lamest puppet, and we design a flawless puppet that any child could make amazing gestures with……. But of course the training of one usually has little to do with the training of the other. Which, if you think about it, is probably why we are so used to thinking of them as entirely separate properties of our creative path. And not fully understanding the connection only makes us more the victim of this lack of comprehension.
(“Comprehension”, now there’s an interesting word! Understanding as a means of grasping and being able to make use of. 🙂 The hand and the puppet at work together!)
Inspiration? My most common one is a deadline….
Lee, that’s interesting. Do you put yourself in the position of having deadlines just so you can make pots? Is the control you exert over your process the taking on of deadlines? Do you find that without deadlines your pots suffer or are harder to make?
The thing this essay asks is how we find a connection between the success of our process and the conditions we allow ourselves to work in. If we can fine tune the stuff that works for us we can have greater control of the outcome. They say that with a big enough lever you can shift the world. Finding those levers is what makes a difference….. I suppose I can see how deadlines would light a fire under my a-s, but is that all the control you’ve got?
I don’t think inspiration is the craftsman’s dilemma. Much of the creativity comes out of the process. Things like deadlines help you keep your attention out of your head and on your work.
As someone who had studied in a Buddhist monastery I was interested to hear whether there were special rituals you had that prepared you for working with clay. Is the work itself the mindful meditation? Are there things about the studio itself that make a difference in your craftsmanship practice?
The question is whether anything really matters: Are you making it up as you go? Do you care about the preparation? Could the studio be either a complete mess or tidy and clean and it wouldn’t make a difference to you? Do you like having your dogs in the studio while you work or is it hard to get work done with them in the shop with you?
These are the sorts of question this essay was asking……In what ways are you in control of the outcome and in what ways are you simply the victim of circumstance? How can you put yourself in a better position to make good work?
Remember that Hamada story that Michael Simon tells in that interview with Mark Shapiro?
THIS is the question I am asking, really. Hamada would invite neighbors over. What are the conditions that effect that change in our own approach and practice? What are the conditions that allow us to ‘just get in there and work’ without it being a distraction? Or, is your (or anybody’s) practice dependent on distraction? I’m sure some artists need to be working differently than those old folk potters and do their best work when they are not just making with ‘deep judgment’ but are actively contemplating a work’s existence in the context of their own output, the context of art history, and the context of a marketplace. The work for some may not simply stand on its own but be a symptom of all these other influences. The question is how we put ourselves in the best position to express whatever those conditions and effects are.
One of the best books on creativity is “Imagine – How Creativity Works by Johan Lehrer. Unfortunately the book was pulled by the publisher when it came out that he had fabricated some of the stuff in the book and self-plagiarized other parts. The biggy – a quote attributed to Bob Dylan that he made up. That is too bad as I found his book extremely enjoyable and he explains the complicated workings of the brain in a very understandable format. I have summarized his two main themes – insights and working memory in part I and part II of my blog.
The chapter on insights is extremely helpful. Just yesterday I experienced what Lehrer was talking about. Carter’s post got me thinking about how I get my creative juices flowing and most often it is by sketching which I did on our way to our farm yesterday while my husband drove. I was sketching small wall plaques with abstract designs and then wondered how I would hang them, thinking that I would use kanthal wire loops embedded in the back. At that moment another idea jumped out at me! A few years ago I had given up on trying to make yarn bowls – those bowls with spiral cutouts on the side that knitters put their yarn balls in and then pull the yarn through the side via the cut out. I had found that the bowls with the cut outs often would distort and they did not look very elegant. As well if the person did not end up using it for yarn,then it would be hard to use it for other uses as it had all these holes in the side. What came to me in the car while i was sketching wall plaques was a true insight. – I would make a spiral out of the Kanthal wire and imbed one end of it in the rim of a yarn bowl – the knitter would run the yarn through the wire spiral. This would look much nicer and also would be multi-functional as a serving dish if one wanted to…This proved Lehrer’s statement that you will never get a true insight – a totally new solution to a problem unless you are stumped, given up on it (I had not thought of the yarn bowl problem for several years) and now are thinking about something totally different!
I was a big Jonah Lehrer fan, and I miss his blog over at Wired. He always pointed folks to interesting research, and I used his essays numerous times as starting points for my own posts. I was able to purchase a copy of his book before it was pulled from the shelves, but have yet to read it. Someday I’m sure I will.
I think you are right to point out the importance of ‘breakthrough’ moments and Lehrer’s take on this. Its only by challenging ourselves that we confront the unknown. ‘Insight’ is the term we use for the unexpected solutions where we may not have even identified problems yet. Sometimes finding a ‘solution’ actually frames the problem. Insight often shows us why other options are less satisfactory.
So in a sense this stands opposed to what I am advocating in this post. Insight is almost the exception to nose to the grindstone work. In a sense. Of course they are related and not mutually exclusive, but if you aim at insight you may be doing some things that you may not find helpful in just ‘warming up’. This is worth considering.
Jonah Lehrer had lots to say on this topic, and back in February of 2012 I wrote a post exploring these issues. It owes everything to Lehrer’s research.
To paraphrase John Lennon (modified for our topic): Insight is what happens while you are making other plans.
Inspiration always seems to be a very slow thing, I have a sketchbook that I keep and doodle forms in, though I wouldn’t say the biggest breaks come through that process. I would say some of the biggest breaks lately have come from listening to Tales of a Red Clay Rambler while I am working, and the smallest thing can spark an idea.
Since getting accepted on an MA course for this coming idea, I keep having ideas completely unrelated to my research subject. So now as I type this out it seems I come up with most ideas when my mind is already busy with something else, as a lot illustrators seem to say just go to work you haven’t got time to sit around waiting for inspiration.
Many years ago when I first became an artist I had ideas constantly, I was writing poetry constantly, and drawing constantly trying to learn all these new things, and I had more ideas than I could focus on, and would wake up in the night to write things down. I read Terry Brooks “Sometimes the Magic Works: Lessons from a Writing Life” and the one thing I took away from the book was ideas can wait and many will be nonsense, especially in the middle of the night and if they are worth it they will stick around and not just vanish in a puff of smoke.
So now when it comes to the ideas though I have to let them sit and mull over them, for weeks and months. I write them down from time time time in a sketchbook set aside for such notes and it can be interesting to go back to that sketchbook and see if there is anything I can steal for this moment.
Sounds like you have a real process for putting yourself in the path of inspiration and success. And as you point out, the muse doesn’t always care what you think you should be focusing on.
I am interested in the idea of a sketchbook for recording these insights. You can’t always control when you first get an idea but you can give it some solidity and return to it when the timing is better. That’s a great point to make.
I would say that I’m not so sure that the ideas stick around just by themselves. I haven’t read that book, so I don’t know what the reasoning is, but to me it seems that ideas become more solid by making them a part of something larger, by connecting them up with other ideas and practices. Just having the idea is no guarantee that it will stick around. Its not the responsibility of the idea to stick or even its choice. Rather, the human mind retains some things and loses others. The mind needs to be prepared to make use of the idea or the idea won’t have anything to stick to.
And that’s why recording ideas in sketchbooks seems like such a good way of pinning individual thoughts down. Its by expressing ourselves that our thoughts take on a life of their own. We give them a context that they can be located in and found when we look for them. Without the further scaffolding the idea isn’t connected to much that we could return to or navigate in an attempt to find it again. The more ideas are embedded in a way of life the easier they are to recall.
Starting to ramble, but I liked your thoughts. Thanks Joseph!
David Foster Wallace:
From the Opinionator essay ‘The Wisdom of exile’, by Costica Bradatan:
From the ‘You Are Not So Smart’ podcast, starting at 45:50:
I think Hamada invited folks to chat while he was making chawan, so he wouldn’t over intellectualize the process. Preparations? The big thing I learned during my apprenticeship, was that you always knew what you were going to make before you got to the wheel. You were give a model, thrown by the head thrower, and a measuring gauge. So, you never had to figure out what the form was as you were making it. When I teach, I recommend doing this kind of work, even if it is only from one from, like a yunomi. Because, as beginners, rather than developing skill, when the clay doesn’t do what you intended, you go with what it does and make something else, rather than the form you originally hoped for. Working from a model to the potter is like sketching for the artist.
I did do Chi Kung breathing at the start of every wheel day of my apprenticeship. But that was because an apprenticeship with a National Living Treasure was so difficult, and it was a way to settle in before beginning work. After my apprenticeship was finished, I took up doing azen at my wheel, instead of on the floor, as a start of the day.
Studying at Shimaoka’s was a lot like being at a mud monastery. In fact, a good friend visited me in Mashiko, a Priest who studied with the same teacher as I, and I brought him over to the workshop to see the new workers and apprentices workshop at Shimaoka’s. I opened the sliding door and let him in, and I said to him, “Doesn’t this remind you of….” and he completed my sentence, “Like the traditional Soto Zen zendo.” I said, “Yes, except no tatami to sit on, and a hole in the platform for the wheel.
A really important aspect of the practice during my apprenticeship was the first half hour of the day. At 7:30am, all the apprentices began their day by working in the garden. (the craftsmen did not arrive until 8am.) The garden and buildings were situated like what you would find at a Zen temple. My area included the 17th century tea house that was moved from Yokohama to my teacher’s compound. Raking, sweeping and pulling weeds always refreshed us for a new day. On memorial day weekend in 1983, I came to Minneapolis to get advice about monastic study in Japan from Dainin Katagiri Roshi. I quickly realized, that I needed to learn more before I went to Japan. I studied 7 years until his death.. But at his 3 days wake, where I was an attendant, instead of continuing my studies to become a zen priest, that I’d learn pottery and try to share what I learned from Katagiri through clay. I felt that in the West, we intellectualize Buddhism too much. So rather than lecturing, it might be better to share in silence, through what is made. I began my first clay class that same year.
Three years after Katagiri’s, passing I made my first return to Japan. Eight years after his passing, I was invited to a show in Japan by Warren MacKenzie in Nikko. He showed 100 pieces and he invited 12 potters to each show 10 pieces (I was the newest of the 12.) Nine years after his passing, I moved to Japan and finally found myself in a clay temple, doing what I set out to do 16 years before.
That’s an incredible story! So amazing that you have been able to live the life you have lived.
And, yes, those scenarios are more of what I was talking about in terms of placing ourselves in a position to make best use of our time and experience. Thanks for sharing! I wish more folks had responded with their own stories……
Thanks Carter! Here is something I wrote for a friend about how I got into making pots. I wrote it about 16 years ago, while I was in Japan. Also, my first interest in pottery came about in college, during an anthropology of S. America class, when I asked how a a shard of Jomon pottery ended up in Peru. She said, “Nobody knows. It is a strange fluke.” I thought, ‘how ethnocentric not to be able to admit that Asia had access to the Americas 10,000 years ago, and that they made their way all the way to Peru.’
Usually the last bowl inspires the next one….
These are all the same soda ash-less shino glaze.
From a post I wrote a few years ago: