Everyone at some time or another gets the urge to be creative. Many people are superbly talented, their facility for creative thought is highly developed and translates easily into action. Of course the vast majority of us are merely stuck with the creative urge and no way to easily express it.
Are these two types of people different? Not at all. They are both people with hopes dreams and ideas. What makes the difference? Why are some people good at expressing themselves in their art and others not?
It’s a near heresy to say it but I think it’s easy to become a creative genius if you know the secret. It boils down to this:
- Having the urge to do something
- Having the skill and experience to execute it
Sounds really duh simple when you say it like that but let me break it down. Creative people practise their art. They get good at it. Again this sounds obvious when you say it, but surprisingly few people who are creative by nature take the time to get good at what they do and so give up before they achieve their potential. Creative thought and the ability to generate, nurture and complete good ideas is something that takes a little work.
It’s not hard work, I mean you love to create, right? So it’s joyful work getting good at what you do. But it helps to know a little about the process for doing good work. I’ve distilled all my teaching of the last few years into a few easy steps, and I’m pleased finally to be able to share them with you.
Phase One: Having the Urge
THE ART OF COMPOSITION
Creative urges come and go but it’s only art if you finish it. Whether it be visual art like painting, comic books, sculpture or film, or audio like music or spoken word, or writing for novels or screenplays, it only really becomes art if you plan it, execute it and release it for the consideration of your audience. Up to that point anything you produce is practise.
The process of creation is called composition, and it’s how you get from your basic uncut diamond of an idea to a polished and completed piece, and you’ll find this is a recognisable process in any discipline.
You start from an idea, usually just the one. A thought that catches your imagination. A scene, an image, a sound or even a smell can be the inspiration. It doesn’t matter. The point is there is a starting point, something which excites you. At that point it only appeals to you because of some personal quirk of brain chemistry you can enjoy the whole idea just from that one spark of original thought. You mentally fill in the blanks yourself and skip over details and enjoy the thought of the finished art.
But to take that thought and make it accessible to someone else is the hard part. You will need some structure and supporting ideas to make that thought digestible to another person. You can’t just say “she loves him so she dies” and expect anyone else to fill in the blanks like you did and enjoy the whole subtle detailed and nuanced story just from that one idea. You need to fill in the background, set the scene, then do something that makes the ending inevitable and then deliver the punchline, and all these steps need to follow seamlessly one after the other.
Storytelling is like hypnosis, a gentle, measured, pleasingly modulated voice telling you things in a carefully structured order to get a specific response from you. It doesn’t the spell till you are ready to receive the suggestion (to quit smoking or whatever) then it leads you gently back into consciousness and feeling good about the experience. Your audience should feel that about your writing or other art, better for the experience. But it’s the same process, you gently lead people in, tell them a story, then gently push them to the exit hopefully with a warm glow. So…
Step 1: MAKE LOTS OF LITTLE IDEAS
Sketches, pictures off the internet, notes on file cards, gorgeous Moleskine notebooks full of those things and much more. It doesn’t matter. Collect your ideas in a tangible form. The reason you need to have more than one idea is that ideas cluster together and they have a weight, like a kind of creative mass. The brain loves combinations of ideas, and spaces between the ideas. Huh? Spaces? Yes, the empty spaces between ideas are as important as the ideas. It’s called juxtaposition. The brain sees 2-3 images and tries to connect them. You can’t help it. A picture of a wolf, a child and a sheep give you one idea; a picture of a wolf, a young woman and the moon gives you another totally different idea.
So from these ideas take a few to form the core of your piece, the theme, the melody or the shape. The essence.
Step 2: CHOOSE YOUR CORE
Having sorted through the ideas you choose the key things which represent to you the core of what you want to say… What, you don’t have anything to say? Well this causes you a problem. Art is about saying something. Now don’t get scared. It doesn’t have to be a profound thought, but it does have to be a thought, and it has to be your thought.
It could be as simple as “love never dies“, “I never said goodbye“, “why do people have to leave?“, “sometimes someone you love is bad for you” or more complicated like “why are we here on Earth“, “why is mankind so cruel” or “why is it hotdogs come in packs of 10 and hot dog rolls in packs of 6“. It doesn’t matter what you want to say but make sure you are saying something. Modern films and TV are often well made and cool, but more often have nothing whatever to say. Don’t make that mistake. Be cool by all means, but have something to say too.
It might be that you can’t express your thought in words, but hey, that’s what drawing is for.
Okay so you know what your core is, so what now?
Step 3: CHOOSE A STYLE
As an artist with years of experience you will of course be able to call on any number of styles to put your ideas across. Okay maybe not. If you are that talented I’m very pleased for you. But most of us have to work hard to find a suitable style which we can own.
A cautionary note here: I’m not saying that you avoid producing anything till you have evolved your own original style. THe way to evolve a personal style is to get good at what you do and learning from existing styles is an important part of learning your own style. That and practise. Once you have a lot of work under your belt you can take a style and make it your own. Don’t worry about being original at first, just try to take a style and use it to make your art. It may not be entirely original at first. But the more you work during the polishing stage, the more original it will become. It might not start out that way but you can make it your own.
So what style? Black and white, noir, idiotically gleeful colour, pastel shades, gritty and scratchy, light and breezy, jazzy, industrial, classical, produced by just you or in collaboration with other writers or artists… it doesn’t matter. But you need to start thinking about how you want this piece of work to end up. Set a goal. and start to get specific about it.
Now then, how do you imagine your work in a variety of styles? Many people skip this step and start in with the writing or drawing right away, but this is the most important step before any work can take place. And this is it:
Yes seriously, please please please allow yourself time to use your brain in the way it likes to be used. A good strategy and one which works for me is a kind of guided meditation or self-hypnosis routine.
Find a quiet spot where you are not going to be disturbed for an hour. Get a timer of some sort which notifies you with a gentle bell sound, like an alarm on a cell phone. Set it for an hour. Relax. Close your eyes. Take 20 deep, connected breaths. Feel yourself relaxing deeper and deeper with each breath. Think about your story, your piece, your film. Think about your idea and let your brain chip away at it like a billion tiny nano-robots, seeking the true shape of the story. Erase anything which is not part of the shape. Anything which doesn’t belong. Sit the full hour. If you get another idea or intrusive other thought which you need to write down, have a pen and paper handy so you can jot it down to get it out of your mind until later on. Empty your mind and let the idea breathe. When the hour is up, rouse yourself slowly and enjoy the mental freedom which these sessions will give you.
Meditations like this are incredibly useful for honing ideas or letting them take shape. There is a tendency to try and force ideas out in caffeine fuelled brainstorming sessions. Don’t do that. Don’t force it; let it out.
The human brain is an AMAZINGLY complex and brilliant machine and it will find sense in almost any random events. So let it work on your ideas, your basic elements of story or form. And then imagine it in a variety of styles. Use the hypnosis or meditation techniques I’ve described to free up your brain’s creative juices and allow your ideas to grow and take shape. (These are powerful techniques which I love to use and I’ll talk about them again.)
Once you have a few freshly grown ideas and they are starting to have a definite form, you need a proper structure.
Step 4: BUILD A STRUCTURE FITTING THE SCOPE
In all art there is a tradition of building an underlying structure. In animation they make wire armatures to hang the clay on, in sculpture too. In painting there is the initial charcoal drawings.
Structure is important because you hang your existing ideas on it and then you see the space between them. You see what you haven’t done yet and once you know that you can start putting in stuff in the blanks.
All art has structure and building it is mostly dull grunt work, not much creativity involved. It means that you have to ask yourself a bunch of dull questions. What do you want the thing to be? Is the sculpture 6 inches tall or 6 feet? Is the song 3 minutes long or 16? Is the movie going to be 20 minutes long or two hours? Fundamental questions. You can answer these questions arbitrarily by just plucking a figure out of the air. Or you can analyse your story or idea much more carefully and see if you think it can sustain itself for the length of the whole piece.
Having decided on a size, you begin sketching out the basic form. A film is usually three acts with the middle act being as long as the other two acts put together, and screenplays historically are figured at a page a minute. A novel can be any amount of pages from 200 to 1500. A song can be a single or a concept album. A piece of sculpture can be an ornament or a monument. You get to decide the scope of your work but analyse existing works to see how many pages they are, how many words, how big, how small etc. If you write comics do you know how many pages are in a normal size comic? How many panels? How many words per speech bubble? You need to know this stuff so do some research.
As you can start to see structure is more of an intellectual exercise than a creative one. You have the idea and the style, which are creative work much like a rough blueprint, then you have the start of construction, the hard hat area when the thing is going to be built. The construction site is not a creative place. It is a place where everything has to be the right size for the job. Make that your mission when planning the structure of your work.
So patiently and somewhat passionlessly you build the underlying structure. Then when you have done that you are ready for more creative work.
Step 5: FILLING THE STRUCTURE WITH IDEAS
You recall that book of ideas you made at the beginning? Well now is the time to go back to it and start filling in the spaces between your ideas with other ideas. Have more thinking sessions. This time instead of the overall idea and structure of the piece, do a session for each individual scene or phrase in the piece.
How does the first scene get to the second scene? How do we get to the first major plot point? How do we getting into the second act? How does that feel? Does it feel forced and arbitrary or does it feel natural? If not retry it until it fits. It’s like putting together a broken vase with Blu-Tack. Test your work all the way along, not getting too specific at this point, just refining and adding more ideas.
As I said at the beginning ideas have a weight, they cluster together as you add more of them to the mix and once they reach a certain mass they start having their own mass. The story, the art, starts having a momentum of its own. It’s like rolling a tiny ball of snow at the top of a hill. At a certain point it gets big enough to roll under its own weight. When you reach that point the story just rolls along on its own and kind of writes itself.
There follows a process of filling in tinier and tinier pieces of detail, using words or brush strokes, initially like shovelling rocks to fill in the spaces, the gravel, then sand, then dust, until the surface of your story is smooth and seamless.
The cool thing about this part is that this is where you get to finesse your work, adding all those subtle quirks of language and artistic flourishes that you love to do in your work. It’s almost done. You filled in all the blanks, you have a finished piece. Or do you?
Step 6: POLISHING
Now you need to rest. You need to forget about it for a while. Put it away somewhere and go out with all those friends you’ve been neglecting while you created your masterpiece. Have some fun and celebrate the fact that the work is done. It’s not, but you need to act like it is to relax about the next phase which is almost as much work. Polishing.
Now you need to go back to your piece and go through tweaking details. Look at it as a whole. See how it flows from start to finish making notes about all the humps and bumps along the way. Look at it from all angles. Which bits stick out as being rough, hasty or just plain wrong?
Polishing is the hardest bit in many ways, knowing when to stop. Experience plays a big part in this, but it really comes down to learning to trust your instincts. You know instinctively when something is good, when it’s finished. You see the glaring details that are wrong, that are not fitting with other elements. The words are slightly wrong, or the colours, or the sounds. Something is wrong. You know it. So fix it. Make it better. Concentrate on every part one by one and make it as good as it can be. You’re gone from general to specific, so refine, polish, and sometimes remove. Venus de Milo looks better without the arms? They bug you? Cut em off, no prisoners. Be ruthless. Make it good.
And… suddenly at a certain point, you’ll feel it. You’ll be done. Finished. Feels good, doesn’t it?
So that’s composition, bringing your ideas to life. But what about your ability to bring a lot more skill to the table when composing your chosen art? How do you get good?
Phase Two: Having the experience and skill
PRACTISE PRACTISE PRACTISE
How able you are at bringing your ideas to fruition is a matter of repetition. Getting good at what you do or what they call “working through the suck” is a longish process and involves you DOING what you do rather than merely TALKING about it.
If you are a writer you must write, every day. If you are a painter you must paint, or at least draw every day. A guitarist? Practise every day. A photographer? Carry a camera with you everywhere. Take pictures every day. Do your art day after day. You’ll get good, no question. If you are passionate about your art then this should be a godsend. I’m giving you permission to do something you love as much as you can fit into a day.
Wait, it’s too much of a strain for you? Don’t have time? Well, ok maybe you are not cut out for this kind of work. Too busy? Rubbish. You’ll always make time for things you love. Only takes 5-10 minutes a day. Do it every day, no excuses. You have to. You have to “work through the suck.”
“Working through the suck” was a phrase coined I think by US broadcaster and writer Ira Glass. He puts it that as an artist you have really great taste in the art you love, and you aspire to be just like your favourite artists. You love their ideas and the way they express them. But the problem with having really good taste is that by comparison you just don’t measure up, in your eyes at least you “suck”.
Many good young artists never become great old artists because they give up at this point before they ever get good. But the thing to remember is that most people get better and better at what they do if they do it enough, and the breakthrough almost always comes just after they were about to give up.
Have you ever played a computer game? Ever got to that bit where you just can’t get through to the next level no matter how hard you try? You try and try and try till you are so tired, angry and bored you just give up and go onto some other game or give up computer games completely. But have you ever stuck at a game and refused to give up till you beat that level? You did? And the game was much easier after all that practise, wasn’t it? You got good. At some point you got over the hump and got good.
You worked through the suck.
Once you get good at what you do then all the problems start to evaporate. Once you get good at what you do then the only problem becomes how to get ideas and how to hang on to them.
There is another element which comes into play in all art; the delivery of the piece adds something over which you have no control. The actors and directors who produce your film. The brain of the reader reading your novel or comic book. The mood of the person listening to your music. All of these things affect the final result. It’s like a perfume that adds the woman’s own skin scent to it and becomes subtly different to the nose as a result.
Fortunately for you there is nothing you can do to plan or imagine where these additional mutations of your idea will take it after it leaves your hands, but it’s something to think about.
For now that’s really it. All you need to know to be a creative genius, in one lesson. Seriously. If you read, understand and apply everything I’ve just said you will become productive and original, and produce compelling art that people really enjoy. Good luck and let me know if this piece has helped you.
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Thanks again, and see you next time.