Thursday, 11 December 2014

exploring creativity

I started this blog on the 29th December, 2009. I don't exactly want to say that I'm closing it down, but I do want to acknowledge that I haven't posted here since October, and haven't posted any personal reflections since the month before that.

I don't really want to write anymore about the mysteries of blocks and process. For now, at least, I don't  want to spend any more time analysing what's going going on, or speculating about what it is that gets in the way. I would really much rather just step over the sleeping policeman in the road and get on with making my art.

I hope the sharing of so much personal struggle has been helpful. That was the idea. Otherwise I could have just written it all in my diary. Perhaps at some unexpected turn in the road I'll want to come back in here and start writing again. It will be something different.

I'm at  and

Have fun. Do your thing, make your stuff. Creativity is the light!


Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Monday, 20 October 2014

tricking creativity

Some great ideas here from the Brainpickings site:

Oblique Strategies: Brian Eno’s Prompts for Overcoming Creative Block, Inspired by John Cage

...and also very interesting links at the end of this piece..

These two quotes from the first link above:

'First of all, being creative is not summoning stuff ex nihilo. It’s work, plain and simple — adding something to some other thing or transforming something. In the work that I do, as a writer and a metaphor designer, there’s always a way to get something to do something to do something else. No one talks about work block.
Also, block implies a hydraulic metaphor of thinking. Thoughts flow. Difficulty thinking represents impeded flow. This interoperation also suggests a single channel for that flow. A stopped pipe. A dammed river. If you only have one channel, one conduit, then you’re vulnerable to blockage. Trying to solve creative block, I imagine a kind of psyching Roto-Rootering.
My conceptual scheme is more about the temperature of things: I try to find out what’s hot and start there, even if it may be unrelated to what I need to be working on, and most of the time, that heats up other areas too. You can solve a lot with a new conceptual frame.'

'I don’t believe in writer’s block.
Yes, there may have been days or even weeks at a time when I have not written — even when I may have wanted to — but that doesn’t mean I was blocked. It simply means I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or, as I’d like to argue, exactly the right place at the right time.
The creative process has more than one kind of expression. There’s the part you could show in a movie montage — the furious typing or painting or equation solving where the writer, artist, or mathematician accomplishes the output of the creative task. But then there’s also the part that happens invisibly, under the surface. That’s when the senses are perceiving the world, the mind and heart are thrown into some sort of dissonance, and the soul chooses to respond.
That response doesn’t just come out like vomit after a bad meal. There’s not such thing as pure expression. Rather, because we live in a social world with other people whose perceptual apparatus needs to be penetrated with our ideas, we must formulate, strategize, order, and then articulate. It is that last part that is visible as output or progress, but it only represents, at best, 25 percent of the process.
Real creativity transcends time. If you are not producing work, then chances are you have fallen into the infinite space between the ticks of the clock where reality is created. Don’t let some capitalist taskmaster tell you otherwise — even if he happens to be in your own head.'


Wednesday, 15 October 2014

the art of not knowing what you're doing

'Twenty-five years ago when I was a first year PhD student, a friend talked me into attending a creative writing workshop. Since I’d never done anything like that before, I had no prior expectations…but I was totally unprepared for what happened. We were given some topic to write about, I put my pen to the page and I found myself writing a weird fantasy-fairy tale about a comic strip character who was clearly on acid. It was the strangest thing I’d ever seen. 

So many of my clients think that they need to know in advance what their creative work will look like. But when we open up the creative, we don’t know what we’re going to get. By definitioncreativity is about bringing something forth that you haven’t seen before. It’s NEW. You’re not going to KNOW what it is beforehand. 

People get confused about this. They think they need to figure it out ahead of time, have a 5-year plan for how they’re going to complete it (and earn an income from it) and have all their ducks in a row before they begin to write, paint, dance, make music. I get emails that sound something like this, “Every day I think about a written book, so I know it is coming. However, I need clarity in order to bring it into manifestation. I have no idea what the finished piece will look like.”The creative process doesn’t work that way. You're not going to figure it out ahead of time.

I love film director David Lynch’s comment to Terry Gross when she interviewed him on NPR’s Fresh Air a few years ago. She asked him something about his work and he said, “You know Terry, when I’m making a movie, I don’t know what I’m doing.” The sculptor stands in front of his marble slab and the image of what wants to be created is likely already there, but hidden in a dimension that can’t be seen. The sculptor just needs to show up, and intuitively “feel in” to where he’s being led to start carving.

One of the biggest misnomers about creativity is that we need to have clarity about something before we begin. Of course you don’t know what the finished piece will look like. Creativity is about NOT knowing. You aren’t going to know. All you can do is value the creative process enough to allow yourself to be “pulled” by something. Trust that if you devote your love to it, you will be led to a door that you didn’t know existed. Once you open that door, something amazing will come. It always does.'

Kim Hermanson:

Monday, 13 October 2014

top ten tips for being a successful poet

Top ten tips for being a successful poet. from Andrew Motion.

Top 10 tips for being a successful poet

Related Stories

Sir Andrew Motion is an English poet and novelist who was Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom from 1999 to 2009.
He has been awarded several poetry awards, including the Arvon Prize, the John Llewelyn Rhys Prize and the Dylan Thomas Prize. He was knighted for his services to literature in 2009.
Here are his top 10 tips for being a successful poet.

1. Let your subject find you

My parents were not writers and they didn't really read very much either. My Dad once told me he had only read half a book in his life. I had a wonderful English teacher called Peter Way. He walked straight into my head, turned all the lights on and he gave me my life really.

Start Quote

If I get stuck I go for a walk or if I don't have much time, I wash my hair - it seems to wake my brain up”
When I was 17, quite soon after I started tinkering around with poems, my mother had a very bad accident, which eventually killed her. So I found myself wanting to express my feelings about that in ways that were relieving to me.
It sounds a slightly self-aggrandising thing to say, but I've always thought that death was my subject. You don't find your subject, it finds you. Writing poems for me is not simply a matter of grieving, though very often it is that, it's wanting to resurrect or preserve or do things that pull against the fact of our mortality.

2. Tap into your own feelings

I never quite believe it when poets say that they're not writing out of their own feelings, and when that is the case, I tend not to be terribly interested in what they're doing.
I don't mean to say that they are writing bad poems, but those aren't the poems that I like most. The poems I most like are where the engine is a very emotional one, where the warmth of strong feeling is very powerfully present in the thing that is being given to us. I think poetry is a rather emotional form and when it isn't that, I'm not very interested in it.

3. Write about subjects that matter to you

I didn't always cope with being commissioned very happily as Poet Laureate to tell the truth. The best poems get written, not by going in the front door of the subject, but round the back or down the chimney or through the window.
Andrew Motion'Reading your poetry out loud is crucial and absolutely indispensable,' says Andrew Motion
'Tell all the truth but tell it slant,' said Emily Dickinson and that's always been a very important remark for me. It can be quite difficult to do that if you're standing in a very public place.
People who live in public, as I very suddenly found myself doing, can get very bruised in the process if they're not used to it. I found all that public stuff extremely difficult to deal with. I never wanted to cut myself off, but wish I had devised better ways of protecting myself.

4. Celebrate the ordinary and be choosy

Honour the miraculousness of the ordinary. What we very badly need to remember is that the things right under our noses are extraordinary, fascinating, irreplaceable, profound and just kind of marvellous.
Look at the things in the foreground and relish stuff that can lose its glow by being familiar. In fact, re-estranging ourselves to familiar things seems to be a very important part of what poetry can do.
If you can, be choosy about what you do, so that the things you do write are the things that you do best.

5. Use everything in your toolbox

Start Quote

Don't go live in an ivory tower, read the newspapers and involve yourself in the world - where do you think subjects come from if not the world?”
I haven't written a rhyming poem now for many years, I seem to have lost my appetite for it but I haven't lost my pleasure in reading them. I think anybody that insists on the presence of rhyme is really not thinking hard enough about what poetry is or can be.
Having said that, it is important to bear in mind that as poets we have a kind of toolbox, in which there are all kinds of different pieces of equipment, not available to any other kind of writer and rhyme is very importantly one of those.
So never to use rhyme in your poetry would be a bit like buying a car and never getting out of second gear. Use everything in your toolbox.

6. If you get stuck, go for a walk or wash your hair

Wordsworth once said that the act of walking was closely related to the creative process. I do love walking and if I get stuck I go for a walk or if I don't have much time, I wash my hair - it seems to wake my brain up!
Even when I'm on a hair washing day, rather than a walking day, I walk up and down my study, just to get myself going.
Poems are so crucially to do with the movement of words through a line or a series of lines, and that is just as important as their shape and the way that we understand them I think.

7. Let your work be open to interpretation

People will interpret your poetry in different ways, but provided the interpretation that is brought to the poem isn't plainly bonkers, I actually enjoy that, I rather hope for it.
Your poem can be a world in which your readers can go and live themselves and seek out things which resonate for them. And it would be completely bonkers of me to try to restrict their reaction.
In Auden's beautiful eulogy for Yeats, he said, 'He became his admirers,' and I think that's kind of what he had in mind actually. You give your work over to your readers and provided they're not crazy, it's absolutely open to them what they find in it.

8. Read your poetry out loud

Andrew MotionAs Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion was called upon to celebrate numerous national events such Remembrance Day at the Imperial War Museum
Reading your poetry out loud is crucial and absolutely indispensable because wherever we reckon the meaning of a poem might lie, we want to admit that it's got as much to do with the noise it makes when we hear it aloud, as it has to do with what the words mean when we see them written down on the page.
In a really fundamental way, I think poetry is an acoustic form and we've slightly forgotten that in the last thousand years. Since the invention of the book, the aliveness of poetry has been perhaps slightly pushed to the edge of things.

9. Find the right time to write

Find your own writing time. Everybody will have a slightly different time of day, I have yet to meet the person who thinks the early afternoon is good, but I expect there is someone out there who thinks that that's a good idea.
For me it's very early in the morning, partly because the house is quiet and partly because I feel I'm stealing a march on things and that makes me feel good.
I think there might be some kind of hook up between what happens in our minds when we're asleep and writing imaginative material. I think good poems get written, as no doubt good paintings get painted, as a result of these two things coming together in an appropriate way.

10.. Read a lot, revise and persevere

Read lots, write lots of course too, but assume that your first thoughts are not your best thoughts, so revise, revise, revise and don't expect every poem to work, because it won't.
Don't go live in an ivory tower, read the newspapers and involve yourself in the world - where do you think subjects come from if not the world?
Persevere. I think right at the beginning of your writing life you really have to accept that within a few years, or possibly even a few months, you are going to be able to wallpaper quite a large room with rejection slips. But don't let that put you off - if you've got it, you've got it!


Saturday, 27 September 2014

how much practice?

How Many Hours a Day Should You Practice?

How much is enough?
Is there such a thing as practicing too much?
Is there an optimal number of hours that one should practice?
What Do Performers Say?
Some of the great artists of the 20th century have shared their thoughts on these questions. I seem to recall reading an interview with Rubinstein years ago, in which he stated that nobody should have to practice more than four hours a day, explaining that if you needed to practice more than four hours a day, you probably weren’t doing it right.
Other great artists have expressed similar sentiments. Violinist Nathan Milstein is said to have once asked his teacher Leopold Auer how many hours a day he should be practicing. Auer responded by saying “Practice with your fingers and you need all day. Practice with your mind and you will do as much in 1 1/2 hours.”
Heifetz also indicated that he never believed in practicing too much, and that excessive practice is “just as bad as practicing too little!” He claimed that he practiced no more than three hours per day on average, and that he didn’t practice at all on Sundays. You know, this is not a bad idea – one of my own teachers, Donald Weilerstein, once suggested that I establish a 24-hour period of time every week where I was not allowed to pick up my instrument.

What Do Psychologists Say?

When it comes to understanding expertise and expert performance, psychologist Dr. K. Anders Ericsson is perhaps the world’s leading authority. His research is the basis for the “ten-year rule” and “10,000-hour rule” which suggest that it requires at least ten years and/or 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve an expert level of performance in any given domain – and in the case of musicians, often closer to 25 years in order to attain an elite international level. Note that the real key here is not the amount of practice required (as the exact number of hours is debatable) but the type of practice required to attain an expert level of performance. In other words, just practicing any old way doesn’t cut it.

Mindless Practice

Have you ever listened to someone practice? Have you ever listened to yourself practice, for that matter? Tape yourself practicing for an hour, take a walk through the practice room area at school and eavesdrop on your fellow students, or ask your students to pretend they are at home and watch them practice during a lesson. What do you notice?
You’ll notice that the majority of folks practice rather mindlessly, either engaging in mere repetition (“practice this passage 10 times” or “practice this piece for 30 minutes”) or practicing on autopilot (that’s when we play through the piece until we hear something we don’t like, stop, repeat the passage again until it sounds better, and resume playing through the piece until we hear the next thing we aren’t satisfied with, at which point we begin this whole process over again).
There are three major problems with the mindless method of practicing.

1. It is a waste of time

Why? For one, very little productive learning takes place when we practice this way. This is how we can practice a piece for hours, days, or weeks, and still not feel that we’ve improved all that much. Even worse, you are actually digging yourself a hole by practicing this way, because what this model of practicing does do is strengthen undesirable habits and errors, literally making it more likely that you will screw up more consistently in the future. This makes it more difficult to correct these habits in the future – so you are actually adding to the amount of future practice time you will need in order to eliminate these bad habits and tendencies. I once worked with a saxophone professor who was fond of reminding his students that “Practice doesn’t make perfect, practice makes permanent.”

2. It makes you less confident

In addition, practicing this way actually hurts your confidence, as there is a part of you that realizes you don’t really know how to consistently produce the results you are looking for. Even if you establish a fairly high success rate in the most difficult passages via mindless practice, and find that you can nail it 3 or 4 out of every 5 attempts, your confidence won’t grow much from this. Real on-stage confidence comes from (a) being able to nail it 10 out of 10 tries, (b) knowing that this isn’t a coincidence but that you can do it the correct way on demand, because most importantly (c) you know precisely whyyou nail it or miss it – i.e. you know exactly what you need to do from a technique standpoint in order to play the passage perfectly every time.
You may not be able to play it perfectly every time at first, but this is what repetition is for – to reinforce the correct habits until they are stronger than the bad habits. It’s a little like trying to grow a nice looking lawn. Instead of fighting a never-ending battle against the weeds, your time is better spent trying to cultivate the grass so that over time the grass crowds out the weeds.
And here’s the biggie. We tend to practice unconsciously, and then end up trying to perform consciously – not a great formula for success. Recall from this article that you have a tendency to shift over into hyper-analytical left brain mode when you walk out on stage. Well, if you have done most of your practicing unconsciously, you really don’t know how to play your piece perfectly on demand. When your brain suddenly goes into full-conscious mode, you end up freaking out, because you don’t know what instructions to give your brain.

3. It is tedious and boring

Practicing mindlessly is a chore. Music may be one of the only skill-based activities where practice goals are measured in units of time. We’ve all had teachers who tell us to go home and practice a certain passage x number of times, or to practice x number of hours, right? What we really need are more specific outcome goals – such as, practice this passage until it sounds like _____, or practice this passage until you can figure out how to make it sound like _____.
After all, it doesn’t really matter how much time we spend practicing something – only that we know how to produce the results we want, and can do so consistently, on demand.

Deliberate Practice

So what is deliberate, or mindful practice? Deliberate practice is a systematic and highly structured activity, which is, for lack of a better word, scientific. Instead of mindless trial and error, it is an active and thoughtful process of experimentation with clear goals andhypotheses. Violinist Paul Kantor once said that the practice room should be like a laboratory, where one can freely tinker with different ideas, both musical and technical, to see what combination of ingredients produces the result you are looking for.
Deliberate practice is often slow, and involves repetition of small and very specific sections of your repertoire instead of just playing through (e.g. working on just the opening note of your solo to make sure that it “speaks” exactly the way you want, instead of playing the entire opening phrase).
Deliberate practice involves monitoring one’s performance (in real-time, but also via recordings), continually looking for new ways to improve. This means really listening to what happens, so that you can tell yourself exactly what went wrong. For instance, was the first note note sharp? Flat? Too loud? Too soft? Too harsh? Too short? Too long?
Let’s say that the note was too sharp and too long with not enough of an attack to begin the note. Well, how sharp was it? A little? A lot? How much longer was the note than you wanted it to be? How much more of an attack did you want?
Ok, the note was a little sharp, just a hair too long, and required a much clearer attack in order to be consistent with the marked articulation and dynamics. So, why was the note sharp? What did you do? What do you need to do to make sure the note is perfectly in tune every time? How do you ensure that the length is just as you want it to be, and how do you get a consistently clean and clear attack to begin the note so it begins in the right character?
Now, let’s imagine you recorded all of this and could listen to how this last attempt sounded. Does that combination of ingredients give you the desired result? In other words, does that combination of ingredients convey the mood or character you want to communicate to the listener as effectively as you thought it would?
Few musicians take the time to stop, analyze what went wrong, why it happened, and howthey can correct the error permanently.

How Many Hours a Day Should I Practice?

You will find that deliberate practice is very draining, given the tremendous amount of energy required to keep one’s full attentional resources on the task at hand. Practicing more than one hour at a time is likely to be unproductive and in all honesty, probably not even mentally or emotionally possible. Even the most dedicated individuals will find it difficult to practice more than four hours a day.
Studies have varied the length of daily practice from 1 hour to 8 hours, and the results suggest that there is often little benefit from practicing more than 4 hours per day, and that gains actually begin to decline after the 2-hour mark.  The key is to keep tabs on the level of concentration you are able to sustain.

5 Keys For More Effective Practice

1. Duration

Keep practice sessions limited to a duration that allows you to stay focused. This may be as short as 10-20 minutes for younger students, and as long as 45-60 minutes for older individuals.

2. Timing

Keep track of times during the day when you tend to have the most energy. This may be first thing in the morning, or right before lunch, etc. Try to do your practicing during these naturally productive periods as these are the times at which you will be able to focus and think most clearly.

3. Goals

Try using a practice notebook. Keep track of your practice goals and what you discover during your practice sessions. The key to getting into the “zone” when practicing is to be constantly striving to have clarity of intention. In other words, to have a clear idea of the sound you want to produce, or particular phrasing you’d like to try, or specific articulation, intonation, etc. that you’d like to be able to execute consistently.
When you figure something out, write it down. As I practiced more mindfully, I began learning so much during practice sessions that if I didn’t write everything down, I’d forget.

4. Smarter, not harder

Sometimes if a particular passage is not coming out the way we want it to, it just means we need to practice more. There are also times, however, when we don’t need to practice harder, but need an altogether different strategy or technique.
I remember struggling with the left-hand pizzicato variation in Paganini’s 24th Caprice. I was getting frustrated and kept trying harder and harder to make the notes speak, but all I got was sore fingers, a couple of which actually started to bleed. I realized that there had to be a smarter, more effective way to accomplish my goal.
Instead of stubbornly keeping at a strategy or technique that wasn’t working for me, I forced myself to stop practicing this section altogether. I tried to brainstorm different solutions to the problem for a day or so, and wrote down ideas to try as they occurred to me. When I felt that I came up with some promising solutions, I just started experimenting. I eventually came up with a solution that I worked on over the next week or so, and when I played the caprice for my teacher, he actually asked me how I made the notes speak so clearly!

5. Problem-solving model

Consider this 6-step general problem-solving model summarized below (adapted from various problem solving processes online).
  1. Define the problem (what do I want this note/phrase to sound like?)
  2. Analyze the problem (what is causing it to sound like this?)
  3. Identify potential solutions (what can I tweak to make it sound more like I want?)
  4. Test the potential solutions to select the most effective one (what tweaks seem to work best?)
  5. Implement the best solution (make these changes permanent)
  6. Monitor implementation (do these changes continue to produce the results I’m looking for?)
Or simpler yet, check out this model from Daniel Coyle’s book The Talent Code.
  1. Pick a target
  2. Reach for it
  3. Evaluate the gap between the target and the reach
  4. Return to step one
It doesn’t matter if we are talking about perfecting technique, or experimenting with different musical ideas. Any model which encourages smarter, more systematic, active thought, and clearly articulated goals will help cut down on wasted, ineffective practice time.
After all, who wants to spend all day in the practice room? Get in, get stuff done, and get out!
UPDATE: Think all of this only relates to classical music? Jazz aficionados, check out this post on practicing effectively written by acclaimed jazz violinist Christian Howes for a helpful perspective and tips on practicing in jazz. Funnily enough, we were in Suzuki together back in Columbus, OH as kids.
UPDATE #2: Came across this thoughtful post on deliberate practice written by an astute young cellist at Northwestern University.
UPDATE #3: And an excellent, thought-provoking piece on deliberate practice for folks in business and other non-musical fields (and a fascinating blog besides).


Monday, 15 September 2014

After the third Discipline of Freedom workshop


The half turn of your face 
toward truth
is the one movement
you will not make.

After all,
having seen it

you wouldn’t want
to take that
path again,

and have to greet yourself
as you are
and tell yourself
what it was like
to have come so far
and all in vain.

But most of all
to remember
how it felt again
to see
in your own mirror,
the lines
of abandonment
and loss.

And have those words spoken
inviting you back,
the ones you used to say,
the ones you loved
when your body was young
and you trusted
everything you wanted.

Hard to look,
but you know it has to happen
that it takes
only the half turn of your face
to scare yourself
to the core.

Seeing again
that strange resolve
in your new reflection.

From RIVER FLOW: New and Selected Poems
© David Whyte and Many Rivers Press


Friday, 25 July 2014

the arrogance of dissatisfaction

Over the last few months I've come to realise that my visual perception, the foundation of most of my practice, is profoundly unreliable. That the sense that  I use the most to communicate and explore, is, sadly, irrevocably connected to my complicated emotional history, and that this history endlessly winds its tentacles around every impulse, every input.

For a long time I couldn't see this. I just felt dissatisfied with the thing that I had made. I'm using judgements every inch of the way, and when I feel that something is wrong or unsuccessful the temptation is to just go with it, to assume that the judgement is just more of the feedback loop of my working - the same kind of feedback that makes me dip my brush in the purple after the white, or swoop the pastel around to the left in a big arc. But now I see that it is not.

The unconscious decision-making used throughout working is different from the judgement at the end about the value of what I've been working on. And, as most visual artists know, that final judgement is often a trickster. You loathe your piece, you want to scrub it out, or you just feel sad and disappointed. Then two months later you find it again and you see all sorts of potential in it that was obscured at the time. Obscured, I'm thinking today, by the winding tentacles of wounded child, pouting ego, or perhaps one of Maisel's many anxieties.

This morning, slightly tangentially, it occurred to me that being dissatisfied with a piece of work that I have produced - either immediately afterwards, or some time later - is profoundly arrogant. When I decide that I'm not satisfied, or that my idea has failed, I'm acting as if the thing on the paper is mine. That I made it in a willful, controlled kind of way; that I decided exactly how the marks would go down, and therefore that I am responsible for the end result.

And yet many artists will tell you that when their work is going well, they don't feel that they're the driver of what's happening at all. They feel more as if the work is in some sense 'coming through' them, often with the greatest of ease. From this perspective, perhaps what we're doing a lot of the time is actually creating conditions; keeping the soil fertilised and watered, so that if and when some small seed floats down from the sky, it will land on a spot conducive to its flourishing. This is how it feels to me. When things start to connect and move, it isn't because I  have done something, or that I willed it. At that moment I'm not really doing any of it.

Perhaps my job is just to keep on making lines, to keep looking at shapes, to keep trying out colours. At times what results will please me, and at other times it will stab me, bruise my ego and deflate all of my over-inflated dreams. Both of these reactions are a distraction. Both are premised on the assumption that I was responsible for how it turned out, that the work is 'mine'.

When I stop to think about this, it is perfectly clear to me that what comes is not coming from me at all. I'm just a life-form, a collection of cells moving about in a certain way, like a slime mould or a bee swarm. Life is using me, moving through my cells, folding and curling like cigarette smoke against a sunlit window. My consciousness confounds me, obscures what could be a wider, more gentle awareness that, in principle, could just allow it all to move and pass through. And as life moves through me, using my consciousness to fold back in on itself, like a great eye swiveling around to inspect a spot behind its knee, how can I be so rude as to criticise the path that it takes?


Thursday, 17 July 2014

hungry-minded anxiety and other animals

I'm sometimes a little taken aback when I get feedback on these ruminations on creative process that suggest that I seem to have some kind of a problem. It takes me aback, I think, because, while I recognise that these days I'm certainly struggling with a lot of difficulties, my understanding is that these difficulties ARE the creative life. It's from these difficulties that work arises, and somehow, without difficulty, it seems to me that there's unlikely to be work, or at least work that's at all interesting.

I've just started re-reading Eric Maisel. How refreshing it was just now to read the following:

'...If you would like to be creative, you must first come alive.

The greatest block to aliveness is anxiety.... In this book I mean to describe the kinds of anxieties that inevitably attend each stage of the creative process. In large measure these are anxieties that you should experience because, while anxiety is the greatest impediment to aliveness, in order to create you must invite anxieties into your life and live anxiously. You will only earn fine camera angles, lucky brush strokes, and brilliant poetic images by risking anxiety and living with anxiety.

If you are to create, you must invite anxiety in. But then you must manage it. If you can't manage this necessary anxiety, you will block; and we can start right now to call creative blockage the inability to manage the anxiety that attends the creative process, for that is what creative blockage most often is.

Each stage of the creative process is characterised by its own kind of anxiety. The hungry-minded anxiety associated with the original wish to create is different from the chaotic-minded anxiety of working, and both are different from the critical-minded anxiety and attached-minded anxiety that make it so difficult to declare a work of art finished. While there is artifice in naming these anxieties just in this way, there is nothing artificial about pointing the very great role that anxiety plays in the creative process. In its negative aspect it blocks the artist, causes  her to limit her scope or create second-rate work, and more. It its so-to-speak positive aspect is is like the itching that accompanies the healing of a wound: horribly uncomfortable, but proof that creativity is happening.

At the same time, I want to present a basic remedy for the anxiety that presents at each stage.

Stage               Anxiety                    Solution
1. Wishing        hungry mind              appropriate feeding
2. Choosing      confused mind           appropriate clarity
3. Starting       weakened mind          appropriate strength
4. Working       chaotic mind             appropriate order
5. Completing   critical mind              appropriate appraising
6. Showing       attached mind           appropriate detaching

The remedy in each case is not only doing something, but doing it appropriately. When you choose an idea to work on, what is appropriate to know is that you largely do not know what is about to happen. Coming in with too clear an idea at the start of the work is an example of inappropriate knowing.

In order to bind the anxiety that naturally arises when one doesn't know, an artist may determine to know anyway. The landscape before her is not held as  fantastic problem or a great mystery; instead, she knows what to do. She knows that if she lays down a wash like this and twists her brush like that, decent bushes will appear in the foreground. One sure way of binding anxiety is reflected in this knowing.

But the artist who is more interested in creating deeply than in ridding herself of anxiety will refuse to know too soon. She will remain with doubts, worries, questions, and the burning desire to realise herself. She will courageously refuse to bind anxiety by knowing too soon... and will experience, beneath any surface calm, an internal war....

Of course, it would be splendid if the above table accurately reflected the relationship between anxiety and the creative process. But the picture isn't that simple. Anxieties coexist....'

I like this kind of writing, because it offers a way of thinking that helps me to see and understand what's happening, without over-simplifying or prescribing. Here, Maisell breaks it all down into ideas that help me to think differently about what's happening, help me to see something, and then he mixes it all up and says, ah but of course it isn't really so simple...

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

a month of no writing

On June 12th I decided to stop writing about my process, both here and on the facebook page. I also decided  to stop posting most of what I produced, which I knew was a strategy to keep me going that I was employing to stop me from feeling that I wasn't doing what I wanted to be doing, or not doing enough, or doing and making rubbish.

I've discovered four things that seem to give me a lot of trouble.

1. Desire/longing to work; to see what will happen next; to work more, to do
2. An unconscious compulsion to make paintings
3. Intolerance/criticism/impatience with regard to what appears
4. Trying to solve problems such as inexperience with paint and canvas; subject matter; meaning; purpose, through analysis and writing

1. Desire/longing to work
This creates a constant feeling of dissatisfaction, given that I actually can't paint all the time. I seem to find it almost impossible to accept that by lunchtime I'm pretty much done with it. That I need to walk and cycle outside, that I need to rest and read and digest and  reflect; to sing and play the piano, to talk to other humans. I would do away with all of these (except the singing) if my body would let me, but it won't.

2. An unconscious compulsion to make paintings
This prevents me from experimenting, from doing things that are slow and not particularly going anywhere at all. This was probably preventing me from exploring paint and canvas, which I been wanting to do, but have kept avoiding. There's just no way I can start to make paintings on canvas until I've put in some apprenticeship/learning time.

3. Intolerance/criticism/impatience
This is always lying in wait to sabotage any new thing that tries to emerge. It has resulted in me scrubbing out or painting over six foot drawings that have taken two weeks to make, and which I realised three weeks afterwards had nothing particularly wrong with them. It has contributed to not being able to work in my studio because there's a chance that someone will come in and see something that I'm in the middle of learning about. It's also one of the reasons that I have to stop working at lunchtime, or break from what I'm doing after a couple of hours. If I don't leave something alone, let it rest, wait and make space, carrying on  is likely to result in destruction.

4. Trying to solve problems through analysis and writing
Well. Writing about process is one strand of my activity. Words are a form of creativity for me. And, I seem to be committed to some kind of sharing of this analysis of process because there doesn't seem to be that much of it around. Some people have got in touch and said that they feel less hopeless in their process, less alone, after reading these meanderings.  So, this is my report on a month of not writing. But I can see now how writing and thinking can start to replace what is actually needed, which is to work with the problems in the doing. An artist, you might argue, does not solve problems by using their mind, but in the working; through the doing, through acting with and upon materials.

I'm working more, and also understanding working differently.

I'm no longer trying to make paintings. This is freeing me up to see where I need to develop technique and skill, and making me a little braver about taking risks and producing ugly or kitsch things.

I'm becoming a little more patient and expecting less. I understand that everything is much, much slower than I would like. Somehow the sense of there being no time for all I want to discover and make has to make way for some kind of acceptance of the limitation of what is actually happening, right now, in all its inadequacy.

When I feel the need to start writing it all out, I wipe my mind clean and either go for a walk or draw something.


Sunday, 8 June 2014

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

the myth of productivity, intention, and a few other things...

It's come to my attention recently that there's a certain sense amongst people who look at and read my meanderings that I'm fiendishly 'productive'. This ties in with conversations I've been having with people who make and paint and write who believe that they're not. Or, who are made to feel that they're not by the random comments of others.

This is so far from my own sense of what I'm doing that I want to laugh out loud. For the last few weeks, since I got the studio, in fact, whatever it is that stuffs me up and stops me from working has gone into overdrive. I've spent quite a lot of that time, for example, trying to 'carry on' with the large drawings that made me want to get the studio in the first place (or so I thought). But there's just no carrying on to be done. Every large drawing becomes more aware of itself, and consequently of the ways in which it falls short of the spirit of the two early drawings that came out with no intention at all. Here are the first two:

Awareness of these seems to be preventing any possibility of a new drawing coming out on its own terms.

It's just no good, every mark made at the moment keeps harping back to what has passed; assessing itself against what came out so freely, longing for the assured satisfaction of those past processes. There was an easy connection in the making of these, an unconscious flow. When they were done, they were done, and I felt none of the irritation and dissatisfaction that I feel every time I make anything at all at the moment. They just were, like a little puddle I might find one day in the road.

Whatever is coming now seems to be insisting on change and development. It's as if the whole process is currently fighting for its freedom, its right to emergence. And as my frustration with this grows,  I become more and more destructive of whatever it is I'm making. Although there are actually some marks or parts that are perfectly fine, at some stage, the frustration keeps pushing, scrawling all over areas and parts that, actually (I sometimes seem later) were not really any less interesting than the things I liked in the early ones.

Scrawl, scrawl, scratch, erase, smudge, bring in the black, finally give up in disgust. If I didn't have my process of photographing, increasing contrast, selecting bits I like, posting online to see at a distance, everything I've done in the last two months would have been destroyed.

Whatever I think or feel about what I want to produce (ie. 'more like the first two, please...') the whole process seems to long for difference, for emergence, in a way that is completely beyond my control. The more recent marks may seem to bear similarities to older ones to an onlooker, but to me, inside the process, I can see that they're not, and never can be. It seems that there can be no repetition, even in terms of a general container within which, you would have thought, different things could emerge. This means that at the moment there is only radical uncertainty and constant dissatisfaction and destruction.

Apart from the self-consciousness of process that seems to have been induced by the move to the studio, the other thing that I suspect may be happening is that, whether I like it or not, there is a higher degree of intention now than in the work that I produced over the years leading up to my exhibition in 2013. I always knew that I had been able to begin painting again only because my unconscious had cleverly come up with a way of working that I could not control or sabotage with my mind; a process-led thing that succeeded in feeding the instant gratification monkey sufficiently to make it feel like carrying on, cleverly sidestepping the destructive ego-monster. Most of the paintings of those first years came from responding to the nature of watercolour, which, literally and materially, creates its own fractals and shapes. All I had to do was follow and respond. Now, there's no watery fractal to guide me. When you draw, you make every single mark that goes down with a movement of your hand.

The first two of these large drawings came out in an unplanned and similarly responsive way to the watercolours, in that I put on some music and moved around with a chalk at the end of my arm as an embodied response to the music and to the emergent line, with nothing in my head about what I was doing or what I wanted. I have, of course, attempted to create the same conditions, but it's no good, there's nothing doing. 'Change, please, something new, somewhere we haven't been before', they all say in concert, all those voices that are doing their best to guide me out of my slothful rut; to turn around the tanker of a lifetime of disbelief and self-sabotage.

The other thing I perhaps need to remember is that one of the reasons these drawings wanted to appear was that my mind was focussing on working on drawings of the Indian dancers. I remember quite distinctly a feeling that I couldn't bear to sit at the desk every single day and do this close observation and drawing work all the time. Drawing the dancers was taking me forward with something that I also want, which is a more conceptual and consciously made kind of image, which I hope is going to grow out of the study of the images made by artists in the past who fascinate and inspire me. Come to think of it, I just came back with a new haul of those from the British Museum....

Perhaps there is something pleasingly cyclic here. Perhaps it's time to return to the more conscious, directed study and just move on from whatever satisfaction was derived from those elusive larger drawings....

You might say, oh, for goodness sake, just get on with it, stop thinking so much. But artists do think, and I've been doing everything I can to 'just get on with it' and it hasn't felt good at all. I can no longer rely on an entirely intuitive process, because that not only has limits that I want to experiment with going beyond, but it also can be thrown off by external factors, which are always going to arise.

Having the stuff in chronological order on my facebook page gives me some insight into all this. For example, having been convinced that I had 'done no work since moving in to the studio', a week or so ago I had a look at the images that appeared on my timeline during the time that I was moving in there, and trying to work there every day. To my enormous surprise I saw that, although I hadn't been able to do all this computer stuff and various things that I now know I need to be able to do as part of my process, in fact, I had done some perfectly good work there.

It  didn't feel like that at the time at all. And though I can put up with a certain amount of irritation and frustration, I can't only feel disappointment and hopelessness, day after day. Strange as it may seem to those who are trying to spend less time with their screens, the computer/facebook process is actually a lifeline for me.

So the next time you think that I'm 'being very productive' (and perhaps find yourself thinking that you 'should be'...)  know that the endless posting of bits of random work is in fact a happy side effect of the process that I have in place to stop myself going completely mad with disgust and frustration. Photographing, enhancing, chopping, selecting, collaging and finally posting, are my system for getting a distance from the thing I am currently fighting the desire to burn.


Tuesday, 27 May 2014

how a lack of faeries kills artists

A very refreshing talk on negative cultural attitudes to creativity... and some other ways of seeing.


Monday, 19 May 2014

control, manipulation and breath

Zoie Kennedy
Seems to me this wise essay on puppets could apply to any artform...

And here it is rewritten for painting...

The Myths of Painting
Eric Bass/tamsin haggis
May 14, 2014
Every object has natural properties. For the moment, I will use the words painting  and object interchangeably. The painting is, after all, an object. The natural properties of the object are determined by the materials, and by the size, shape, and function of the object. These properties are true of paintings, as well, and one can add to the properties of the painting, the painting’s character, which has emerged as the painting appeared in the studio. That character is not only a matter of style or figuration. It is also a matter of the limitations of the function of the painting. A painting cannot do everything that we would expect of images in life. It is allows for a specific range of tones, gestures and shapes. These limitations give it its character as much as any painterly elements.

The Myth of Control
There are two myths about painting that need to be exploded. The first of them is the more obvious. It is the myth that the artist controls the painting. This myth is, of course, supported by numerous catch phrases in our language and culture:
 He’s so talented, what skill she has, she’s a natural creative . All suggest that the artist makes the painting do whatever he or she wants. Although some artists do try to impose their will on the objects of their art, most know that this is a disservice to both art and to the painting. Our job, our art, is to bring the painting to life. To impose control over the object is, in both spirit and practice, the opposite of this.

As painters, it is, surprisingly, not our job to impose our intent on the painting. It is our job to discover what the paint can do and what it seems to want to do. It has propensities. We want to find out what they are, and support them. We are, in this sense, less like tyrants, and more like nurses to these objects. How can we help them? They are built for a purpose. They seem to have destinies. We want to help them arrive at those destinies.

A simple example: What are the properties of a ball? It rolls, and sometimes it bounces. To put a ball onstage and have it never bounce or roll is a denial of what that ball is. Even if the ball does nothing, it can be said to be waiting to roll or bounce. A painting’s properties may not be quite so obvious, but they are there, and so is its character. Analyzing the character will not get us very far. We have to discover who our two-dimensional partner is. This is true of its shapes, gestures, and its voice. Our cleverness in thinking of great things for the painting to do or say will not help the painting live. They will only draw attention to ourselves. If we try to impose them on the painting , what we produce will not be about the painting at all. It will be about us, the manipulator. Or it will be about the conflict between us and our painting.
The practice of our art, then, requires that we be the exact opposite of a controller. In fact, it requires that we step back and allow our paintings to perform their shapes, their tones, their moments of life in the world. It requires from us a generosity. If we try to dominate them, we will take from them the life we are trying to give them.
This practice of discovering the painting’s intentions can take a long time. Often we make a painting  to play a role in a script we have written. If we are sensitive to our work, we may take the painting and propose the actions and text of that script. But it is very likely that something will not fit, that the painting  does not seem to embody those actions or text easily. It might seem as though the painting is fighting us. What can we do? Start the painting again? Rewrite the script that informs our intention? Possibly a little of both, first one, then the other, until we find the place where everything fits together. This can be a long process. The art of the painting has very little to do with what we want, and everything to do with what we allow ourselves to discover, support, and follow.

The Myth of Manipulation
This brings us to the second myth. This myth is more illusive. It is the myth that we manipulate the paint with the skill and technique of our hands. What is manipulation, after all, than the moving of an object
 with the hand? This word does not serve us well.

For a moment, let’s look at a bigger picture. We come to the art gallery. To see what? The painting? I don’t think so. I think that we come to the art gallery to experience the world that the painting gives form to. That world is a reflection of our world, so it is of great interest to us. We come, then, not to see the painting, but to see through the painting, and out into its world.

About thirty-five years ago, I did a performance in a beautiful Zen temple in Rochester, New York. I remember the temple as having been built without nails, but rather with wooden pegs. As I and the rest of our ensemble entered the temple, we saw a very large drum lying horizontally on a high stand, like a huge barrel suspended in the air. The drum had two skins, one at each end, with the barrel in between. A monk was playing the drum and its sound was deep and reverberated through our bodies. I asked the monk if he would let me play the drum. He generously handed me the two sticks and stepped aside. I took my stance at one end of the drum, raised my sticks above my head and began to beat, trying to emulate what I had seen the monk doing. Very quickly, he stopped me and said, “You are doing it all wrong.” Wrong? What was I doing wrong? “You are playing the skin of the drum.” What should I be playing? “You should be playing through the skin, through the second skin, and out into the world.”
This seemingly mysterious statement is not so mysterious as it seems. For me, it is the same with painting. We should not, in fact, be painting at all. We should be playing through the painting, and out into its world. We do not manipulate the painting at all. It is a means to evoking its environment. And that environment, that world, is not a material world. It is a sensory one, and we, the audience, can only experience it through the senses of the painting. How can our hands manipulate immaterial sensations?

In fact, our hands are only the middle men in this transaction, like the paintings themselves. Our hands are sensors, not actors. The are transmitters of our breath. Like all artists, like musicians and dancers and even good lighting technicians, it is in our breath that the living response is found.
Breathing Through Our Hands
Breath is how we experience the world. Everything that we experience we breathe in. We pass, for example, a window of a shoe store. There, in the window, we see that pair of shoes that we have been dreaming about. We gasp. In a sense, we
 inhale the shoes. If we do not inhale, we do not really see them. It is the same for nature. We inhale the sunset, the vast sky. We inhale the view of the mountains, the distant skyscrapers approaching a city. Our inhale connects us to the world.

Even in our dreams, our breath connects us to the world of our imagination. We dream we are being pursued. In our dream we are running. We awake, suddenly, panting, gasping for breath. And yet our bodies have not moved. We have been asleep in bed. But our imaginations have been running. Whatever we imagine, our breath corresponds.

And so we have an equation: It is not our hands manipulating the paint that brings the painting  to life. It is our breath corresponding to the world of our imagination. Between our breath and the imagined world, our hands take up the paint. We allow our breath to go through our hands, through the painting, and out into the world. And we allow the imagined world to go through the painting, through our hands, and into our breath. If we assert more than the minimal amount of effort needed to support the painting, we lock the piece into being about our hands and the paint. If we keep our hands receptive, to let our breath flow through them, and through the painting as well, we have the potential to unlock a richer content, and a richer experience.

Our first act of generosity is to let the painting be about the painting, not about us. Our second act of generosity is to let the piece be about a greater world outside the painting. This is where our breath and the breath of the audience meet to make meaningful art. Ultimately, a painting is about how the piece is offered and received, rather than the intention of the marks. In painting, we can choose to impress the audience with our muscle, skill, and technique; or we can choose to invite them to follow an inanimate object into a world that reflects their own. We meet our audience there.



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