Friday, 27 July 2012

Latest and Greatest?

One of the things that a lot of artists wrestle with is originality (and remember, when I say ‘artist’ I mean any creative person, whether it be writer, painter, dancer, musician, etc).  Another issue that often arises is staying up with trends in your particular field. These two things seem to be counterintuitive: you have to be original but yet be within the parameters of the latest trend. That seems a bit impossible and frustrating. Yet there is a great deal of pressure in the world of arts to do just that.
This is one of those struggles in which unhelpful thinking will really do us a bad turn. As we are trying to come up with ideas, or even while we are working on projects, if we are frequently questioning the validity and originality and thereby dismissing anything we come up with, then we won’t get very far indeed. 
The ever-challenging search for originality can put us off creating anything at all. But the truth is, seldom does an ‘original’ idea pop up uninvited. Usually we are in the process of doing something and the notion will strike of ‘hey, what if I do this?’ and something new and different comes out. I think too that the struggle for originality--deliberately setting out to create something ‘original’--is self-defeating. Trying to force something too hard often has the opposite effect—we create nothing.
I think that anything we make is original (unless you are painstakingly making an exact replica of someone else’s work). Each of us has our own unique voice, attitude, talents and capabilities. Yes, they may resemble others, but the combination of skills and abilities that each of us brings to the artistic table is original and one of a kind. And that is a great thing. In knowing what we like, what resonates within ourselves translates into a type of authenticity that others will recognize and relate to.
The other thing is about following the latest trends. I was told at university that my drawing style was too ‘Hans Holbeinish’ to be acceptable. I was thrilled to have my work compared to the 16th century painter but the instructor saw it as a negative and stated that I had to develop a completely different style that was more with the modern market trend. So I gave it a go at trying to develop a style that was more ‘marketable’. That was an exercise in frustration and futility—it didn’t feel true for me and it showed. A couple of years later I left art and didn’t work at it seriously for nearly 35 years. Although hindsight has perfect vision, I do think I would have been better off to have stuck to my own vision and developed my own style with adaptations rather than throwing it out all together and trying to be who I wasn’t. You have to be yourself in your art—that is your originality.
At the same time, it doesn’t serve us to not try new things. In unhealthy thinking a person tends to have extreme ‘either/or’ mindsets—things are seen in only black and white, good or bad, right or wrong with no leeway for variances. If we see our art in terms of only one way to do it, then we limit our capabilities and our chances to grow and perhaps develop a really unique take on our artistic endeavours. And being extreme in going the opposite direction can cause complications as well. It seems that I went too far away from the style I naturally developed. Now with adaptations and blending of styles, I think that what I am creating now in portraiture is better than what I did when trying to be trendy. I’m happier with it and frankly it seems others are too. I still have a style that may be more in line with bygone times, but it is my style even though it is influenced by previous artists. We are all influenced by what has gone before—it’s how we interpret what we’ve seen into our own vision that gives it originality. And originality can be subtle—it doesn’t have to hit you over the head screaming, ‘I’M ORIGINAL!’ It can quietly say, ‘this is me.
One of the difficulties with following trends in the arts is that those trends are ever-changing.  Riding the crest of the latest trend is great while it’s happening but at some point, that trend will morph into something else; or veer in a totally new direction. Your choice is to modify, adjust or stay the same. It’s up to the individual which way they go and follow what feels right for them. If your creations are right in line with the latest trends and have a unique quality to them that sets you above the others, then you’re right on target! And you can feel that when it happens. Sometimes though, what you’re creating may not be the latest trend, but who knows whether or not it will be the next trend?
When we think about the many creative people whose work was not accepted at first because it was not in-line with the trend, it is quite staggering. When they first exhibited, the Impressionists were considered a travesty; the Pre-Raphaelites were threatened with expulsioin from the art academy for their vision of painting; Hemingway received hundreds of rejection notices; van Gogh only sold one painting in his lifetime; to name just a few instances. The development of abstract art, surrealism and so many styles of writing, music and dance came about because someone said 'I'm going to not follow the latest trend but explore what is inside me.' It's sometimes a difficult and lonely path to take, but in the long run, one that is truer to the self.
So turning off the inner voice that pressures for the conflicting concepts of total originality coupled with trendiness may help in freeing you to just create. And you may be surprised at the uniquely original work that is produced!

Friday, 20 July 2012

So Many Ideas, So Little Time

 Recently a friend asked how to choose just one thing to work on when you've so many ideas jostling in your head for attention. That's a good question (plus how wonderful is it to have so many great ideas flooding your mind!). This is one of the things we all hope for -- lots of inspiration -- but getting deep into one of those ideas means letting the others sit. How to do this?

First of all, each person's way of deciding which project to go deeper into is as individual as the person. What will work for one person may not work for another; and what works one time may not work on another day. So
recognising that this is trial and error or rotation of techniques helps. Here are a few suggestions of what I use.

Clearing and focusing the mind is a very helpful technique. I recommend starting each creative session with this. When I don't, it seems like it takes me a long time to settle in and get to work. Utilizing meditation type techniques to clear and focus the mind is helpful to be able to choose what to work on as well. In my workshops I instruct the participants in techniques such as 'getting your
colour' in your mind's eye and a deep breathing ritual along with set objectives to focus on.  Along with those techniques, I often use listening to a particular piece of music (my two favorites are either Pachelbel's Canon in D or Bach's Prelude to Cello Suite) while breathing deeply and centering my mind, sitting quietly with either my eyes closed or looking out my workroom window at the beautiful surrounding fields (if you don't have great scenery, a photo of a favourite place might suffice). These techniques to quiet the buzzing inside can assist in deciding what to work on first.

Now you've cleared your mind, but how to decide? Decision making can be difficult sometimes. Often as creative people, we want to do it all. When the ideas are coming at you fast and furious and you need to settle on one item and get started, it seems a bit overwhelming and frustrating. How to choose just one?

First of all, you don't have to choose just one forever; you just have to choose one at that moment to work on. That is why list making and keeping a journal is so important. I know that in 'The Artist's Way' Julia Cameron recommends not going back and reading your journal but I found that wasn't very helpful. When doing the morning pages, ideas would bubble up and I would write them into my journaling. If I had time, I'd copy them immediately into my separate 'ideas book' but most often I had to move on to doing things and would have to come back later to the journal. To make it easy to find the ideas, I started drawing little light bulbs beside what I'd written as an idea so I could easily flip through the journal and find those spots without getting distracted into reading what I'd been journaling about. That way, the flow of writing and ideas bubbling up kept moving and they weren't lost in the idea ether. We all know that feeling--'I had a great idea but what was it as I didn’t write it down and now it's lost!' This way, you've had the idea and you've saved it.

So, if you are having one brainstorm of ideas after another, jot them down! Allow that brainstorming time as part of the process of your creativity. Sometimes what we need is that filling the idea reservoir so go with it. Also, quite often while writing one thing, ideas for another project will pop up. Since I do most of my 'real' writing on the computer, I keep an idea file in my writings folder and type them into that as well. You can have two Word Documents open at a time (just be sure to pay attention as to which file you are writing into I say from experience! At least it's easy enough to copy and paste.). When stuck for ideas (as it does happen sometimes) I can go back to the little seeds stash and see if they can be planted to grow. When I'm sewing or painting, I keep a notepad and pen handy because ideas for poems and snippets of other writings come to me at those times and I can quickly jot them down. Keeping an idea notebook with me at all times is helpful too.

So, you've done your idea jotting, you've done your mind centring, how to decided which thing to start with? Prioritizing is a whole subject in itself! But I'll discuss a couple of things here. If you've got a schedule made up and there are deadlines for certain things, then follow the deadline. Doing what needs to be done first in accordance with the calendar eliminates that little dilemma. If you don't have a schedule or haven't prioritized your project ideas, that may be a place to start.

If there is no deadline and you've got your list, randomly pick three items/ideas (keeping the choices small helps, but if you must, put them all in the pot). Write each separately on a Post-It note or small piece of paper and place them in front of you or into a bowl, hat, whatever. Close your eyes and pick one. Yep, I just told you to randomly pick one. The important thing is to gauge the gut reaction to the one you picked. If you picked 'painting the picture of the house' and your reaction was, 'gee, I'd really rather work on the painting of the cat,' then there is your answer--you really want to paint the picture of the cat first. Sometimes by being pushed in one direction we feel a sense of really wanting to go another. Listen to that intuitive creative pull within. Yep, it can be that simple. If your gut reaction to what you pick is very positive, then you’ve chosen what you’re being pulled to do at that time. Don't think about the other things in the pot--get up and get to work on that idea! They'll be there for a later date.

An organizing expert suggested to people asking where to start in cleaning a really messy room to 'Walk in the door, turn to your right, start cleaning and work your way around the room.' Sometimes it's that simple. We have a tendency to over think about things, building them up into much more complicated processes than they really are. When thinking gets in the way of doing, it's time to snap ourselves out of the thought trap and get to work.

Hope this helps to set you in the direction of deciding and doing!

Saturday, 14 July 2012

I Was Going to Write About Procrastination But Just Didn't Get Around To It

All this week I've been trying to figure out what to write for this blog. I've been thinking and thinking and although I came up with several ideas, nothing was flowing; I was stuck. My plan was to post a blog each Friday morning. But yesterday morning came and went; still nothing materialized. I did go over old writings, looked at books, got out my knitting, that sort of thing. But write something new? Wasn't happening. Then I did a little creative coaching on myself. I couldn't write anything if I didn't have a pen in hand with paper in front of me or was sitting at the computer! I was thinking too much. It was time for doing. I was ... procrastinating!

Thinking about our projects is a necessary and important part of creating. We do need to have some well-thought-out ideas, a vision to some extent for writing, sculpting, painting (although not always for painting--sometimes the best things that we produce are spur-of-the-moment surprises). But when the thinking becomes more important than the doing, well, Houston, we've got a problem.

When pacing about trying to decide again this morning what to write about I was having an inner dialogue about this frustration. Then it came to me: what would I advise someone else to do in this situation? Well, 'sit down and just start writing' was the answer. The doing often is the release of the inspiration that is needed to create something. We can think all day about our projects, but until we sit down, stand up or pick up our tools, nothing happens. This was a great reminder of something so simple yet often overlooked.

But some people ask, what is it that will get that action started? What gets us up off the sofa and into our studio or in front of the computer? This is a question that is so hard to define. There doesn't seem to be a universal 'key' that unlocks our activity. Unfortunatley, we all have to come to a personal point of making that commitment to act and how each person gets there is as individual, in my opinion, as each person.

Part of it is recognizing that our inactivity is not moving our artistic projects forward; honestly seeing that we are engaging in avoidance behavior by watching 'Homes Under the Hammer' instead of doing preliminary sketches for a painting; that doing the laundry instead of working on chapter four when really the laundry doesn't need to be done till much later, or doing just about anything to not sit down and create!

Another part is making that commitment to ourselves, to our work and then deciding we will move and then just do it! I wish I had the key that would overcome inaction, that I had a set formula for overcoming inactivity. In a way I do: first I ask myself what is it that is stopping me? Are they excuses or real impediments? If they are excuses, I tell them they are dismissed as they have no power here! Real impediments? then I make a list of what steps can be taken to overcome these impediments. If there is nothing that can be done at that moment, let it go and look for other areas in which action can be taken, for often there is something else that can be done. When I follow these rules, I get up off my duff and do. And doing only counts when your doing or you're done!

A lot of times the not acting is just simply procrastination and procrastination often has it's roots in fear: fear of failure, of not measuring up, of not performing to an acceptable level, of disappointing one's self or others. It is quite often a surprise to people to realise the level of fear they may have about avoiding something, even something as simple as doing a sketch or writing a weekly column.

Sometimes it's just a lack of interest. That too needs to be dissected--if that idea is not exciting enough to move you off the couch, then how could it be altered to make it more exciting? Or are you being overly critical about this idea? It may be the very thing someone else is dying to see or hear but they are waiting for YOU to create it! Often, a simple pep talk with one's self is what is needed. Remember, talk to yourself as your own best friend who would encourage, nudge and support you in trying things. Denigrating yourself for inaction won't get you going any faster. Applause sounds much nicer than booing, so inwardly applaud yourself.

When we fall short of the goals we have set or the plans that we have made, forgiveness of our own foibles is so important. Instead of chiding ourselves for not following a plan or maintaining our goals, how about we just renew that commitment with a little loving kindness? Acceptance that you fell a bit short of your plans or goals, assessing if any changes need to be made to the plans, and then renewing the commitment to do what you can frees you to start anew with a bit of confidence and a sense of capability.

 The wisdom of others' words often inspires, so here's a quote for this week to carry us through.
"Don't think. Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It's self-conscious, and anything self-conscious is lousy. You can't try to do things. You must do things.! ~ Ray Bradbury
Happy creating!

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Pesky Perfectionism

It's been a week of starting new ventures, finishing up projects, continuing others and being revisited by that old nemesis 'perfectionism', which will be this week’s topic.

Hopefully all of you are doing well on setting, working toward and achieving your regular goals. But are you trying too hard at things? Is perfectionism helping or hindering you in this process? Doing things well is something we all strive for and is a good approach. But I think when that desire to do something 'perfectly' interferes with the process or even stops us from creating then it's time to examine this aspect of our personalities. If in our goals we try to achieve each one with perfection, we may get so hung up in that aim that we become paralyzed with perfectionism.

The funny thing about creating is that you really won't ever get to the point where things are 'perfect'. The esteemed American folk musician Pete Seeger was quoted in Revival: ''If you’re a musician, it means you’re going to die unfulfilled…you’ll spend the rest of your life on an upward learning curve because you’ll never be as good as you can be. You’ll die an apprentice, a student, and there’s nothing better than that. To have achieved the best you can ever be––that’s a tragedy.” 

At 93 and having performed with people from Woody Guthrie to John Mellencamp, Pete has had a long, successful career and every opportunity to be 'perfect.' His songs are so ingrained in our lives that we forget who wrote them. These are songs such as 'Where Have All the Flowers Gone,' 'Turn, Turn, Turn,' and 'If I Had a Hammer.' He also popularized the use of the song 'We Shall Overcome' during civil rights demonstrations. But the thing that I like so much in his quote is that he speaks of the process of music (which can be translated to any art). Creating is an eternal and we are forever students of creativity and to expect perfection is to miss the point--the joy of just doing it.
Part of being creative is about engaging in the process of creating. Perfection is an abstraction that really doesn't exist--anywhere. The very nature of creativity always allows for something to be done in a different way; perfection implies there is not other way to do something. But when we finish a piece of art or writing or whatever we create, and continue to pick and prod at it looking for that 'perfection', it won't come because there isn't a definitive end to creation. And that's a good thing. Instead, perhaps we need to look for a point of saturation or clarity in our work. Is it close to saying what we wanted it to say and does it convey the emotion or idea we wanted to share?

The thing is, you won't produce your very, very best work every time. We really do need to get through the not-so-good pieces to arrive at the really good ones. It is that process of moving through each paragraph, each sketch, each practice session that gives us the practice that leads us to the piece that allows us to say 'ah, that's what I was trying to say', an acceptable level of statisfaction. The overly critical eye will forever pick and poke at things but you have to come to a point where you just step back and let go. Have you ever over-worked a piece? That is perfectionism getting in the way. We work and work to get it 'perfect' until we go past the point where it was 'right'. Also, if we try to create only masterpieces each time, we will definitely become frustrated and quit...before we get to the point of really creating something wonderful that others can relate to.  

When you look at creativity as the place where you don't have to be perfect, you just have to 'do,' I think it allows some freedom that will open you up to new possibilities. It is in our nature as creators to want perfection, but it is also in our humanity that it won't  happen. And to open up to that is to open up to a sense of freedom in creating--it doesn't have to be perfect, it just has to come into being. I think that if we produce something perfect each time then we have become an automaton--cranking out 'perfect' items with little soul or emotion. And creativity is about that soul and emotion.

My grandmother used to deliberately put in a little flaw in her sewing or crocheting--very small imperfections. She said she did this so the 'little people' wouldn't be jealous of her work and play tricks on her. I think it was a way of eliminating the desire for perfectionism. She also said that there wasn't any such thing as perfection--even God's handiwork--people--have all sorts of imperfections and we loved them anyway, in fact, it is those who are less than perfect that we love the most.
By letting go of the need for perfectionism, I don't mean that that you accept a very low level of performance and stop caring at all about the quality of what you produce. But instead, taking on an attitude of what you produce having the quality of being pleasantly ample (since you are working at the best of your ability at that time). Reframing your expectations of 'perfect' (a non-existent concept) to proficient at that time gives you a sense of moving forward, a sense of growth in your efforts and endeavors.

What you create really is sometimes supposed to be fodder for later works; sometimes it is supposed to be the foundation piece for the next work. And truthfully, we can't always create to the best of our abilities. A couple of weeks ago I was hit with a really bad chest infection which left me quite weak and tired. At the same time I was worrying about my grandson in America who was critically ill with pneumonia. Who can create to their best ability when they have physical and emotional drains sucking the life out of them? I still had some projects that had to be done and really, the things I created weren't my best ever. But they were the best I could do at that time, which was sufficient.

That is not to say that we shouldn’t be creating at a point of intense difficulties—in fact, creating at times of stress is a great release and many wonderful pieces have been created through such times. But that angst is not necessary for creativity and oftentimes when we are greatly stressed we will also be overly critical of our work and keep ourselves on a loop of wanting to do well and yet feeling so far removed from proficiency and thereby feeding frustration.

Now that my grandson is fully recovered and I am too, my work does look better because I'm coming from a better point. Am I going to worry about what was created during that stressful time? No, because that would be a waste of energy. Did anyone who looked at it turn up their noses and say 'geeze, that's not perfect!'? No. Most of those items did sell and that to me means acceptance.

So if at the end of a piece you are critiquing it and looking at how and where to improve, do not let it counter your sense of accomplishment of having created! It may say exactly what someone else was waiting to hear. It may express the very emotion another was wanting to experience. It may be just what someone else is looking for. These are experiences of sharing and our creativity is all about sharing. Needing to be 'perfect' tends to lead us down a path of disappointment. Letting go of perfectionism and being happy with the experience of creating leads to more growth and the desire to see what can be done next, for there is always a 'next' in creativity.

So let go of the pressure of 'perfect' and enjoy each creation as it comes out! You might be surprised at what happens.