“Most of my advances were by mistake. You uncover what is when you get rid of what isn’t.” — Buckminster Fuller
There is a wonderful interview with the late John Hurt in which he recounts a story about the great Sir Lawrence Olivier playing Othello on stage. During a particularly inspired performance, after the curtain call, Olivier stormed off the stage and into his dressing room, slamming the door behind him. He refused to come out until finally his wife — Dame Joan Plowright — knocked on the door to ask him what was wrong. “Larry,” she said, according to Hurt, “what is the matter with you? It was the most fantastic performance tonight. The audience is still clapping. It’s extraordinary. The whole cast was up and you were just brilliant.” As the story goes, Olivier responded, “Yes, I know! But how did I do it?”
This is the sometimes frustrating magic of creativity. The fact that Lawrence Olivier is considered one of the greatest stage actors of all time didn’t guarantee that the muse would appear and that every performance would be transcendent, something which — based at least on this story — he was keenly aware of. The space between good and great or great and exceptional is often the tiniest of margins, but it’s that tiny margin that makes all the difference. A good photograph, for example, may get a “like” but a great photograph finds a place in our collective memory.
There are two fantastic quotes that, while they differ on the idea of inspiration, get to what I believe is the heart of creativity. The first is from Picasso: “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.” The second is a bit more direct and comes from Chuck Close, who said, “Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work.” Now, before we dive into these, let me be clear that there is absolutely nothing wrong with being an amateur. In fact, I believe that we should all be a bit more “amateurish” in our approach to craft. After all, the root of the word means “one who loves.” Doing something for the love of it is not only noble, I believe it is essential to doing it — whatever it is — well. But what Picasso and Close were referring to is the act or practice of creativity as a prerequisite to inspiration. Doing creative, rather than merely being creative. The practice, after all, is what we have control over. We can decide when to start and when to stop as we make efforts towards mastery, but as many artists will tell you, simply knowing the tools does not always result in great work. Proficiency with our tools allows us to be more consistently good, but it’s often serendipity or happy accidents that help push the work through good and into something great.
Failure also plays a significant role in the creative process, though many of us find ourselves doing anything we can to avoid it. Buckminster Fuller said, “Most of my advances were by mistake. You uncover what is when you get rid of what isn’t.” The problem is that we’re often afraid that what we may uncover won’t be any good, which is one of the great paradoxes about creativity: you have to keep working the process to produce the “bad” work in order to get to the good or possibly even the great work. Speaking for myself, worrying that the outcome won’t be exactly what I want often keeps me from even starting. I will deny myself the process of creating for fear that the end product won’t meet the expectation of quality or “goodness” that exists in my head. How many times have you worked hard to produce something that you’re proud of, only to have it receive a lukewarm reaction from the people you show it to? On the other hand, I’ve had many exercises or even “throwaway projects” turn into something amazing, and I think a big part of it is because I had little or no expectation about outcome and was instead present in the process, allowing it to go wherever it wanted or needed to go. As I’m writing this, I’m looking at several paintings I’ve done over the last decade and without exception, the ones that work the best have two things in common: one, they turned out completely differently than I expected when I began them, and two, in each piece I was focused on the creative process as an exploration of technique, rather than a means to an end.
I think we (or at least I) need to change the way we sometimes think about creativity to see it as more of a practice — ideas put into action — and as less of an end game or merely a portfolio of work. To bring this full circle, Olivier was a master of his tools and he showed up night after night to bring Othello to life. And whether or not he understood how or why, that extraordinary performance was possible because he was on that stage and present in the practice of doing. Creativity is often messy, but through more deliberate practice we can work towards mastering our tools and honing our vision to bring a sense of order to the chaos, so that when inspiration does come, we’re ready and she finds us working.
How are you actively practicing creativity?
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One thing my dad and I shared for most of my life was a love of airplanes. Long before he got his pilot’s license, we used to go to airports just to watch the planes take off and land. This fantastic WIRED photo essay called From Factory to Boneyard: The Life Cycle of Planes shows both airports and airplanes from a wonderfully unique perspective.
How do you define success? Money? Fame? Or is it something else? Ottawa-based photographer Tony Fouhse talks about what drives him in the latest post to his terrific blog, drool. Spoiler: it’s not getting likes on social media.
In 1977, like thousands of other ten-year-olds, I decided I wanted a spaceship and the only spaceship for me was the Millennium Falcon. Sure, it could make the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs, but it was more than that. It had a look to it that was unlike anything I’d ever seen. It looked used, lived in, and maybe a little dangerous. Jason Battersby, a designer at Audi, stepped briefly into the Star Wars universe to take a stab at redesigning the TIE fighter. While it’s not my first choice as a ship, his interpretation is pretty badass — sort of an ultra-sleek mashup of Vader’s TIE fighter and the Tyderium Shuttle.