I’m starting a new kind of blog post. “Bookshelf” posts are brief recommendations for books about creativity and/or the arts that I have enjoyed and found valuable. They might be books that I return to year after year, or new discoveries. If you have suggestions of your own, please feel free to get in touch.
Today’s: Art’s Supplies, by Chris Tougas. Published by Orca Books.
From the blurb: “In this delightful tale of the power of the imagination, Art’s supplies come to life in the studio, creating mayhem and magic- and art! Pastels, pencils and paints, crayons, brushes and markers, everything gets in on the act of creating a mess-terpiece of fun.”
This is a kids’ picture book, with beautiful illustrations and some lovely art jokes. (For example, a pencil says “2B or not 2B? That is the question,” to which an H pencil replies “He may be smooth, but I can draw circles around this guy!”)
“I’m happiest when my music is going well. So if I find time for my creativity, everything else falls into place. If the music isn’t going well, everything else suffers.”—
Amin Bhatia, Gemini winning film and TV composer, currently composer for the TV police drama Flashpoint.
And also…one of my favourite people and a good friend. Among many things I love about him, I ’ve always admired the fact that he sees creativity as akin to breathing: something we all can do and need to do, and not as some magical zenith that only the elite can ever reach.
This was from an interview I did with Amin last year. I’m posting it in honour of his impending arrival on my doorstep for dinner. Since we live in different cities these days, this is not something to be taken for granted. So, to those who help us to be big in the world…cheers!
Lots of advice here. Inevitably, some of it is contradictory. I guess if it works for you, accept it. If it doesn’t, just leave it on the side of your plate.
A couple of my favourites:
"I liken the process to seeing ghosts: the ideas are always there, half-formed. It’s about being in the right state of mind to take them and turn them into something that works." (Faye Dangerfield)
"For me, the image of the tortured artist is a myth – you don’t need to be miserable to write songs." (Faye Dangerfield)
"Your creativity is like a tap: if you don’t use it, it gets clogged up." (Faye Dangerfield)
"Make sure you are asking a question that is addressed both to the world around you and the world within you. It’s the only way to keep going when the doubt sets in.” (Rupert Goold)
"Don’t try to second-guess what people will want to buy. Successful artists have been so because they have shown people something they hadn’t imagined. If buyers all knew what they wanted before it had been made, they could have made it themselves, or at least commissioned it." (Polly Morgan)
"Mistakes can be inspiring – allow yourself to take risks, and do what scares you." (Kate Royal)
"Get some perspective. I always thought I had to have music every second of every day, or I wouldn’t survive. The truth is that when I step back from it and learn to enjoy the more mundane aspects of life, I appreciate my music so much more." (Kate Royal)
"Hang on in there. Inspiration can come at any time, even after it feels like you haven’t been getting anywhere. Keep your stamina up, don’t force too hard, and trust that you will find your way." (Ian Rickson)
"Questions often open the doors of the imagination, even if we feel we should provide answers." (Ian Rickson)
"Once there’s an idea, turn it upside down and take it seriously for a moment – even if it seems silly." (Sunand Prasad)
And, from one of the readers in the comments field, “If you rely on inspiration alone, you’ll never get anything done.” (‘HunterKiller)
This article appeared in the New York Times recently. It’s written by Susan Cain, who apparently is the author of a forthcoming book called “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” (which, obviously, I haven’t read).
I find this article very interesting, and I think it raises some good points. There often is a tendency to assume that the extrovert way is the only way, or even the best way, so work on introversion is important. I remember being quite struck when I came across the book “The Introvert Advantage,” which also took issue with the way that extroversion assumes a kind of default position in our society.
However - although I respect the fact that writers sometimes need to take a firm stance for one side of an argument over another - I find it problematic that “lone creativity” and “group creativity” are set up as dichotomous in this article. (Me? Have a problem with dichotomous thinking?! Who would have guessed?!) Why do we need to choose?
I come up as an introvert on most indicators (although many people who have met me would be surprised to hear that, since I can give the impression of being quite extroverted). I often have an extremely strong need to have time alone to think. I frequently have to leave the open plan space of my office in my day job to actually get any work done. Even in a group situation, I’ll often disappear into my own head for a while, especially when I’m ideating. But I also have a background in collaborative creative thinking, both through formal facilitation and informal meetings of minds. And some of the most interesting projects I have been involved in have been wonderful collaborations with people with vastly different skill sets and visions. I absolutely think that collaboration and group work can be vital, and can generate ideas that might not be possible for a single person (to say nothing of the buy-in that can result from a group process).
But why does it have to be either/or? In my experience, group work frequently fuels thinking that comes to fruition for one person, and people can often contribute to the group process better when they know that they’ll also have the space for solitude. Most of the creative people I most admire need a healthy balance of both.
When all is said and done, self knowledge goes a long way here. The capacity to say “I think I need some time to think about this by myself” or to know when collaboration might offer a vital counterweight to solitude is absolutely invaluable, and having team members who know what they need to be creatively productive is a powerful thing.
On a slightly different point, I’m interested that Cain quotes Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as arguing that many creative people are introverts; Csikszentmihalyi also argues that many creative people show traits of both introversion AND extroversion (I recently came across the term “ambivert” to describe this personality type), and I have been wondering what this does to the traditional introvert/extrovert dichotomy. I’d be interested to hear other people’s perspectives on this.
I read an article recently that argued that professionals devalue themselves when they give their expertise away for free, unless it is specifically a marketing tool that will generate more clients. The writer argued that the casual coffee or lunch, or the “Can I pick your brains?” conversation should always be charged at consultancy rates.
I have a certain amount of sympathy for this. I know that many people who are in the public sphere receive numerous requests for coffees or lunches every week and can’t possibly meet them all and still make a living. And why should they? Are they obligated to have lunch with a stranger and impart all their expertise without any financial gain, just because they have a public profile? Lawyers, doctors and other professionals don’t offer to give you their expertise for free unless it is a designated pro bono cause. You don’t drop an email to a surgeon and ask if they can give up their lunch hour to give you some quick surgery; if you did, they would probably say “Make an appointment at my clinic!” Why is other expertise different?
(I must confess I was shocked the first time I came across this; I asked someone I had seen speak if she was interested in a coffee and she said yes – and she would only charge me $250. I took that as a no, and politely declined. I’ve got used to it now, and can see both sides.)
However, this post isn’t about whether people should or shouldn’t, or whether it’s rude to even ask, or rude to say no, or about capitalism and alternative forms of currency, or about the moral, ethical or economic implications of either stance.
It’s a post about gratitude…for all the people in our lives who HAVE given us expertise for free, without any expectation of direct reciprocity, even though they didn’t have to.
For myself, I can’t imagine how my life without the many wonderful people who have given me their their time, energy, support and expertise with no expectation of anything in return. They are people who – for whatever reason – have gone out of their way to help me move closer to my goals.
Perhaps they believed in me as an individual. Perhaps they believed in the power of mentoring, of passing things onto the next generation, of “paying it forward”. Perhaps they got something from me in return (not money necessarily, but ideas, stimulation, friendship). Perhaps they themselves were grateful to have received a break from other people and wanted to pass that on, trusting that I would, in turn, do the same for others. Perhaps I just got them on a good day.
These people have taught me new ways of thinking, helped me develop practical skills, opened up possibilities, imparted advice, paved the way for new opportunities, given me wisdom about the nature of the world or simply taken the time to answer my questions. Some of them came into my life very briefly – in some cases, literally only for ten minutes – while others became significant mentors over time. And it wasn’t just when I was a child, or a teenager or “just starting out” but continues now. In fact, I have two such examples coming up in the next few days – of people who barely know me but have offered help without my even asking for it. “Thank you” doesn’t cut it, but might be all that’s expected.
I don’t think this experience is unique to me. We probably all have similar stories of people who share their wisdom, passion and skills with us “for free,” with no exchange of consultancy fees. These experiences help us grow, build our confidence, give us hope and make us a little less alone in the world. We carry these people around with us forever, long after we have lost contact, enriched by what they gave us. The “fee for services” is gratitude. And, when we can (it’s not always possible, or advisable), we pass it on to others, too.
So, if this resonates for you, as we move into the uncertainty of 2012 I invite you to join me in taking a moment to think about all those people who have offered you “free consultations” and to take a moment to say thank you.
I read an interview with author Emma Donoghue a while ago in which she says it’s impossible to tell where ideas come from: “It’s like asking someone where they picked up a cold.”* In other words, sources of ideas are everywhere and it’s hard to predict where you’ll find them next.
I find the same is true of inspiration. Sometimes I actively seek out sources of inspiration, and sometimes – as was the case last week – I find them accidentally.
Yes. I think it’s fairly safe to say that, when we decided as a family to go to see “Happy Feet 2” – the children’s animated movie featuring dancing penguins – I thought it was mostly to entertain the wee one. I wasn’t planning to use it for creative fodder. It certainly wasn’t what Julia Cameron would call an “artist’s date”.
But there it was. Happy Feet 2 was inspiring. In the kind of “Wow! That’s cool” kind of way.
The sheer magnitude of its vision was awe-inspiring. Why decide to animate a few tap-dancing penguins when you can animate thousands of them, and add in a few hundred elephant seals to boot? Why imagine a few penguins singing a kid’s song, when you can have thousands of penguins singing contemporary pop songs…in harmony? No safe choices here. The sheer time, energy, effort and money that went into it is staggering. And the number of people involved – each with specialist expertise (and the creative skills to pull it off) – is fantastic. What an amazing example of collaboration!
I also had a gentle chuckle to myself about what is possible in the creative industries. If a young child announced to the world that when she grew up she wanted to be the choreographer for thousands of dancing animated penguins, she probably wouldn’t have been taken very seriously. If another kid devoted huge energy learning how to draw the perfect singing “krill,” knowing that one day this was a skill he would use, he probably would have been dismissed by his teachers as unemployable. And if a teenager told his parents that his dream was really to be the voice of a cartoon elephant seal with an Aussie accent, they might have had many late-night whispered conversations about his future. But they were real jobs in this movie.
(Oh, and for the record, the wee one enjoyed it too. I don’t believe I actually heard her say, “That was a source of inspiration for me due to the magnitude of its vision and the amazing intricacies of its collaborative efforts” but I’m pretty sure that was what she was thinking as she waddled down the steps pretending to be a penguin.)
I have found myself falling into a trap I thought I knew to avoid. “Will I ever learn?” I scream at myself.
As my last post indicates, I had decided that I would take the week off from posting over the Christmas/New Year holidays, thinking that a break might be a good idea. It wasn’t.
Throughout the week, I continued to have ideas for posts. That’s ok. Ideas come. I like that about them. No big deal. In the usual run of things, I make a note of them in an email or on the back of an envelope and keep going with my life.
But because I was taking a break, I didn’t write the posts I was thinking about. I didn’t jot down the central threads. I didn’t even capture the ideas for later. I just left them, swirling around in my brain, with no way out.
In the meantime, I read a lot, did some other kinds of writing, watched movies, talked to some of my favourite people and generally fed my brain with interesting and inspiring ideas. I also caught up on some sleep, relaxed, exercised and had fun – all excellent kindle for the “creative spark.”
My brain responded by giving me ideas. That’s ok. Ideas come. I respect that about them.
Then I started to think about what my first post of the new year would be. Several options came to mind, and the more I didn’t choose one, the more ideas came to mind.
Still, I didn’t syphon of the ideas into words. Still, I let them swirl around in my head.
And then I started to do that thing that I should never, ever do. Ever. Ever. Ever. I started to IMAGINE what I would write, instead of actually writing it.
And within a couple of days, writing a blog post – which I usually do several times a week with minimal emotional drama – became a mountain I couldn’t imagine climbing.
I got anxious. I got overwhelmed. So many ideas; how would I choose one? So many words; how would I choose the right ones? With no way to organize themselves on the page, the words got muddled in my head, until I didn’t know what I wanted to say. And still I staunchly pretended that I was ignoring them. “I’m not thinking about that,” I told myself, even though my brain thought otherwise.
I convinced myself that the first post of the new year had to set the tone for the entire year. No pressure, there. I convinced myself that the absence of posts for a week meant that the next one had to be brilliant. No pressure, there. I convinced myself that my next post had to include every single idea I had had in a week. No pressure, there.
Then, inevitably, with the stakes so high, the flood of ideas quickly turned into a drought. Too many ideas became not enough ideas. And then no ideas. Instead of sitting down at my computer and having faith that I would find the words – which I KNOW is the only way through the block – I kept convincing myself that I wasn’t thinking about it. I certainly wasn’t feeling anxious about it. That would be ridiculous and completely over-dramatic. I was on holiday. The blog could wait until the new year. So shut up, brain.
In the meantime, brain, like a bored toddler, started to create drama. I would never write another post, it tried to tell me. I had exhausted my ideas, it whined. My blog was dead. I had lost the flow. I would never have another idea about creativity again, it wailed.
This could go on for a long time if I let it, with the mountain getting larger and larger every day until it becomes inconceivable that I ever write again. I know, because I have been there before. I have gone for months at a time without writing because my brain has convinced me that it’s all too hard.
So, tonight, I am dragging myself metaphorically kicking and screaming to the page. While my brain protests that it can’t think of a thing to write, I command it to sit down and write something. While my brain complains that it is all pointless, anyway, I warn it that it has no choice.
Because I know that if I do, the next post will be easy, and I’ll be back in the flow.
As I write this post, I can feel the mountain shrinking back to its proper size. By the time I hit “create post” the mountain will just be a tiny little hump again on a long, and quite enjoyable, journey. I am back to the safe territory of writing. The threat of my imagination has been overcome.
There. Written. Mountain conquered. Perhaps I have learned something after all.