Notes on the Process and Practices of Being Creative

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“Inspiration is for amateurs, the rest of us just get to work” –Chuck Close

“Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration” Thomas Edison

This semester, I have the opportunity to do one of my favorite things, bring my experiences outside the academy into the classroom. I am teaching a festival and art distribution course and tonight we talked about the creative process, a conversation that seemed oddly foreign for the jammed packed 16-week structure of the average university production course. This is what we talked about tonight:

1. Understanding your own creative process is key to bringing your work into a place that allows sharing with others and a process for growth.

Check out this great project about the misconceptions of creativity:

2. Become active at creating the conditions necessary for creative exploration.

“Everybody who does creative work has figured out how to deal with their own demons to get their work done.” -Seth Godin

Peaceful surroundings, time to play, a clear working space, good music, proper beverage, good sleep, surrounding yourself with smart collaborators, the key essential equipment, ect…these conditions are specific to you and will create a space for optimum creativity. Typically we are not always tuned into these necessary conditions but you must find them and use them (often) as a tool toward propelling you forward.

3. Expand your capacity for uncertainty, explore and do stuff everyday.

Most of the work you create will absolutely never see the light of day. Be willing to chase down ideas, even when that idea might not lead to anything. Embrace the process: one-idea leads to the next. You will write, edit, research, organize, create, play and experiment with things that will only build towards those projects you will share with the world. Sometimes you will feel like your spinning your wheels. Engaging with your work daily as a practice is essential to developing your vision. Embrace what John Keats identified as Negative Capability— the willingness to embrace uncertainty, live with mystery, and make peace with ambiguity.

“You’re much more likely to spot surprising relationships and to see fresh connections among ideas, if your mind is constantly humming with issues related to your work. When I’m deep in a project, everything I experience seems to relate to it in a way that’s absolutely exhilarating. The entire world becomes more interesting. That’s critical, because I have a voracious need for material, and as I become hyperaware of potential fodder, ideas pour in. By contrast, working sporadically makes it hard to keep your focus. It’s easy to become blocked, confused, or distracted, or to forget what you were aiming to accomplish…Creativity arises from a constant churn of ideas, and one of the easiest ways to encourage that fertile froth is to keep your mind engaged with your project. When you work regularly, inspiration strikes regularly.”-Arthur Koestler famously termed “bisociation”

4. Make room for the process of excitement and despair.

Creativity is a messy affair. Despair can lead to new things. Constraints can be a really good thing…embrace the hell out of them.

“…a practice of some kind … It quite frequently happens that you’re just treading water for quite a long time. Nothing really dramatic seems to be happening. … And then suddenly everything seems to lock together in a different way. It’s like a crystallization point where you can’t detect any single element having changed. There’s a proverb that says that the fruit takes a long time to ripen, but it falls suddenly … And that seems to be the process.” -Brian Eno

5. There is a gap for beginners.

In the beginning of our creative process, the work tends to not be so good. Make lots of work and fail forward, great insights come from those failures. The more work you do, the faster you close the gap. Its going to take a while, fight your way through it.

Play this until you don’t need it anymore:

6. Create tools, prompts and rituals for your creative process.

Take a look at some of Brian Eno’s strategies:

Freeform capture: Grab from a range of sources without editorializing. According to Tamm, one of Eno’s tactics “involves keeping a microcassette tape recorder on hand at all times and recording any stray ideas that hit him out of the blue – a melody, a rhythm, a verbal phrase.” He’ll then go through and look for links or connections, something that can form the foundation for a new piece of music.

Blank state: Start with new tools, from nothing, and toy around. For example, Eno approaches this by entering the recording studio with no preconceived ideas, only a set of instruments or a few musicians and “just dabble with sounds until something starts to happen that suggests a texture.” When the sound texture evokes a memory or emotion that impression then takes over in guiding the process.

Deliberate limitations: Before a project begins, develop specific limitations. Eno’s example: “this piece is going to be three minutes and nineteen seconds long and it’s going to have changes here, here and here, and there’s going to be a convolution of events here, and there’s going to be a very fast rhythm here with a very slow moving part over the top of it.”

Opposing forces: Sometimes it’s best to generate a forced collision of ideas. Eno would “gather together a group of musicians who wouldn’t normally work together.” Dissimilar background and approaches can often evoke fresh thinking.

Creative prompts: In the ‘70s Eno developed his Oblique Strategies cards, a series of prompts modeled after the I Ching to disrupt the process and encourage a new way of encountering a creative problem. On the cards are statements and questions like: “Would anybody want it?” “Try faking it!” “Only a part, not the whole.” “Work at a different speed.” “Disconnect from desire.” “Turn it upside down.” “Use an old idea.” These prompts are a method of generating specifics, which most creatives respond favorably to.

7. Ideas need time to breath (incubation stage), build that into your schedule and find coping mechanisms.

Current neuroscience research confirms what creatives intuitively know about being innovative: that it usually happens when we are doing mundane activities. After focusing intently on a project or problem, the brain needs to fully disengage and relax in order to have a revelatory moment. It’s often the mundane activities like taking a shower, driving, or taking a walk that lure great ideas to the surface. Composer Steve Reich, for instance, would ride the subway around New York when he was stuck. I often get stuck when editing documentary work and most of my solutions come to me in a dream where I immediately know how remove the block to my thinking about the story.

8. You are not your work and criticisms of your work are not about you.

Arriving at this place of wisdom takes much time and many years of maturity. On your way to this place of wisdom, listen ferociously to what other say and use what is helpful. You have to humble yourself; learning the delicate balance of how to listen to your own instincts as well as integrating the feedback of others.

9. Every once in a while (or more periodically) you need to step back and have a big giant think:

“When I understood the message of what my work was, beyond the visual vocabulary of what I was doing, I was communicating a spirit, an ethos…once I understood what my work was about I could do a whole bunch of different stuff.”-Jonathan Adler, Designer

10. Finally, Success is fickle: “Don’t aim at success

…The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it”― Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning


One thought on “Notes on the Process and Practices of Being Creative

  1. Thank you very much. This has been helpful.

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