Monday, June 18, 2012

Artist See, Artist Do

Just do it. Put in your 10,000 hours, writes Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers: The Story of Success. "By doing things, things get done," said Ray Bradbury in a 1988 interview. (He wrote 1,000 words a day.) In order to excel, you must keep exploring. That exploration happens through doing and by analyzing. You have to practice your desired craft by putting in those hours and you have to practice seeing every day.

I had a disagreement with a friend about doing versus seeing. He pointed out that there are plenty of people who want to be writers, who have lots of ideas, but who either don't write or are not good at it. He felt that those people should be writing, not wandering around looking for inspiration. Practice seeing? I had to explain. Staring at one's sketchbook will not produce art. Drawing objects found around the house might be good practice, but may not be inspiring enough to keep the pencil in your hand for long. You have to feel a connection to your object, or be able to conjure up a connection in order to make inspired art. I think it is easier to make those connections when life isn't still, but when you see life in action.

Maybe I've got the words wrong. Seeing may not inspire you but noticing will. I recently gave my writing students the option to sit in a café and not just write, but notice what people are doing: how they are gesturing, eating, holding their water glasses, and how they arrange their napkins. My professor Robert (Bob) Glück had suggested this to me a few months ago and I was flabbergasted at the gap between what I thought I knew about people and what they actually did. My students returned to class with vivid, descriptive writing, and they added heartfelt and meaningful stories to their observations. Bob called this "plein air" writing, akin to plein air painting. Artists are told that they must paint from nature in order to see nuance and details. Painting from photographs often yields a flat picture. I don't even want to know what painting from online photos produces.

Artists (and I mean all creative artists) need incubation time. You go into your studios, or clear off your kitchen table and make work, practice technique, and explore materials. You can practice a binding over and over until you can't see it anymore or you've poked too many holes in your fingers. Then it's time to take a walk, to let the information settle, and to shake loose a new idea. Maybe you see a father directing his young son how to wash a car. Or a man walking his three dogs who keeps saying, "Come along, girls." The three dogs could trigger an idea for three books leashed together. You have no way of knowing when or from where those creative sparks will emerge, but I have found that they are more likely to reveal themselves outside the workplace.

Moderation. Balance. You've heard those words before. You do have to find a balance  between intake and output, but you also have to engage and work hard. Once you make dozens, maybe hundreds of one binding, you'll be good at it. Keep bringing your observations of public life into your private workspace, then make pieces to relate and release back out to the streets.

Solid color and handcolored cranes by the maker at Crane Log


Patricia Anne McGoldrick said...

This post reaffirms my perception of the writer as an observer!

Lizzie said...

Yes! Thank you! The initial comments did hit home though - things do get done, if you Do Them...
There is a fine balance between taking time to look, think, observe and mull over... and spending so much time on those things that they become "displacement activites"; in other words, they actually become all you do, they stop you from Getting Things Done.
Perfectionists will tell you that they prefer the displacement activities - because there is no risk, no commitment...

Somewhere, we each have to find that balance, between "doing all the time", so that we become stale, make nothing new or original any more, and "stop and stare" time, where we have the space to think fresh thoughts, take in new ideas, see new things.

One day, maybe I will find that balance. Meanwhile, I often have to give myself a good shake, to get out of the comfy rut and actually Do Stuff!

Thanks for this post, it was very thought-provoking. I loved the story about the "writing en plein air" - must try it too!

Anna said...

I really enjoyed this thought provoking post. I do wonder why some days I feel inspired and others not. For me, it's about observation, practice, experimentation, lots of hard work and doing, thinking - all facets of my creativity that,like life itself,ebb and flow.