Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Committing to Your Creativity

When I was young, I had the easiest tell that I was lying. Whenever I was lying I prefaced any comments with "Maybe." Maybe my brother did it. Maybe I slipped and fell into the mud rather than jumped into it. Maybe all those caterpillars crawled into my Tonka cement mixer independently before I put it in the basement. As soon as my mother heard "maybe," I was caught. I just could not commit to the lie. Now a narrative about how my brother and I aspired to apply some Darwinian foot-stomping in the name of breeding the fastest caterpillars possible is great material for a fiction of some sort, perhaps setting the table for a period piece of lost innocence in the 1970s, but I did not go as far as I could have with that fiction during my youth.  I tacked on that "maybe" and the truth was out.

The thing with maybe is that as soon as you tack it onto creative work, it won't happen. Not soon, anyway.

Maybe is one of those weaselly words that we utter to others or ourselves to suggest that the commitment is imminent but all too often maybe -- along with its bunkmates tomorrow, the weekend, after and once I..., -- all procrastinate rather than make the commitment to get to it. In my own case there are countless, countless times when I have told myself "later" and regretted it.  Days when I leave the camera in the bag, occasions when I skip a museum; others when I look at the materials for a passion project sitting on a cluttered shelf, potential yet to be untapped or unleashed, and the numerous times when a phrases has come to mind and I tell myself I ought to write it down but I convince myself (yet again!!) that I can jot it down later.

More often than we care to admit, the time is there for the wasting. Sure, that game of solitaire is compelling and is really working your frontal cortex or whatever other part of your brain you have been advised to massage and limber up to fend off the passage of time. Could there really be a better mental work out than getting to it and creating something? Granted, we all need our ways of warming up for the creativity that we might aspire to be doing, but don't spend your whole weekend or summer warming up.  Put the time in whenever you can.  I've found that the demands of employment and family focus my time. I don't need to watch every Toronto Raptors game that is on TV. (That really hurts.) Make that commitment and bang, there's about 210 hours of writing time that I've put in my pocket.  I have yet to conquer the distraction that the internet offers.  One secret is to go to a place where you have to log in to get ask and refrain from asking.

Apart from time, the other commitment is to go all in on where your muse takes you. When I am pursuing photography, I seem to have a sixth sense tuned to people asking themselves, "What the hell is he taking a picture of?" For the longest time I was very conscious of it. I would be photographing a fallen leaf on a pond while everybody else is taking shots of more spectacular vistas and landscapes, oblivious to the mid afternoon light that has turned me off, (not to mention the clutter of tourist who happen to be crowding my shot.) As time has passed, I've become less conscious of that self consciousness -- though it does inhibit me from photographing people -- to do whatever it takes to photograph something that is central to the moment that I am in. If it requires a commando crawl to get into the position I want, I go for it. If it prompts quizzical looks because I am putting all my time and effort into photographing the peeling paint on a dumpster or carefully positioning myself over a scrap of garbage, I don't care. When I'm committed to those pictures, I muster the most withering of glares for anyone who gets in my face to ask, "Whaddya doin'?"

The commitment to go to a place where your creativity takes you into a vein of thought or creativity that might be a bit too revealing has to be made. You have given into your censor often enough to put the time aside for that Gilligan's Island marathon that you've been dying to do to conjure up the good old days of 1960's sitcoms for your kids.  It was that or the talking horse, kids.

Your whole thing about having aliens appear in your painting of that bucolic farm is not too far out there.  No, it isn't. If it turns you on (creatively, that is and it is not causing any harm), do it. Exercising your defences against your inner censor is valuable and it allows you to exercise other muscles too. Above all, it develops a habit of following that bliss when it emerges and there are going to be skills that will be developed in that process of creating something that is completely off-the-wall. Jazz guitarist Pat Metheny recorded an album of solo guitar feedback called Zero Tolerance for Silence (don't click on the link... I warned you.) I have listened to it 0.09 times in total and I don't think I have it in me to sit down and listen to it end to end. It is his aliens in the farmscape moment and he has stated that the album was a significant part of his development as a musician and that it opened the door for what followed. He committed himself to it and he put it out there. Battlefield Earth probably got better reviews, but he pursued his passion where it took him. It was not a detour or a bump in the road, but part of his process and pursuit. He learned something from it that influenced what followed and deepened his commitment to his craft and his trust in his creative instincts. Metheny's Zero Tolerance album bears no resemblance to what followed but it facilitated it.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Don't Wait For It

I was very tempted to title this post "Go For It," but I wanted to avoid coming across with a strongly motivational theme and perhaps not delivering on that. Not that I don't want to motivate you. The main thing that I want to say is that if you wait for inspiration or creativity to come to you, you might end up with the aloof detachment who gradually becomes pickier and pickier about what that inspiration ought to be.

"No... that sunrise isn't it. It's pretty good as sunrises go, and those people who are silhouetted against it as they walk through the mist coming off the river are cool, but that's not the inspiration I'm looking for... That silence in the middle of that piano piece really... I don't know... it was a neat silence or something but... nah... and it did not quite hit me the same way the second time I heard it... It was a good hike but I don't know."

It is pretty easy to hold out for a greater and great or more precise inspiration before you start to create but it is a lot like holding out for the perfect love. Developing an elaborate or unreasonable expectation of what that ideal creative inspiration ought to be is only going to provide the perfect rationalization to get your hands dirty, your knees scraped, or the synapses or pathways between, eye, ear, mind, heart and soul aligned and familiar with the as-yet-unexplored manners in which they can or have to align to work for you. Expecting the perfect inspiration to prompt you is much akin to the rationalization that creative talent is endowed upon only a select few. You're not going to get much out of the lightning bolts if you are in your basement doing the couch potato thing.

If, by chance, you do encounter that inspiration from out of the blue and you do recognize and accept it, are you going have the skills and experience to make the most of that opportunity. Perhaps you have the opportunity to photograph something unique, regular practice with not just your cellphone camera but in the act of seeing will be difference between taking a photograph that merely says, "I wuz here" and one that says, "This was an exceptional experience that I want to share with you." After taking the picture you would see the difference between what you experienced and what you got into the camera. Capturing and sharing the closest equivalent to what you are experiencing, feeling, or thinking is the ideal.

The other issue with those unequivocal inspirations that catch your attention is that you may be part of a large number of, in this case, photographers who are trying to take the same picture. This overlooks the potential of developing your own individual mode of expression, regardless of the medium that you choose to work in. Responding to those strong artistic prompts may strengthen your connection to collective notions of common culture, but they forego the possibility of you developing your own way of perceiving the world or expressing yourself creatively.

Creativity can be focused on the search within. Stir the pot regularly whether it be a habit of taking a few snapshots on your phone during your lunch break, a quick haiku as you look out the window, an extra spice or herb that you add to a recipe to defy the cookbook or a what if that you pose to friends, colleagues or just yourself.

Regularly engaging in a creative activity will improve your skills for the occasions when you are most strongly compelled to do something creative. This will give you a better chance of taking that image that says "This was an exceptional experience" and, better still, opens the range of experiences that you can integrate into your life. At a time when it is so easy to fill our lives with the abundance of material that we surround ourselves with and quickly grow indifferent to, striving to hone a unique acuity of perception or communication that expresses yourself more clearly and more individualistically.

A bolt out of the blue will not cultivate your individual means of expression. With time, trial and error and persistence, you will develop your own eye or voice. To do so, you will have to build and follow your path.  Trust me, it's fun.

Monday, January 15, 2018

The Creative Reader

The potential that resides in a library, in a bookstore, perhaps even a single book is infinite as a book is taken from the shelf, opened and illuminated. The inclination often is to presume that the creation of that book is entirely the author's but the reader plays a creative role as well.

The Alden Nowlan poem "An Exchange of Gifts" is one of my favorite acknowledgements of this contribution that a reader has. I am not going to get into a theoretical discussion about the relationship between author and reader about the creation of meaning and the interpretation of literature. I want to add this evidence to my argument about with those who want to argue they do not have any creativity.

As the pages are opened and you are left with the task of absorbing the world that an author is trying to create you are engaging your experiences to create the scenery that the author is laying out for you. If, by chance, you are reading a book where the scenery is familiar to you - your hometown or a place you have regularly visited - you have your own chance to test the verity or realism of the story that is being told and that comparison between the familiar and the fictional would set you to distinguishing between the two versions of the setting and perhaps that fissure between reality and fiction is enough to prompt some contemplation about what the author is up to with their description.  The wheels have started turning and you might be inventing your own rationales for that gap, especially if a visit to the copyright data at the front of the book doesn't reveal an unknown decade.

Beyond the geography though, there is something familiar about the story that makes you draw upon your experience. There are personalities that might be familiar to you or situations and relationships that you have been in or witnessed that may prompt you to make comparisons or draw your own tangents. I believe that those tangents are the moments of creative potential that could take you in a direction that is more familiar or interesting to you. This is more common when you are listening to music and you imagine a melody landing on a certain note and being surprised when it does not. There is a chance that the note you expected would have been the safe, preferred, familiar one and that moment of the musician's creativity might be one that you approve after you adjust to it. You may even forget the expectation you had for that particular note when you first heard the song.

With stories, however, there may be that much more reason to consider the path that you had expected or found more familiar. Last week when reading Kent Haruf's Our Souls At Night, I had anticipated a passage of the story to take a certain tack. In this instance, I had an opportunity to take two characters down a certain path. It did not have to be the characters from the Haruf novel.  I could have taken my own characters and written a story that took its own path. If and when I choose to do such a thing, I would be doing what has happened in oral traditions for countless generations - morphing a story for the retelling to adapt it to my tastes, my realities, my strengths as a storyteller or for the audience that I am delivering it to.

Your engagement with a novel, song, movie or television show give you the opportunity to reconsider the story you are receiving and consider how you would adapt that story or how it relates to your life. In the case of one of those movies that are ambiguous enough to prompt a long conversation afterward about the meaning of the whole story and the significance of key turning points in the movie is just the opportunity to engage in a story from a creative perspective. A good story equips you with some thoughts about the story telling process and there is a chance that it stirs the juices for crafting a story of your own.  Given the occasions or ways in which stories or familiar characters are repurposed or rebooted as or social environment changes it is not out of the ordinary to draw on a story that is stuck with you and try to retell it or go off on a tangent from it to come up with something of your own.

If storytelling does not appeal to you, at least bear in mind those occasions when, indulging in a late night pizza after the movie ended, you and the gang tried to unpack the nuances of the storytelling you bore witness to and brought your own interpretations to the story and its complexities.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

The Challenge of Photographic Flow

My process with the camera may not be the most productive one but has resulted in, I hope, developing an eye that is my own and to that extent I take pictures that overcome my technical limitations with the camera.

I am not one to head to a location to get the shot of something. There are a few places where I have done that, but even before taking the post card shot that I want for my own purposes or for the sake of assessing where I am at from a technical perspective, I am also pondering other possible, less obvious shots.  My approach strives to be more open and active and essentially involves me following my eye where it leads me on a long walk.  Whether prompted to follow strong colours, distinct patterns or other visuals, my feet follow where my eyes are lured.

The distinction with photography is that rather than facing the challenge of the blank page and looking within to determine your starting point, the task is to subtract from your surroundings in order to create. Perhaps to some extent there is a similarity with stone sculpting.  It seems fraught with paradoxes that set it apart from other forms of creation. The timeframe in which a photograph can be created suggests a process that is unique from other forms of expression, including painting. There may be a preference for a spontaneity with photography that makes, advertising photography, posed still lifes or corporate portraits discounted as less creative. These are risky generalizations on my part for these is a chance that each of these genres of photography can be infused with a great deal of creativity. In many instances, there may be a preference among photographers in those specializations to apply the maximum amount of technical expertise to achieve a desired (and safe) result.

With my process, something that may not be far removed from the routine of a tourist with their camera slung around their neck on their holiday, the challenges are to form my own images from the surroundings that I am taking in and to not fall into the trap of imitating other images I have seen or previous shots I have taken. When I am out with my camera I am conscious, if not self-conscious about the number of possible shots that I am not taking and the possibility that I am missing a really good shot because I am not attentive enough.

The question of my attentiveness is more a matter of what motivates me to shoot and what I want to communicate in my photography. If I were participating in a group assignment, where we were all asked to shot in a confined area, the shots would ultimately be a reflection of our overall personalities and perspectives. As much as we might be impressed by the unique images that result from our individual forays in that place and time, we would have to acknowledge that the distinctions are the result of who we are rather than chance.

When walking with your camera, it is very easy to give into the appeal of form or shape and take images that have a hardness to them because of the solidity of the subject, for example buildings and cars in an urban setting. Another thing that might lead you into a trap while you are using the camera are capturing what I group together as "effects" - shadows, reflections, blur, etc. - which can come across as clever and show some technical prowess but my not make a strong appealing image in and of themselves.

While more technical shots can get you into your routine of using the camera on a given day, it is more beneficial to get a sense of moment or instant. An example I often cite is the distinction between photos taken by a professional wedding photographer and those by members of the family. While a professional wedding photographer will likely work from a predetermined and well-practiced set of shots for the occasion, the wedding guests have a much more indelible sense of moment, especially as they hone that sense of moment on various members of the families who are there and are not seen often.  While the pro has the equipment and experience to provide great shots of the event, they may miss the sense of moment that the rest of the guests would be more conscious of.

It is that sense of moment, regardless of what you subject is or where you are that can sharpen your attention.  If there were words that I would use to sum up my motivations to capture an image, those words would be "elevation" and "evanescence." I am drawn more to the fragile and the fallen than I am to the permanent and the vaunted.  I also have a strong fondness for taking images that defy location. I want to be asked where a picture was taken and have the reaction of "Really?!" when I tell them.

The moment is more important than the place. The ideal for me is being alert enough and to move carefully enough through my day to arrive at an intersection of serendipity and evanescence to get an image that would be hard to recreate.  With the image above, I had the opportunity to capture this remarkable combination of reflection and shadow at the Path of Philosophy in Kyoto, Japan in November 1996. I had been fond of photographing reflections there off and on but the addition of the shadows on this occasion was likely a bit of good fortune that has been a challenge to recreate there or elsewhere. It was a tribute to my alertness, good timing and my quest for the momentary at the moment when the alignment of the composition was ideal.

The alertness and openness to subject are relatively easy to attain, but it is the sense of moment that will direct your attention as you try to work with your camera to express yourself. It is a consciousness of the geometry that influences your compositions, the light and movement that you see in front of you and your own ability to be calm and alert enough to be in the moment that come together to create compelling, meaningful images.

Friday, January 12, 2018

The Challenge of Simplicity

Jazz guitarist Pat Metheny put it best, "Simple is harder than complex." It is easy to get caught in the accomplishments or virtuosity of doing something elaborate to demonstrate, even if only to yourself, how clever you are. There are other times when you think you are doing something simply or perhaps convince yourself that doing it more simply would leave too much out or insult an intended audience. There is the assumption that adding more to something would be a demonstration of prowess or technical ability, but the reality is that you want a plumber or an IT guy to have technical ability. An artist does not have to demonstrate every skills that he or she has in one project.

Creatives simply have to express themselves and what they are feeling or thinking at a given moment.  Granted that moment is much easier to distill when taking a photography or jotting down a haiku than would be the case with a novel or a mural. Too many people give into the myth that they need to use every tool they have at their disposal to demonstrate their ability or to be contemporary but there are countless examples of simplicity being effective. Sometimes people add complexity to a work to hide a deficit of talent rather than show its depth. Perhaps they do it in an effort to perfect upon their inspiration rather than display it as is.

Whether it is a wish to rifle through the entire toolbox in one go or to pack as much of yourself or the latest thing into a single work it is hard to discipline yourself to be simple. The microcosm of a well-conceived and deeply appreciated subject or moment can be powerful, though and the use of space or silence - whichever the medium thrives one - is probably the best demonstration of ability.

A different challenge sometimes is figuring out whether you are doing something as simply as you could. A few years ago a friend came across a contest that was put on by an economic development or promotion board for the Kansai region of Japan, the area that comprises the cities of Kyoto, Nara, Osaka and Kobe. The organization was looking for an English-language slogan to promote itself to the rest of the world. They specifically wanted something that communicated about the region's culture, history, economy and a few other characteristics. So we brainstormed.  (That's supposed to work, right?) Before long the two of us fell in to a cadence for the phrase and we attached ourselves to the phrasing of "Kansai: du da da da... mu ta ta taaaa." Whatever variations we came up with attempted to distinctly cite each of the criteria the contest was looking for. There was plenty of wordsmithing and rearranging but we were stuck with that pattern. Committed to that cadence and structure in its entirety.  We gamely entered the contest and a few months later we heard the winning phrase: "Kansai is open." Brilliant. Simple. Apt. That single simple adjective slash verb immediately muted any possible argument about favoritism or the game being rigged. Frankly we could not even remember the phrase that we entered and at the end of the day, if it didn't stick in our heads, I don't have to finish this sentence for you.

Simplicity is a hard thing to attain but it is worth pursuing at every level of your creativity. Whether it is the content of a photograph, a novel, a musical arrangement, a story that your are telling or one you are writing the challenge is simplifying it.  Failing that, the challenge is hiding the structure and the work that went into presenting that creation in a manner that is easy to appreciate.

In the midst of putting together this post I googled in the hopes of finding an article I came across that said that female novelists were better than male, because they were less-inclined to indulge in the varied plot devices or statements that men made at the expense of telling the damn story. Despite the 13.1 million hits, I have not been able to excavate that particular article from the ether but the argument persists. I confess that I have more books by Salman, Milan and Haruki than Toni, Margaret or Alice, but from my perspective as a reader, there has probably been more mental gymnastics with the men. If you want a deft display of technical chops then look no further than Carol Shields's "Absence," a five-page short story written without the use of a single "i." See how far you can go to surmount that obstacle. (That was a real sweat to pull off.) While a Statement is sure to come from an ambitious male writer and it may be polished up at the expense of story, the female writers I've read over the years offer the observation of a subtle detail that has been harvested from time and re-presented to the reader with an accuracy or and authority that is vivid and illuminating.

When teaching photography, I often tell students that the viewer has a restless active eye and that they will find something in a picture to look at, no matter how little you give to them. When denied the certainty of subject, viewers will find enough in the texture, tone and colour (if you choose to give them even those) to ponder the image for some time. A more crowded or complex photograph, one that would invite a lengthy interpretation of the balances or the leading of the eye that is occurring throughout the image can overwhelm a viewer rather than calm and please. The same can be said of most, if not all, forms of creative expression.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Homage Puts You in the Right Neighbourhood

One of the things that may bring creativity to a halt is that concern about stealing something. I recall, for example, an occasion where my uncle was working on a riff and he asked what I thought of it and I told him I thought he was playing Don McLean's "Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)." The desire to be truly, totally entirely original can stop you in your tracks quite easily.  However, it is helpful to acknowledge your sources and inspirations and perhaps even start with them.

In the movie Finding Forrester for instance, Sean Connery's character, reclusive novelist William Forrester, gives us unlikely protege the prompt of retyping an old work of his to get into the rhythm of writing until his own words come to him. We embody our influences and creative heroes in many ways. We quote them, we cite them, we turn to them and their histories to unearth insight into the processes we want to follow when dealing with the challenges and obstacles we face in our work.

Why should we hide that connection and affection? Doing so puts a barrier between a creative goal and the work we need to do to achieve it. The blank page is imposition enough without adding the directive that, I don't want to sound or look or seem like my heroes or idols. Who else's creative footsteps would you want to follow in? If their imprint is too obvious then save the pursuit of a distinctive voice or expression of your own for the revision process. You might find that upon reexamining your work in a second draft that you can put your own spin on that homage to make it more your own rather than an obvious borrowing.

I include the "Lucy and Linus" routine from A Charlie Brown Christmas because the tune is a go-to for many jazz musicians. It has been covered with varying degrees of success but this afternoon I was surprised to find it quoted in a performance of "Monk's Dream" by Brad Mehldau on his 2004 album Live in Tokyo. "Monk's Dream" is a jazz standard in its own right, but at the 3:02 mark he breaks into the hook from the Vince Guaraldi chestnut the brings a smile at the discovery. Excuse my dive down the rabbit hole but, it is an autobiographical moment from Mehldau in the midst of this live performance. You can imagine the playfulness and joy with which he mastered that hook early in his musical education and the abandon with which he might have played it at Christmas parties or to give himself some relief from playing more challenging and tedious pieces throughout is practice and his performances.

When you acknowledge or pay homage to your heroes in such a manner, you are paying tribute to them rather than stealing from them, and there is a good chance that you are digging a little deeper into your life and your experience to pull out something that is individually yours. We are not immune to displaying the influence of the people who have inspired and entertained us or broadened our creative horizons. In my own case I feel a special connection to the musicians who inspired me to play the guitar or to sing and to the writers that make me write what I do.  Those creators are very close to your heart and if you are going to write something original and (corny as it sounds) from the heart, it is okay to start in that neighbourhood.

You start with your heroes, despite your fear of not being original. They are your toehold on your way to the place where you will do your best work. Just a caution to keep striving for your own voice. In Finding Forrester, the short story spawned by the rhythm-setting routine Forrester suggests to his protege results in an accusation of plagiarism. You still have to review and polish your work until it captures and expresses your vision or your voice.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The Nakedness of Creating

One of the great risks in the creative process is getting it out there.

Creativity and innovation are being lionized in the business world (or at least being paid the most eloquent, rhapsodic lip service in some quarters) and one of the challenges businesses face is to encourage that sharing of crazy ideas -- not too crazy, mind you, just to the cusp of the monetizable crazy. The challenge splitting hairs on crazy ideas is that people will get inhibited and not share or express everything that comes to mind. It is one thing to come up with a notion that you might cultivate into something as simple as a question or a "Hey, what if..." it is another thing entirely to put it out there.

In the competitive environment that many workplaces are -- yes, I acknowledge the 14 or 15 collaborative workplaces there are in the world -- putting yourself out there to be critiqued is nerve-wracking and hopefully those organizations will strive to create an environment that supports and nurtures creativity rather than the forces that can suppress it within an organization.

A certain set of conditions are required for a person to ideate but another set of conditions to give an idea its shape in the form of a creation and another set of conditions again to encourage an individual to share their work and expose it and themselves to scrutiny or assessment.

Ideas are hardy forms that can flourish in even the most adverse conditions. I must admit, however, that I don't have many ideas come to mind when I'm in the dentist's chair, but there are other challenging scenarios where your thoughts drifting toward solutions, the question of what you would do differently, gallows humour or another line of inner dialogue.

Creating from an idea requires time, space, and materials. More significant is the demand on inner reserves, self-discipline, confidence and grit to keep working on it to the finish. Another significant variable is how much of the self a creator invests in their work. If you are following a formula in your work, there may not be the same sense of risk or effort that there would be if someone was writing something more original or personal. The greater the investment of self or originality you put into a project, I believe there is a greater demand on those inner reserves. There is a need to monitor the demands that a creative project places on those more vaguely gauged energies because a lot more will be demanded in those more ambitious efforts.

With those more ambitious efforts though, there needs to be a lot of support and nurturing if one is going to risk putting out something that they have invested so much of themselves in. The risk of exposing something from close to someone's core, that wells from deep, deep down inside them and would not come from anywhere or anyone else will only come out if there is the trust and confidence that they will come out unscathed.  Coping with that uncertainty that an sharing poses - whether for an audience of 100,000 or the more daunting audience of 1 - can manifest itself in a number of ways.  There may be off-putting bravado, a retreat to something less authentic, or paralysis.  So much great work, incredibly personal and original work does not see the light of day because there is uncertainty about the reception it would get.

If you have ever told yourself, "Nah, people would laugh," you know of that anxiety and uncertainty. You also know of the impulse to support another person creative enough to go out and share there work or their ideas, whether it is an 1100 page novel or a simple, "What if..." choked out from a quiet chair that does not reach the boardroom table.  When the stakes are lowered and people have the confidence in their audience or themselves to express themselves fully and articulately creativity will blossom in the most unexpected way and places.