Sunday, December 31, 2017

Respect the First Draft

For a writer, the taunt of a blank page has its own wing in the hall of fame for life's frustrations. It is not as large or well-funded as the wing dedicated to commuter traffic in southern California or Houston because a lot of writers have just walked away from the blank page rather than acknowledge its existence. (The presence of the blank screen just sends us to Twitter or we walk away from the computer with a sudden urge to defrost the freezer or we return to the keyboard update the cover art on our iPods.)

The first draft, however, lingers on the lower half of that ballot. It poses its challenges, especially when one expects or aspires to nail the project on the first go. Michelangelo's David does not betray signs of erasure or a red line to self. I have never seen David and ought to read more about it, but on first blush it is one of those icons of the successful first go at a work of art.  In reference to David, it is often said that Michelangelo just carved away the inessential parts of the stone, asserting the possibility that David was just in there waiting as if a fairy tale victim. While Michelangelo's comment about the essential is valuable, the lingering image of the dormant solid subject waiting for release may not be a healthy one. I believe there were points in the process where Michelangelo had creative or technical decisions to make and that he was not merely in the thrall of the medium.

Creative history is rife with examples of the spontaneous creation, but the reality is that there are very few immaculate creative conceptions. There are stories of movies shot from a first draft of the screenplay. "Yesterday" came to Paul McCartney in a dream. There is a history (or series of urban legends) of fully realized arrivals. These stand out because of their utter uniqueness and ought not be the gauge for assessing our own creativity. These instances can also be a curse.  It brings to mind a story of a weekend golfer who tees it up for the first time of the year, stares down the fairway, waggles over the ball and cranks it straight on a long, arcing 270-yard shot with the first swing of the season. Perfection, right? The golfer drops his head in more disgust than elation and in response to his foursome's puzzlement says, "That's gonna be in my head all year now."

There are first drafts or attempts in creation of something and during those first drafts you are putting the clay or the jigsaw pieces on the table to see what you have and what you can do with it. It is not going to be pretty and sadly it is not going to be as easy taking the lid off the Play-Doh or the puzzle and dumping it on the table. And then turning the pieces over.

There is the need for a process and a need for regular practice as well. One challenge may be finding and cultivating the patience to stay at something when you believe you have a fully realized conception of what you want to do and that all you have to do is dump it out. That may be the very thing that makes the blank page as daunting or taunting as it is. When you stare at it, you may know the very thing you want to write but you are trying to find the seam in a rather austere or antiseptic sci-fi setting that will reveal the door into the product that you want to find. So you stare at the page or screen scanning your thoughts with the tactile sensitivity of a safe-cracker but can't find the purchase on the product that you are hoping for. When writing the quest for that combination of voice, angle and rhetorical grab to start your great novel it is probably akin to trying to crack the safe at Fort Knox with a pair of oven mitts on your hands and a Fisher Price stethoscope to reveal the movements of the tumblers.
  • Try working from the assumption that there will be a second draft minimum.  This ought to take some pressure off the quest for the ideal starting point.
  • Consider where you are and start where you are at. You have the best chance of harvesting the thoughts or ideas that are clearest to you.
  • Write the best part first. The sooner you have this down the more time you have to polish it and the greater impact it has on the rest of your project.
  • Enjoy the freedom that comes from knowing that it is for your eyes only and make a mess of it.  Write yourself instructions along the line of "I need to put the description of the monster's breath here" and move on to what you are doing.

Depending on what you are working on, you may be a few months getting that first draft out and what you want to do is get into the state of flow (You knew that word was coming, didn't you? I have heard it often enough that I think that after a drink or two I can even say Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's name accurately) so that you are creating or doing in an uninhibited manner. When I am writing fluently my hands are banging away on the keyboard as if I were at the piano and on many occasions there is music playing to set an air piano mindset.  With photography it is very much about getting into flow. I am not sure if the photos that come from that state of flow are consistently strong but the state of mind and movement I get into as I head out my door with nothing more in mind than following colour, there is the sense of clearing my thoughts or my palate to do other things with a great sense of awareness.

Speaking of photography, if you wish to create in other media, the concept of the first draft still exists. There are the loose faint sketches of form and overall composition in the visual arts that will provide the core of what you proceed to finish. Even in photography, there are shots taken to merely determine exposure or depth of field.  In more complex photographs it may take a significant length of time for a photographer to capture the image that they have in mind when they begin the shoot. I can recall an instance where I first attempted a shot in February 1996 and had to wait until December 1998 to get it. The film I used was damaged during the processing and - the pictures being taken on holiday - I had to wait until I returned there for the shot.  When I set up for the shot I had in mind, I took about eight shots, but I knew that the first handful and the last two were not going to be the shot I wanted.

Setting aside the goal of the completed product or project and getting into the grit and grind of getting what is in you out of your head and soul and in front of you so you can work with it can, hopefully, be freeing. Granted it may be as "freeing" as pushing around a wheelbarrow full of rocks, but they are out there for you to work with.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Creativity Versus Technical Proficiency

Cellphoto by the author, November 28, 2017.
One challenge for many is separating technical ability in an area from our real or potential creativity. Among children, there is the matter of developing the skills, or merely the size, to do the things that they would like to do. We could look at the simple challenges of reaching across a set of piano keys or the fret board of a guitar. In Canada, the sight of a child turtled up in their body weight’s worth of hockey gear as it renders them nearly immobile comes to mind. 

Technical challenges are evident in every field of endeavour, including the creative ones. The frustration comes when you have a vision of what you want to create, but cannot either offer it to the world in its completed form as you envision it (if only!) or, failing that, start at an obvious square one and proceed in an orderly fashion from there. The technical challenge is one that may be very discouraging, especially if you are of the mindset that creativity is - again - this available font that you just have to access to express a vision. This is the point where I could launch tedious, familiar platitudes about the process and digging deep within yourself.

Creativity, however, comes from a separate stream or a separate set of habits or skills than the technical proficiency people aspire to.

When teaching photography, I run into the illusion or delusion about technical proficiency being the key to becoming a more expressive photographer and the screen door to great photography will open once you master the dustiest most untouched corners of your owner's manual. In the one-day classes I teach, I strive to strike a balance between the creative and technical aspects of photography. However, the vibe I get in class and often get more clearly expressed in my course evaluations can be essentially summed up as, “Creativity... yeah, yeah, great, but what does this button do?” The presumption that  technical proficiency will facilitate (rather than hinder) creativity is a false hope. I have seen too many photographers purchase more expensive gear in the hope that it will prompt an expressive leap in the way that a Stradivarius will facilitate for a violinist to make better music.

Creativity, however, comes from a separate stream or a separate set of habits or skills than the technical proficiency people aspire to. There have been several times in my photography classes where people show me a picture they took with their phone and either want my feedback or are quite chuffed about what they pulled off, wrongly convinced that they excelled despite the camera's limitations. I affirm their pride in the shot and briefly tell them that if they’re in the right place at the right time and open (which I manage to verbally italicize as well) they can take a great shot with their phone. 

Photographic equipment is often grossly overrated. I remember teaching a class where a student had tens of thousands of dollars of equipment with her in class and she wanted to get as much as she could out of all of it, but she had fundamental challenges with composition. Writers do not fuss over the pen and paper that they write with limiting them because they are cheap. Writers don't feel pressured to take a writing class because they bought a Mont Blanc pen. When I see it, I become more curious about what someone is writing with a blotty Bic pen - its end looking like a stalactite because of chewing - in a ring coil notebook with awire straggling out 3 or 4 inches and certain to snag on the writer’s clothing than anything written in a Moleskin with a Mont Blanc. Twenty-five cents words, however, do well up more than they ought to.

My most satisfying shots are the ones when I am most open and that is a consequence of habit or skills that need to be cultivated while pursuing technical proficiency. There is a point though where the ROI on technical training will plateau, but there should not be a similar long-term plateau in your creative development or growth. It is something that can and ought to be continually sought or cultivated whether by looking at other works, work in other media, from other cultures or mindsets or looking carefully at the way you are living or nurturing yourself.

Presuming that full command of technical skill or possession of the best equipment are tantamount to achieving the creativity you talk about aspiring to may ultimately be rationalizations to not getting anything done. The creative habits need to be established and preoccupation with equipment or conditions that must be met in order for creative work to be done are mere excuses. So pick up your phone or an old Bic pen and napkin and get to it.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Is Childhood Imagination a Fallacy?

Despite many of the things that I produce - photographs, writing in a variety of genres and formats, a knack for singing, a not-too embarrassing appearance or three on the stage when I was in university - and a lingering hunger to continue to produce in any or all of these ways, I have struggled to consider myself creative. I do not by any means wish to single myself out. My assumption is that I am not alone with my inner-doubt about creativity and whether or not I am among those who are able to drink gulps from the font of artistry that forms and informs so many of the people that we lionize for the shape that they give our culture.

I suspect I am on the precipice of a discussion about how creative certain people actually are and whether or not "they" ought to have the influence on us or what we consume to entertain ourselves with.

I was given the impression that ... a child could ... open some metaphoric door and just ... create from a dearth of raw materials

What I really want to do is look back in time to my youth a examine how certain myths about creativity were embedded from an early age. From my vantage point -- at 50, and with a son in kindergarten prompting me to compare where I was at his age on a regular basis -- the old saws about children, creativity, inhibitions, natural talent and risk-taking are all being examined in a different light.

One of the first things that comes to mind is the unchallenged assumptions about the imagination, especially in children. Throughout my life and especially during my childhood, conversations about the imagination seemed premised on the belief that a child's imagination was the very paradigm of fertile and active. My imagination during childhood seemed downright barren or vacant whenever I was asked to call upon it. It may be a matter of the way my head works but in my case there was on obstacle to creativity - I did not have the life experience to draw upon. As a child, I was given the impression that the imagination was this place or centre in the head where a child could go, essentially open some metaphoric door and just conjure and create from a dearth of raw materials.  Whenever I went there... nothing or a forced gibberish that lacked the coherence that marked me as one of the select few who could identify a prodigy's life path of creativity.

I do not know if there is a lot of valid reliable research on childhood imagination that asserts, as Noam Chomsky does about language, that a certain combination of elements lure a red arrow across an MRI or a catscan of a child's brain to say that creativity or the imagination is "HERE!" As I blindly type this in an indoors playground I seem to have captured the attention of an idle child of about 4 who is entranced by my concentrated typing without looking at my hands.  I digress... If there is a section of the brain though that flashes a certain profile in that research, I believe that it is an area that needs to be equipped with the experiential crayons and paints and the cerebral tablet required to foster creativity for a larger number of people. Asking children to work with the scant raw materials "available" in that space before it is sufficiently equipped by the life experience to fill it and the knowledge of creative processes to identify how free they can be in that place or determine the structure the guides even the most defiantly individualistic of creatives.

The direction that I heard throughout elementary school to use my imagination likely frustrated at first and may have just disengaged me from trying to settle into or even locate a frame of mind that was that unlabelled, unnourished or unequipped creative centre.  Somehow I manage to get in to that space regularly at this point of my life. When, during early childhood, I was give direction to use my imagination or create, there were the additional obstacles of the fine motor aptitudes required to draw, paint or mold something or the visual acuity or attention to detail to present something with the accuracy that would develop a sense of agency or confidence in creative endeavours. A few months ago I came across my elementary school report cards and read a lot of comments about my need to work further on my "hand work," and wonder what creative vehicles were employed to develop my fine motor skills at the expense of whatever confidence I might have or processes I might learned as part of a creative method.  (Note that I say 'a' creative method not 'the.') Similarly, I wonder if I did haikus in grade four to express myself or merely to identify and count syllables accurately.

My talents only began to emerge or be identified when I was in grades three and four. In grade three I was told that I read well, which meant that I was not only accurate in identifying words but pulled them off the page with a flow and intonation which was decent for my age. In grade four the urge to write first emerged and I became determined to get a Student of the Week award for my writing.  The risks and rule breaking began, most notably with a three-line effort that did not conform to the 17 syllables required of a haiku. Still, the myth that children could visit their imagination for the balms of insight required to create remained impregnable. The imagination somehow had a tangibility

As I look at things I have created or tried to create throughout my life, especially in adulthood, I am very conscious of the synthesis that I engage in and further to that the way ideas or activities cross-pollinate one another. My photography leads me to a certain calm frame of mind and it can prompt significant reflection about my creative processes and my need to be in a certain frame of mind to take good images. Beyond that, there are the cues that images can provide for writing. When the camera is not nearby the urge to create or archive prompts me to resort to poetry. Haikus often serve the purpose and despite myself, finger tips still dance together in counts of 5-7-5 to find my way.

I wonder if, because of my age, experience, and increased self-awareness, I am becoming more creative. There are countless occasions when something resonates and creativity is sparked to a blaze but I have to arrest it because of responsibilities that require my attention. Responsibilities like furnishing that unknown room in my son's head where his creative is softly flickering.

Favorite Reads of 2017

To begin, let me make it clear that these were my favorites of 2017 not from this year as my reading habits are too scattered to be just from this year. To see everything I read this year, feel free to check.

Dave Cullen - Columbine and Sue Klebold - A Mother’s Reckoning
The Cullen book was an account of the massacre at Columbine in 1998 and takes a more historical or journalistic account of the events, including police records and other documents that trace Eric Klebold and Dylan Harris's activity leading up to April 20, 1998. I only read Sue Klebold's book only a month ago and it feels like it has been with me for much, much longer.  A stark, vulnerable account from a mother who makes little effort to hide anything after realizing how much had been hidden from her. You might want to see her TED talk to get a taste of what Sue Klebold has dedicated herself to since 1998 in her search. It is an enlightening and harrowing description of parenting.

Stephen Tobolowsky - Dangerous Animals Club
Needlenose Ned from Groundhog Day with a great memoir. There are wise and heartbreaking moment of self-discovery that are willing shared. This covers his life and career up to the early to mid 1980s. He has published a subsequent memoir this year and both are available essential in audiobook form from his podcast.

Nicholson Baker - Box of Matches
I read three books by Nicholson Baker this year and Box was the best. A quick read from a man with a virtually Buddhist attention to detail. The premise is of a man getting up on consecutive winter mornings to start his day in a moment of dark solitude and reflect on his life. The book lasts the full length of the box of the matches required to start his morning fire and prepare for the day ahead.  We have intermittently corresponded on Twitter.  (He writes back!!) At the moment, he is putting the finishing touches on his next book so he won’t be tweeting over the next few months. Weeks?

Richard Powers - Generosity
Powers blows me away time and again and is - with Baker - climbing my favourite authors list.  Whatever he writes is put together with a remarkable degree of authority about the topics that he takes on whether neurology, science, pharmaceuticals or beyond. This one is about the possibility of a gene for happiness being discovered and ultimately transplantable and whether or not that is a good thing.  I still have not read all of his stuff but I’m eager to and his 2018 novel Overstory is already pre-ordered.

Julia Lawson Timmer - Five Days Left
Surprising story about a foster dad and an adoptive mother who only know each other via a chat room for adoptive parents. 

Pema Chodron - When Things Fall Apart
A wise perspective from a Buddhist abbess who resides at a monastery in Cape Breton. She is a prolific writer and this was a very moving, and well-highlighted book for me.

Haruki Murakami - Men Without Women
My first? acknowledgement of a 2017 publication. A bustle of short stories, many of which have appeared elsewhere, which ought to tide me over until HM’s next novel is translated in 2018. (I hope.)

Trevor Noah - Born A Crime
A compelling read of Noah’s “early” life with no hint of the path he would follow to New York and the Daily Show.

David Foster Wallace - This is Water
The text of a commencement speech from DFW and actually something you might be able to track down on YouTube or elsewhere.  Again I’m saving you money.

Frank Brady - End Game
The madness of Bobby Fischer.

Julian Barnes - The Noise of Time
I actually read three Barnes books this year. This is the most recent and his fictional bio of Dmitri
Shostakovich brought me back to the stimulating reads of Kundera and other dissidents during the 1970’s and 80’s.

Patti Smith - M Train
She just takes a poetic look at the life she is experiencing and expresses her senses and her feelings openly and powerfully no matter how mundane or troubling they might be. Can I publish something like this? Please? It may not be as good and I don’t have the rock star rep but I’ll share. I must read more of her.

Diane Ackerman - Dawn Light
She strikes again and we also had a little correspondence on Twitter.  One of the most comprehensive and eclectic perspectives on anything. A joy to read.

Brene Brown - Braving the Wilderness
Also 2017! Brown takes a view on how people can better come together and speak honestly and positively about themselves and the things they are passionate about at a time when the bull shit is getting to be too much to bear. A timely continuation from her earlier works on more personal development.

Goncalo M. Tavares - A Voyage to India
He will win a Nobel Prize for Literature in the next 10-15 years. Ambitious, daring, big-minded and possesses a nasty, dystopian streak. Ambitious and daring? This one is a 400-page epic poem written in the 21st rather than the 17th century.

Patrick Foss and Sean Kramer - Across Tokyo
Yes, Patrick is an old friend and Japan is close to my heart, but this book is written with not only deep insight about a country best defined by how it takes everything it does to an extreme - whether grace or depravity - but does it with a self-deprecating wit and a command of written orality that few people do well. 

Jess Walter - Citizen Vince

I’m a day or two away from finishing this but Walters is someone else who is emerging as a favorite. This is the fourth Walter novel I've finished in the last year and a half and his wit and command of imagery and dialogue evokes memories of Elmore Leonard but I'm not sure Elmore could have would would have wanted to try writing a book as romantic as Walter's Beautiful Ruins.