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!