In the first episode of a documentary series about design I’ve started watching, the filmmakers spend some time with an illustrator named Christoph Niemann – known best for his New Yorker magazine covers (20 and counting). In discussing his process and his craft, Christoph muses on the duality of creator and editor. The act of creating something (or at least creating something good) requires a free spiritedness and a letting go of judgement. The act of turning that creation into a fully realized work that achieves its purpose requires control and logic. This can be summed up in two short sentences: Be a careless artist. Be a ruthless editor.
In all the creative work I do – whether songwriting, videography, writing or brainstorming ideas for new client marketing campaigns – I feel an ever-present tension in the the push and pull between these two personas. As a “responsible adult” who wants to be taken seriously in this world, I find it difficult at times to escape the pragmatic, criticism-wielding part of my brain and fully enter a careless, free-spirited headspace. [Even as I was writing that sentence, my internal editor stopped me from typing and started laboring over what word I should use – zone? dimension? space? Ahh…headspace, that’s it.]
But, the element of play is an undeniably essential component of creative work, and the most creative people I’ve known, even if they come across as serious people, have an uncanny ability to always let their minds be at play. I like to think of it as having a thought party in your head where all the ideas are invited and get to mingle as equals. Christoph has an Instagram account where he does just that: plays with ideas. And it’s delightful.
This element of play also serves as the gateway to imagination and ultimately to problem solving. If you’re an artist or are in the creative industry, this applies to you. If you’re an accountant, this applies to you. If you’re a parent, this applies to you. Freeing our minds of the constraints of logic and “how things should be” can open doors to ideas and solutions that would otherwise be inaccessible. And the ruthless editor is not the archenemy but more like the parent helping a child as he takes off on his bike for the first time without training wheels. The editor guides, aligns a trajectory that’s not going to send the idea crashing into a curb, then – just at the right moment – lets go of the bicycle.
Wow, I don’t know how we ended up with a personification riding an idea bicycle, but hopefully it works. That’s the best part of play: you never know quite where it’s gonna take you.
My approach to trying new things or learning new disciplines is and has always been to jump right in and do it. From teaching myself how to play guitar as a kid to becoming a vegetarian to engineering complex big data systems for clients, I always just go for it and figure it out along the way. I like to think this is a good trait – though it’s incredibly detrimental to putting together Ikea furniture.
But of all the things I’ve done in my life and all the passions I’ve pursued, I think I can say that the one that has involved the most trial and error – and the most facepalm moments – is photography and videography. I don’t mean point-and-shoot photography or taking photos on my iPhone. I mean switching your DSLR to manual mode and manual focus and going to work taking photos and shooting video.
The other complication to this is that I’m a perfectionist, so my idea of error includes a shot slightly out of focus or a little overexposed. But when you’ve never taken a class or had professional training in a discipline (and sometimes even if you have), the learning process involves trial and error. And the key word there is error. Error is an essential element of that equation. If you ever find something you do perfectly the first time, then you’re probably not going to enjoy doing it for very long because there’s no challenge, there’s no personal art to it, there’s no chance to hone your craft.
The chemist and author Orlando A. Battista once wrote, “An error doesn’t become a mistake until you refuse to correct it.” I would expand on that to say that a number of errors don’t equal failure as long as you keep at it to get them right. This is really the nature of producing anything – of creativity, of craft. The people who get really good at a skill or an art often had people tell them (maybe for years) that they were no good at what they were doing or that the product of their work was crap. But if you can sift out the constructive criticism from the noise, then going through that actually provides a pretty accelerated learning curve.
In addition to continuing to overcome errors in the process of creating, another essential element is getting work done. My friend Alan talks about how good work that is finished is, by nature, better than “perfect” work that was never completed. Because we all know there’s really no such thing as perfect anyway. The illustrator and cartoonist Jake Parker hits the nail on the head in a video about this. He makes this point: “The world wants, and it needs, people who finish things.” So, go do the thing you want to. Get it wrong, mess it up. But do it. Because just in doing it, you’re exponentially closer to doing it right than people who are afraid to try it in the first place.
Don’t get me wrong, hard work gets you places. And hard work has been a big factor in helping me achieve my goals thus far. But, especially for those of us in a creative industry, hard work isn’t enough. Persuasive communication, in whatever form, needs to be felt – which means it needs to be inspired.
It’s all too easy to fall into routine, to do things the way you’ve been doing them because it’s easier, it’s safe. But that’s boring. To be inspired, you have to seek inspiration. And you know it when it hits you.
Last night, a friend directed me to the website of a young videographer whose reel alone blows a lot of top-dollar production companies’ reels out of the water. It’s work like this that inspires me to push beyond just good and instead achieve best.
Now I know why I’ve been avoiding reading novels for the past few years: because they inspire my creativity in ways I can’t control.
Lately, I’ve felt much more comfortable reading nonfiction, which inspires my analytical tendencies and critical thinking. Those are two things that even 19-year-old undergraduates can deal with.
But creativity is another beast entirely. Being creative is mind, heart, body, soul. It’s risky. It’s scary. And there’s a chance that what you create may be no good, or at least not good enough. But being creative – whatever form that takes – offers an exhilaration and sense of satisfaction in my soul that logic never could.
So, tonight I will again reach for Pam Houston’s latest novel Contents May Have Shifted instead of reading yet another business book or war memoir. Because I want to be inspired. Because the way she uses words helps me remember how much I love them, not just for what they say but for how they can dance across the page with grace or come crashing down on me like waves, rhythmic and powerful. She helps me remember that this is what words are meant for. And then I start to believe that I can create something that just might be good enough.
When people who don’t know anything about graphic design talk about graphic design, they always use the word “pop.” As in, “Ooh, that font really makes it pop.” Or, “Let’s change that background color to really make it pop.” Any such statements do nothing but scream I don’t know anything about design!
When people who don’t know anything about writing talk about writing, they always use the word “flow.” As in, “Oh yeah, that sounds good, it has a nice flow to it.” Or, “Let’s take out some of these periods and commas because they’re really interrupting the flow of the piece.” Any such statements do nothing but scream I don’t know anything about writing!
After an awesome Memorial Day in Boulder, I was driving home at sunset. I could see the mountains in my rearview mirror, glowing a golden orange from the setting sun. I was happy but also a little melancholic because the girl I’d spent time with there was not coming back to Denver with me. I was listening to some music by some good friends of mine—and that, along with the beautiful view and the tinge of sadness, inspired me to write a song. So I started formulating the lyrics in my head.
I’ve got Boulder in my rearview mirror, but I still can’t see anything clearer…
No, that’s no good.
I’ve got Boulder in my rearview mirror but Denver’s on the horizon…
Even after I got home and picked up my guitar, no magic happened. So I put it aside and instead practiced the songs of a band I’m currently playing bass for.
The award-winning ad executive Hal Riney once said, “The frightening and most difficult thing about being what somebody calls a ‘creative person’ is that you have absolutely no idea where any of your thoughts come from really. And, especially, you don’t have any idea about where they’re gonna come from tomorrow.”
I wrote a whole album of songs not too long ago, and I honestly can’t tell you how I did it. Each song came to me all at once: chords, melody, lyrics. It’s like they just happened. They were inside me and had to get out. And that’s how it’s always been with my songwriting. I have no process or strategy. And, as of right now, there doesn’t seem to be anything that just wants to get out. I guess I’ll keep playing the ones I’ve got until that happens.