Amy Tyler’s talk on Sunday at Ontario Handweavers and Spinners biennial conference gave me pause to reassess my creative process. For a brief introduction to Amy, read the previous post.
The term “creative process” has a pompous air about it. Amy, to her credit, didn’t use it. It can give the misguided impression that creative people have an esoteric method for conjuring things of beauty and meaning.
In fact my process is more like a brittle piece of metal that needs to be gingerly hammered into shape. When it frequently falls apart, I must carefully, patiently reassemble it. The shape evolves. Each reworking teaches me more about the nature of the mind.
I believe the creative process is itself as much a work of art as any painting or poem. It’s a process in process, sometimes frustrating but mostly rewarding. Many creative people like to talk about it; others don’t. Sometimes it’s easier if you don’t study it directly; like trying to see in the dark by looking to the side. Some disciplined people religiously follow a routine; these individuals are often highly productive. I imagine many of them became well-grounded early in life in their modus operandi. That wasn’t the case for me.
When someone like Amy talks about how she works and finds inspiration, I sit up and listen. Everyone’s creative process is unique as a work of inspired fiction. No novelist ever succeeded without reading great literature, so I learn from others.
Find your medium
Amy’s experience as a dancer inspired her to look for rhythms. Like the beat or the line of melody in a piece of music, patterns also appear in physical objects, giving rise to texture. She looks for inspiration from patterns in nature, not only the obvious ones like the disks on a Petoskey stone, but from the microscopic and analytical delving of science. For instance, she showed us a sweater she had made in which all the features had to do with the structure of muscles.
As an example of an intriguing pattern from my own photography, see the image above, looking down on the mushroom cap of Polyporus squamosus, more poetically known as dryad’s saddle. Apparently it’s edible, though I’ve yet to sample one.
Texture is Amy’s thing. Colour isn’t, she says, but it’s definitely mine.
I suppose colour is akin to the mood of music, which may explain why I’m so drawn to 19th Century Romantic composers: Tchaikovsky’s deep melancholy purples, Schubert’s beaming yellows, Dvořák’s boisterous oranges, Sibelius’s edgy silvers. But I digress.
Here’s the thing: a creative person needs to find the medium that gives him or her the most ideas, according to Amy. This can be hard because some creative types want everything. Amy was a dancer fascinated with science, but ultimately didn’t have original ideas in those realms as she did for textile design, she says.
This question still puzzles me at times. I considered a career as an architect or landscape designer. I studied wildlife biology. Nothing else inspires me quite as much as ecology: the way communities of diverse organisms cohabit, communicate and intersect. My favourite geekery is the taxonomy of plants. I’m so profoundly drawn to images and sound, sometimes I wonder whether I wouldn’t have made a better painter or composer. I need the visual creative outlet of spinning and making colourful yarn things. Nevertheless, I’ve been more prolific as a writer than anything else and this is the path that makes sense for me now. I’m intrigued by the metaphorical link between yarn, storytelling, imagery and language.
Amy spoke at length about an essential part of the creative process: inspiration.
Sources of inspiration
Inspiration isn’t a thing we can make happen. As Annie Dillard wrote in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, “I cannot cause light. The most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam.”
We need to give ourselves time viewing, reading or simply being in places fertile with ideas. I make myself go for walks, otherwise I’ll miss the spring bloom of forest ephemerals and never discover anything unfamiliar, like a dryad’s saddle.
Amy recommended various sources of inspiration, but two particularly intrigue me as having excellent applications for writers as well as any kind of artist: deadlines and constraints.
Inspiration can come at any time, but it isn’t necessarily tied to motivation. Even the most fascinating dream will soon fade to oblivion unless you tell someone or write it down. Unless we do something about our great ideas, logic and cynicism soon drown them in a sea of practicality.
Pitching a story idea to an editor is, for me, one way of turning a glint of inspiration into reality. If my proposal gets accepted, I have to do the work.
A deadline is a writer’s fertile ally because it forces him to make phone calls, put fingers to the keyboard and clack out some words. Awkward, foolish, transient and brilliant, language mashes together. One way or another, we have to make sense of these words in a limited amount of time. Nothing forces me to work better than a deadline, and this is most often when the rough outline of a story comes to life. Deadlines call all our faculties especially courage into play. Inspiration follows inspiration.
I’d say a deadline is one kind of constraint but there are many others — imposed limitations.
For example, Amy has knitted numerous boot socks over the years. She always follows the same pattern, which forces her to experiment with different colours. Constraints can be unavoidable, as for farm wives a few generations ago who had only worn out clothes to turn into quilts, making beauty out of rags.
But constraints are often chosen. A journalist must choose whether to write a first-person narrative including personal experience and knowledge, or a third-person account obtaining all information from other sources. One approach has an intimate appeal, but the other may be more authoritative; they’re persuasive in different ways.
A composer sets the tone for a musical work by choosing constraints, such as the key signature and instrumental ensemble. A knitwear designer may set out to create an item based on a particular kind of yarn or technique such as entrelac, cabling, mitred squares or some novel combination of stitches.
The power, beauty or significance of a work often depends on rules the creator sets in creating it, or possibly how she breaks them. The constraint may be the theme at the heart of a novel or a series of paintings. Constraints narrow our focus from the whole universe to a small intersection. Inspiration often springs from this place.
But the creative process can’t complete anything without work strategies. As Thomas Edison famously said, “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” This is where popular impressions can misguide people aspiring to an artistic path, because it isn’t enough to sit with pen in hand gazing out the window. That beautiful yarn lying in the closet won’t magically decide what it wants to be, turning itself into a cowl.
Amy suggested some useful strategies for a textile designer, like keeping a bedside notebook, learning new skills, and making lots of samples and swatches.
“If asked to do something new, say yes,” she says. “If asked to do something old, say no.”
Freelancers or artists who struggle as I do with motivation may find strategy has a lot to do with time structures. I have a weekly calendar allotting adequate room for all the necessary activities such as marketing, assignment writing, exercise, tidying my office and different things I do for relaxation. When I’m focused on a project I work in 90-minute intervals with breaks between, otherwise concentration and productivity decline. I have alarms on my phone to remind me when to switch activities. I don’t follow my calendar religiously but when I do I’m usually happier and more satisfied with my work.
Periodically I tweak the calendar. I’m forever learning more about how to work more effectively. One idea I gleaned from Amy is that I’d like to make time in the morning for my sources of inspiration. This time of year I work a while in the garden every morning, but I’d also like to spend more time walking, reading and looking at images that feed me. While this might seem like an untimely distraction, I’m unusual in that my best creative time is 2 p.m. to 7 p.m.; everyone needs to find this out for themselves and plan accordingly.
I hope you’ll find some of these tips useful. What are your favourite sources of inspiration? What strategies do you use to get the work done you most enjoy?