Inside the Box: A Creative Practice

Every now and then I set up a challenge for myself to draw every day in a datebook (like in this 2013 post) or to write the story of the day for a month, or some such thing, and I almost always fail. I like the anticipation of the challenge; so much potential! But I seem to create more when I'm not watching myself do it. Kind of like dieting. Not always sustainable. Even the limited forward motion can lead to other successes, though and as a way to work out new habits. The key is in the actual practice itself.

The only successful practice challenge I gave myself was a during a college summer when my friends were away, and I decided to typewrite a full sheet of paper every day with whatever came into my head. No pauses, no editing. I did this for a month, and the result was thirty sheets of a so-called manuscript I believe I titled, Burn this Book, which is no longer an original title, if it ever was. I haven't looked at it since I typed it. I'm tempted now to see if there is anything in it I can use, but I tend to prefer looking forward rather than to the past for inspiration. Rather, I am compelled to keep going, as if my muse were a few lengths ahead of me on a moving sidewalk. Hey, wait up!

What is my practice now, today? After six months of new opportunities, I'm back to my familiar semester of teaching one Bookworks class, and completely out of a creative rhythm. The only challenge I've sustained over time has been my magazine (the latest issue: Star 82 Review 4.4), maybe this blog, and a (mostly) daily walk.

Recently, I was inspired by two practices. As I noted in a recent blog post, Amos Paul Kennedy, when asked what he's going to make, draws a rectangle and says, "I'm going to put ink there." This suggests a commitment so deep it's like asking what someone is going to eat. It almost doesn't matter because you know it will be food. It's just what he does every day. Built in.

The second inspiration is the current practice of my colleague Hugh Behm-Steinberg. Every day he is writing a poem. For a year. He does this every decade. He showed me his screen, how he creates a document with wide margins side to side and head to tail. "I fill up the box," he said. "I type until it's full."

Since I prefer doing my creative practice on the physical page, pen to paper, I wondered what a box-based practice would look like for me. Postcard size seemed about right. So I drew around a four-by-six-inch postcard in my journal. Then I took a breath and began to write. I filled up the box, trying not to think too hard. Just let it flow, I told myself.

Something interesting happened as I got closer to the bottom border: my ideas crystalized. I could see the end, the wrap up, conclusion, the point of the piece. Like when you are swimming, enjoying the water, the buoyancy, maybe getting tired, but knowing you are getting closer to the edge of the pool. You are prepared to get out, but also a little disoriented, not sure exactly at which side of the pool you will end up.

It could work with visual art: fill the box. Or make a postcard every day.

I am not deluding myself into thinking I will be able to continue this practice for a year. I know myself better than that. I tend to create in sprinter's spurts, which is possibly the reason I make small books and write short works. But I like the exercise for now, and I'm curious how long it will interest me, writing inside the box.


Monica said…
After some time these attempts at staying creative become straight practice, no fun, no pleasure and NOT creative just and expression of determination to a challenge or to oneself or both.
Alisa said…
Thanks for writing. I tend to agree. On the other hand, I've also found that sometimes people work better with constraints and see the more open-ended projects as too overwhelming. Other times, constraints or challenges can kickstart a sleepy muse, which is what just happened for me.

I like to think about the phrase artist Grace Hwang has on her website: "Which of these leads to a door and which of these leads to a trap?"

The question really is: how can we make projects/assignments into doors?
and: what is the resistance and why?

You can see the page here, if you like:

AES said…
For me, the key is finding the right balance. I agree with Monica that if goals are too long, or to ambitious, they can become drudgery. I also agree with you, Alisa, that deadlines help a procrastinator like myself. If I find the right equilibrium between inspiration and do-ability, a creative goal, whether it comes from myself, or somewhere else, gives me focus and direction.

This year, I am sending birthday postcards to all my large, extended family. It is low pressure, I can be as silly as I want, and I have been surprised by how touched my relatives are by something so simple.

The other thing I have been working on is a monthly bookbinding challenge on Instagram. #areyoubookenough The first month's theme was Light and this month's is Peace. A once a month challenge is just the right time frame. Anyway, sorry for the long, long comment, but I have been working up to tell you that for my Peace book, I was just looking up tunnel book directions in my copy of Making Handmade Books. I am excited to try a new to me structure!
Velma Bolyard said…
i've just very recently thought i should draw daily, so that when i need to draw it comes easily. when i drew all the time, that was how i worked. it may be because i'm thinking of printmaking, but i don't care. i'd like my muscles to get strong again.
To comment on what Monica wrote: when doing any sort of long form, regular practice, there's always initially a period of elation, followed by a crash where it seems like a slog. But if you push through that part, you enter a different territory where new things start to happen. This is true whether it's writing/art making, meditation or exercise, etc.