Notes on being creative
March 31, 2011 2:42 PM   Subscribe

How to steal like an artist (and nine other things nobody told me).
posted by Brandon Blatcher (57 comments total) 142 users marked this as a favorite

 
Neat! I'm going to dress up like a comic book writer. To the Hat And Beard Shop!
posted by tumid dahlia at 2:44 PM on March 31, 2011 [2 favorites]


Agree with #4: use your hands. I have recently stopped using a computer for writing first drafts, they are all handwritten now, and my writing is going much better.
posted by acheekymonkey at 3:01 PM on March 31, 2011


"Write what you know" isn't about writing about your day at school, or life in [city you live in], or whatever. "Write what you know" means "Write about shit you understand well."

Tolkien didn't know any elves.

Lovecraft didn't worship any squid-headed gods.

Peter Watts doesn't hang out with murderous psychopaths at the bottom of the sea (AFAIK).

All of them just grounded their work in things they understood well, because (like telling the truth instead of lying) doing so makes it much easier to be consistent and coherent. If you have ideas involving things you don't understand, do yourself and your readers a favour and do some homework.
posted by Decimask at 3:04 PM on March 31, 2011 [4 favorites]


We are all the massive beneficiaries of millennia of accumulated human scientific knowledge and cultural output, and not one of us did anything do deserve a jot of it. We’re all just extremely lucky not to have been born cavemen. The greatest creative genius alive would be hard pressed to create a smiley faced smeared in dung on a tree trunk without that huge and completely undeserved inheritance.
posted by empath at 3:05 PM on March 31, 2011 [3 favorites]


(woops, meant to blockquote that)
posted by empath at 3:05 PM on March 31, 2011


Pretty good advice.
posted by localroger at 3:07 PM on March 31, 2011


Yeah, I just read this from other sources. I particularly liked the bit about writing the book you want to read. To some people I'd guess that falls into the "well, duh" category of advice, but it was unfortunately hard-learned for me when I started out.
posted by Bookhouse at 3:09 PM on March 31, 2011 [2 favorites]


Tolkien's work is grounded in philology and the way in which industrial and development devoured the english countryside.

You may be right about Lovecraft and Peter Watts. Perhaps.
posted by sebastienbailard at 3:11 PM on March 31, 2011 [2 favorites]


I like Austin Kleon. We talked about his Newspaper Blackout Poems site a while back.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 3:11 PM on March 31, 2011


Have done that teaching yoga for years. Teach the class I'd like to take. I am the one who has to hear myself speaking, ya know what I mean.
posted by goalyeehah at 3:11 PM on March 31, 2011 [2 favorites]


"Talent borrows. Genius steals." - panaceanot

Remember to wear sunscreen!
posted by panaceanot at 3:17 PM on March 31, 2011 [2 favorites]


This is good.

This is very good.

How did he get to understand all that stuff while still so young?
posted by woodblock100 at 3:20 PM on March 31, 2011 [2 favorites]


"Little more black, little more blue. And we'll just put that in using little crisscross strokes or--or little X's, whatever you want to call them. Whatever."

-Bob Ross
posted by clavdivs at 3:22 PM on March 31, 2011 [15 favorites]


Lovecraft didn't worship any squid-headed gods.

Sure, that's what they want you to think.



How did he get to understand all that stuff while still so young?

My guess is he stole it.
posted by fleetmouse at 3:29 PM on March 31, 2011 [6 favorites]


Yes, good advice! I would add: practice, practice, practice. Even though the word makes it sound boring. At least it doesn't sound as stupid as do it, do it, do it.

Plus: once you're pretty accomplished in one or two forms of art, it's really not hard to transfer those principles (such as rhythm, tone, balance, composition, movement, space, tension/release, comfort/surprise, reality reference, etc.) into other forms. Not to say I could make it as a ballet dancer!
posted by kozad at 3:31 PM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]


11. Hire a good lawyer.
posted by cazoo at 3:40 PM on March 31, 2011 [2 favorites]


Every new idea is just a mashup or a remix of previous ideas.

"just"?
posted by LogicalDash at 3:44 PM on March 31, 2011


Read his piece again, more carefully, and got to come back in here and add something:

We all tend to see/comprehend/analyze things in the light of our own experiences, and his piece - with its aphoristic vagueness (not an insult, just a description) - can easily fit many circumstances, but I have never read anything that matches my own life/career so closely.

His first 9 steps parallel exactly and without deviation, my own path from the early stages of 'Uhh ... what should I do with my life?', up to my present (pretty successful) position.

It's already April 1st in here in Japan as I write this, but this piece is - no foolin' - great stuff!
posted by woodblock100 at 3:55 PM on March 31, 2011


11. Think your thoughts as if they are written in giant text on a blackboard, for a room full of children, and lead them to believe that there will be a quiz.
posted by StickyCarpet at 4:08 PM on March 31, 2011 [3 favorites]


> Tolkien's work is grounded in philology and the way in which industrial and development devoured the english countryside. You may be right about Lovecraft and Peter Watts. Perhaps.

Sorry, I wasn't explicit enough. Tolkien didn't know any elves, but he spent an incredible amount of time building up the world in which The Lord of the Rings. When people hear "Write what you know", they seem to take from it "Write about your real life" or some variation of that. Tolkien and Lovecraft spent building (and stealing) worlds and mythologies. Lovecraft explicitly set most of his stuff in an area of the US he had a very good feel for. Knowing their settings helps them hold their stories together. Watts is a marine biologist.

I should also explicitly say the linked author is right: You should create works around what you like.

/derail
posted by Decimask at 4:21 PM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]


I agree with almost all of that stuff. This is the recipe for integrating art into a normal life. However, most true "artists" are driven almost pathologically to create art. There is no plan b for them. Not all of them succeed and thus the world is littered with their broken dreams and shattered lives.

On the other hand, I see lots of people who aren't interested in a creative, reflective life whose dreams are pre-broken. There is no art in them, they are the good people who do not need to stand apart in the crowd and they are the bad people who could care less about offering any part of their existence to strangers.

I personally like the idea of not being an artist, but just a human being who makes things and writes things. The trappings of being an artist are a trap. See hipsters.
posted by thebestusernameever at 4:30 PM on March 31, 2011 [7 favorites]


He's no Stefan Sagmeister, but still, good, compact advice.
Here's another two lines from good old Goethe:

Wer den Dichter will verstehen
Muss in Dichters Lande gehen.

If the poet you’d understand
Go you must to the poet’s land.

posted by quoquo at 4:34 PM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's very easy to get bogged down, off-track as an artist/writer/musician in creating art to please an audience. Much easier and joyful to create art to please yourself.
posted by robotot at 4:39 PM on March 31, 2011


When I got my MFA Creative Writing degree, there was this loathsome prof (he liked to fuck students, so he was several stripes of bad) who commanded those in his workshop to write about a) Their loss of virginity b) The first time they got high.

This caused problems for one virgin who'd done no drugs, ever, and only wanted to write about elves.

But the brilliant thing is, this prof was so abusive to her in his whole stupid "write what you know" crap that she got hooked on benzodiazapines. Well done, professor asshole! She can write about drugs now, you betcha!
posted by angrycat at 4:40 PM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]


Real Artists Ship.

Can't read this now, but I'd like to. I'm on deadline on an annual arts grant proposal, it has to be delivered in 22 hours.
posted by charlie don't surf at 4:42 PM on March 31, 2011


"3. Write the book you want to read."

Yes. This is what I did. It's what I still do.

Overall, this article is pretty good.
posted by jscalzi at 4:50 PM on March 31, 2011 [2 favorites]


Just like the old joke goes:
A pedestrian on Fifty-seventh Street, Manhattan, stopped Jascha Heifetz and inquired, "Could you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?" "Yes," said Heifetz. "Grand-theft Auto!"
posted by wcfields at 4:58 PM on March 31, 2011


I think I need to tattoo #2 on my brain or something:

"Don’t wait until you know who you are to start making things."

I think a lot of my creative block of the past decade or so have centered around some sort of "but I don't know who I am!" insecurity issues. I'm feeling inspired now.
posted by queensissy at 4:58 PM on March 31, 2011 [5 favorites]


#3 is so important to me right now.
I'm afraid I'm being sentimental, so I'll stop, but I might add that creative advice inspired by Lynda Barry is unlikely to go wrong. She is the Funk Queen of the U.S.A.
posted by Countess Elena at 5:06 PM on March 31, 2011


Great way to get his book on my Amazon wish list.
posted by jsavimbi at 5:19 PM on March 31, 2011


This is very inspiring. Thanks BB.

In about 30 minutes I've spotted my one step that needs major overhaul (#9), some other niggling things that keep popping up.

There's a universality to these steps that I think most creative folks try and juggle through and make adjustments as needed, but this is really valuable like this.

One last thing I would add, maybe as an optional #11, and that is, if you get stuck on any of the steps, seek advice, from books, online, artists you like, or even, if necessary a therapist or psychologist. Don't stick to your pride and remain stuck and waste time. In most cases you'll be surprised at how quickly you can overcome certain things with a little outside perspective.

In some cases it might be your big struggle, and ongoing at that, and something you need to constantly stay aware of and in front of...and it's okay to ask for help.
posted by Skygazer at 5:19 PM on March 31, 2011


I love this and it's very reaffirming to me as a creative guy.

And one man in his time plays many parts… From #2 making things and faking it.

Yea, try EVERYTHING that you have any interest in. It's worth it!

Oddly enough, I posted a song about this very thing (#2) back in '08. In Dylan voice even!
posted by snsranch at 6:05 PM on March 31, 2011


kozad > Plus: once you're pretty accomplished in one or two forms of art, it's really not hard to transfer those principles (such as rhythm, tone, balance, composition, movement, space, tension/release, comfort/surprise, reality reference, etc.) into other forms. Not to say I could make it as a ballet dancer!

Maybe better than you think. I'm an artist - specifically a 2D illustrator with a background in the animation world. These past few months I've been taking lessons in burlesque dancing. And it is fascinating to be learning, essentially, how to apply all the same things I know about staging, silhouettes, and rhythmic motion to my own body as seen by an audience. I'm nowhere near ready to get on stage; I've only been practicing for a few weeks and I'm just beginning to learn a beginner's palette of moves and terms, and how to move in rhythm. I have tons of tools for analyzing this from the outside, and I'm at the point where I feel like I can start to apply these analytical tools to myself in the mirror - which can mean a nice tight feedback loop of improvement!

I doubt I'll ever be a legendary dancer, that's a field for the young and flexible, but I feel like "okay" is not too far away.

(Also it is a surprisingly pleasant feeling to be a raw noob at something. I wholly recommend it.)
posted by egypturnash at 7:11 PM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]


This is genuinely great.

Thank you!
posted by you're a kitty! at 7:17 PM on March 31, 2011


This was totally great. I also really loved this side-link about how making a calendar helped him organize his life.
posted by Phire at 8:05 PM on March 31, 2011 [2 favorites]


Sounds like he stole the idea for this post (and probably layout, minus the colours) from SARK.
posted by Vrai at 8:49 PM on March 31, 2011


Yep, I needed to read this.

I'm still struck by how Chuck Close has described how his methodology has evolved in apparent opposition to his nature. Here's some excerpts from an interview with Terry Gross:
I'm a nervous wreck. I'm a slob. I have no patience. And I'm rather lazy. All those things would seem to guarantee that I would not make work like I make. But I didn't want to just go with my nature. ...

What I found that one of the nice things [about] working incrementally is that I don't have to reinvent the wheel every single day. Today I did what I did. You can pick it up and put it down. I don't have to wait for inspiration. There are no good days or bad days. Every day essentially builds positively on what I did the day before. ... Given my nature, I believe it was very good for me to be able to add to what I already had and slowly construct the final image out of these little building blocks. ...

My paintings are built incrementally, one unit at a time, in a way that's not all that different than the way, say, a writer would work. ... Because I work incrementally, I push little pieces of paint up against one another. .... And I slowly build these paintings, construct them, in the way someone might crochet or knit.

If you believe in the process and you knit one, purl two long enough, eventually you get a sweater.
posted by maudlin at 9:31 PM on March 31, 2011 [8 favorites]


4. Use your hands.

i get nervous when i'm away from the Internet but i still do my best writing on pen and paper. you can see the flow of the words
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 9:31 PM on March 31, 2011


12 - sometimes, you have to take a break
posted by pyramid termite at 12:00 AM on April 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


Cool.
posted by zennie at 12:28 AM on April 1, 2011


Sounds like he stole the idea for this post (and probably layout, minus the colours) from SARK.

Whoa. Yes, this is SARK. Good catch!

Well, look's like he's following his own advice.
posted by jeanmari at 1:33 AM on April 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oh no come on, I wouldn't have gotten past slide one if it had been done in fancy colours and with peppy new-agey platitudes about 'freeing your creative spirit'!

This is a good read, concise, stimulating, fun, and useful for a lot of purposes. It's the kind of advice that works in general for everyone who wants/needs to be more creative, or organized, or creative and organized, for their job, or just for themselves. But. It's quite another thing to be an 'artist' isn't it?

For that you need something very different from creativity, you need a talent, and that's not something you can really fake til you make it, or steal, or develop through sheer obstinacy and practice and regular working hours... no slides or logbooks can teach it, you either have it or don't. And if you do, it will come out, or need to come out, it's a gift, a compulsion - like bestusernameever said above.

I know there could be a million definitions of what it means to be an 'artist' but I'm thinking very matter of fact, 'you know it when you see it', and you see the difference very clearly when you observe people who are artistically inclined and talented. For example, I have a close friend who's a visual artist and she's been drawing since she was a kid, she was so good at it, going to art school was the obvious choice. She does need to draw every day, she's happier when she does it, she's also methodical enough about it and keeps sketchbooks. She gets her own ideas by reading, talking to people, seeing other art, all kinds of sources. She actually already does a lot of the stuff that's listed in those notes - I guess because those are the ways she already found all by herself to make her talent come out.

I could spend hours trying to go at it the other way round, but I could never fake the talent she has, and I wouldn't even want to. It's not my gift, it's not my calling, so it's not even my thing. I would be wasting my time trying to be "more creative" in that sense - trying to do things I'm shit at, only to have it reconfirmed that I'm really shit at them. It would have been fun when I was 10 maybe... So, I'm just going to stick to using the 'be more creative' advice for what it can do for me, realistically. I may have some other skills and a little more practice and method in organized creativity wouldn't hurt there, or even in general, in life. (Actually, these notes are good even for projects that are not strictly 'creative'.)

But it'd better be honest advice, and make it clear that doing this or that 'like an artist' is NOT the same thing as 'being an artist'.

I suppose these notes are implying that distinction, at least I hope so. At least they don't sound to me like delusional "you can do anything" fluff from self-help books. I find too often in talking of creativity it's automatically equated with artistic talent, and that's dishonest as well as irritating. Everyone of us can be stimulated into being more creative, and creativity is good for the mind, but it's good to know your limits too.
posted by bitteschoen at 6:27 AM on April 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


you either have it or don't

BS. "Talent" is avid interest, determination, and lots of practice. Nothing more.
posted by oulipian at 8:23 AM on April 1, 2011 [12 favorites]


BS. "Talent" is avid interest, determination, and lots of practice. Nothing more.

OH MY GOD, this.
posted by you're a kitty! at 8:37 AM on April 1, 2011


oulipian: "you either have it or don't

BS. "Talent" is avid interest, determination, and lots of practice. Nothing more.
"

Furthermore, even if the concept of 'talent' were valid, all the talent in the world isn't going to get you anywhere if you're not willing to work for it, and in the end, perseverance gets you a hell of a lot farther than any innate predisposition towards X, Y, or Z.
posted by Phire at 9:00 AM on April 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


Yeah, well, and where does that "avid interest" come from? :)

We can use different words for it, but if we're talking specific artistic talents, and not just being creative in general, there is at least one element in there that you don't get to choose yourself, and you can't create from scratch only through determination and practice.

(Nevermind that determination is a pretty good 'talent' in itself, and not everyone has it to the same degree!)

Else, what are we saying here, that everyone can be an artist?
posted by bitteschoen at 9:01 AM on April 1, 2011


BS. "Talent" is avid interest, determination, and lots of practice. Nothing more.

For a very limited definition of the word talent. The highly talented, what we call "the real thing" in my business, "avid interest" needs to be replaced with "a myriad of complementary compulsions."
posted by Bookhouse at 9:11 AM on April 1, 2011


> I find too often in talking of creativity it's automatically equated with artistic talent

To me "being creative" has always referred only to a person's irresistably strong urge to make or produce stuff, and the question whether the stuff is any good was entirely separate. An old lady down the street from me absolutely loves to make little plaster of Paris objects from rubber molds--puppies, kitties, birdies, babies with wings--and paint them. Her house is crammed with these, and she makes more with every spare second she can scrape. I see this as an almost perfectly pure instance of raw creativity. She has the itch to make, and she has no choice but to scratch it.


> I know there could be a million definitions of what it means to be an 'artist'

Of all the artists and "artists" I have had the good fortune to know personally, not a single one of the good ones gave one tenth of a fuck about "being an artist" or about the question whether or not he or she was one. They didn't have time to worry about that, they were too consumed by the shit they were doing or making--often to the exclusion of sleeping enough or eating properly.


> BS. "Talent" is avid interest, determination, and lots of practice. Nothing more."

Doesn't the statement just reappear as "you either have avid interest, determination, and lots of practice or you don't"?
posted by jfuller at 9:11 AM on April 1, 2011


"For the highly talented," dammit.
posted by Bookhouse at 9:11 AM on April 1, 2011


Furthermore, even if the concept of 'talent' were valid, all the talent in the world isn't going to get you anywhere if you're not willing to work for it, and in the end, perseverance gets you a hell of a lot farther than any innate predisposition towards X, Y, or Z.

I'll ditto this. It's the people with perseverance that find success. I was recently at a gallery showing where the exhibit was over 200 rejection letters received by an artist in a ten year period. I read every one and it was fascinating.

I remember a mature woman in my painting class in 2004 that didn't seem to have much "talent". She worked quickly and messily and it seemed hard to find where she was going. Four years later I went to a gallery and I thought "Oh my gosh! I know this work!" In four years with the right education and support she had produced some really awesome work with cohesive themes. It took me seven years to finish first year of art school. Many people would have given up, but I can't tell you how much this BFA means to me.

What most artists need is time, so I'll ditto the guy's comment about being boring. Besides the internet, nothing sucks time away from an artist like other people. This sounds dumb, but time is the most important thing an artist can have, and if you don't value it, others won't.
posted by Calzephyr at 9:12 AM on April 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


Yeah, I do think that everyone can be an artist. However, not everyone will create the same type of art, and many things we may not even consider art at all until someone comes up with it.

I don't disagree, of course, that many artists feel a need to create, compulsions, whatever. But I still think that that needs to be backed up by discipline of some sort, otherwise nothing would ever be finished. I have a compulsion to write a novel, and it's all I think about, but unless I get off Metafilter and put in 500 words a day, it's not going to get written.

But if we're going to say that even "avid interest, determination" constitute a level of talent, and if we deconstruct to that level, the point ends up being "people are different". Which.... isn't exactly something I can argue against :)
posted by Phire at 9:14 AM on April 1, 2011


Doesn't the statement just reappear as "you either have avid interest, determination, and lots of practice or you don't"?

Except that those are all things you can clearly work on and get better at.
posted by symbollocks at 9:31 AM on April 1, 2011


"(woops, meant to blockquote that)"

Cripes, man. Now it just looks like you stole it.
posted by Eideteker at 9:38 AM on April 1, 2011


I work as a teacher at an art academy. I've been doing this for +20 years, on and off. (Obviously, sometimes I work on my own stuff). In my experience, some of the students who are most "talented" when they are admitted are the ones who never develop as artists. The admiration they receive from fellow students and professors alike makes them lazy.
On the other hand, students who could barely pass the admission tests often turn out very well. During the first couple of years, they make it a habit to work harder than everyone else in order to be on a par. And even after they have caught up, the healthy habit stays with them.
Then again, there are students who spend years finding their way. Right now, I am very proud of a student who has been on the medium level for several years, never attending too much or making use of his considerable drawing skills, who has suddenly found his direction within a more conceptual art form.
Obviously, not anyone will apply for admission at an art school. They all have some aspiration and a lot of drive. But you'd be surprised at how many can't draw, and how many have no idea about art history or contemporary art. So I know for a fact that anyone who really wants to can learn to draw. Anyone who really wants to can work himself up to the top-three among a class of 22 by willpower and practice. Speaking about "talent" is a lazy excuse for not wanting to spend years and years practising and living on a stone with no promise of future income while all your friends get normal educations and nice jobs and nice families and homes in the suburbs.
posted by mumimor at 11:15 AM on April 1, 2011 [4 favorites]


all the talent in the world isn't going to get you anywhere if you're not willing to work for it, and in the end, perseverance gets you a hell of a lot farther than any innate predisposition towards X, Y, or Z

Of course! I wasn't denying the role of perserverance and practice at all, or saying that's it ALL about having innate qualities. You could be the most gifted person, and waste it or ruin it all by yourself. That's obvious. But come on, seems just as obvious to me that all the advice and perserverance in the world will never replace that whatever you want to call it -- a knack, a calling, a vocation, an inclination, a passion, etc. to make ART.

You need that seed to start with, and then yes you do need the skills to discover it and make it grow, and you need to cultivate those skills. And then... you also need the circumstances to make it grow, and the people around you to help you make it grow, and a society and a culture that allows you to make it grow, and you need luck too. See how many things we risk taking for granted that don't fully lie in our power to control?

We tend to skip the balance of the picture in a way that's not really fair, if we put too much emphasis on sheer individual effort alone. And I'm not taking issue so much with these notes, which are really cool, but with some of the self-help stuff that's out there, that sometimes goes really really overboard with the "you too can do it" approach.

Let's give due credit to everything that's involved to produce art - art that goes beyond personal creativity for one's pleasure or wellbeing, and is meant to communicate to the rest of the world - let's give credit both to the individual talent and to all else it takes to express it and put it out there, in a way that adds something to our world, our culture, our experience, to the art that came before and is being made now and will be made tomorrow.

If I am enjoying and admiring an artist's work, I want to acknowledge all of that, not just one part. If my reaction were to be 'oh well I could have done that, if only I'd applied myself!', then, hmm, maybe there's something wrong there... and it could be my thinking, but, I know that's not what I'd call enjoyment of art, personally.

I want to enjoy and be inspired by art in a way that still makes me appreciate that I'm looking at, or seeing, or listening to, something unique, that I could have not achieved, or thought of, myself. (I'm speaking as an end user here. I'm not an artist and don't even wish to be. There's other stuff I can do and want to be better at doing, but it's not art.)

Everyone can be creative. But if we say anybody can be an artist, if only they learn to be creative and persist at it, then I think we are devaluing what we consider art. I'm not saying let's go back to the Renaissance and to the idea of artists as capricious semi-divine supernaturally gifted geniuses to be put from early childhood through years of apprenticeship and supported lifelong by powerful mentors. I'm just a little wary of going to the opposite excess, stretching the idea of art to the point that anyone can call themselves an artist just because they doodle in a moleskine sketchbook and have a blog. You know? a little balance maybe.
posted by bitteschoen at 12:07 PM on April 1, 2011


an art academy. ... On the other hand, students who could barely pass the admission tests often turn out very well

Well the particular 'data point' who is typing this comment just now will certainly confirm that. 'Art class' back in school was for me just a perpetual embarrassment; I couldn't draw, never had any ideas, and when we had to do such things as pair off and sketch each other, the stuff I produced was a tragic joke.

Yet - 40 years on - here I am making a living creating (and selling!) things that definitely fall into the category of 'art', although I myself am certainly not an 'artist' (in the Picasso/Michaelangelo sense of grabbing a pencil and creating original imagery on that blank white sheet ...).

The Chuck Close quote upthread kind of nailed it I think; far and away the most important factor is your ability to follow the old dictum said about authors: "Apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair. When you get up twenty years later, you'll be a writer."

In a word (well, two words) ... "Intelligent perseverance"
posted by woodblock100 at 3:52 PM on April 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


This is the most inspiring thing I've read in ages. Thanks, Brandon! Epic post.
posted by LuckySeven~ at 12:36 AM on April 4, 2011


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