Creative Blocks (Part 2): Process Versus Product – Or Why To Keep On Going

drafts…it’s all part of the process

Today I want to talk about another thing that can get in the way of the creative projects we work on: this neat little Cartesian dualism between ‘process’ and ‘product’.  It’s something we all struggle with.  As creatives we are mired in process – that’s the long part, the journey that takes hours, days, weeks, months, years – that sometimes – and I mean sometimes results in a completed product.  For me, as a writer, more often than not the process – the writing, musings, scribbles – do not end up in some polished product but hide out in the recesses of my computer in oddly named documents, or are chicken scratched on post-it notes, napkins, or whatever material that is nearby, ink permeable and (inevitably) able to float down the crevices of filing cabinets, get lost in the wind or more likely turn up as found art in the bottom of the washing machine (no more clear for their cleanliness).  I would say that writing or art making is ‘stops and starts’ but more often it’s starts and starts and starts.

And yet, when we go out into the world – maybe to seek our inspiration – it is not other artists or writers process we see – it’s their products.  The book store is not filled with drafts or unpublished manuscripts filled with revision notes (or stapled to rejection letters).  No, it is filled with pretty words in nice font on appropriate sized paper all bound together into a neat little portable product wrapped with a cover that is shiny and beautiful and perfect.  It makes the writing I do, in contrast, look nearly unrecognizable.  And the same is true with other art as well.  We rarely hear fragments of songs, see half painted paintings or sculptures that still remain partial blocks of clay.  In other words, we don’t see the process.  But that’s where the meat is.  That’s where the heartbreak is and, when we’re lucky, where the all-too fleeting moments of joy reside as well.

I have not published a book.  But I did write a ridiculously long dissertation which some company offered to print and bind for me (at a cost) – and so I paid the ridiculous price (apparently print-on-demand is not cheap) and 6-to-8 weeks later (it is apparently also not fast) I received this tiny, blue, hardcover “book” in the mail that had the title and my name printed down the spine.  It was almost laughable.  This was not the dissertation I wrote.  I mean it was, but in this form, it was unrecognizable to me.  I was used to seeing and feeling the process – in a desk cluttered with drafts and revisions, highlighter color-coding that soon lost it’s meaning, in files and folders and post-it-notes from the field.  In all that I saw my project, my process, my heartache, my joy.  In contrast the product – this book I held in my hands – was sterile.

Was it worth writing it?  Yes.  But in no way did the product reflect my process.  Now, other mediums may be better for that, granted, but still I think that the heart – and heartbreak – of art is in the making of it.  And during that making you will question your project, your ability…your self.  That’s good.  Because maybe if you’re not questioning, your missing something.  Maybe without the questioning, the endless navel gazing and self flaggelation, the process just isn’t the same (okay, maybe we could do with a little less self-flagellation) – but really what we need to do is unhinge ourselves from the dream of the perfect product and just get knee deep in the mud and muck of the process.

A million trite sayings come to mind; “it’s the journey, not the destination”, “if your going through hell – keep on going”, “don’t believe everything you think”.  Yeah, they’re pithy, but they’re familiar, right?  They’re familiar because they resonate with some of us on some level.  But hey, they’re also familiar because someone, somewhere, thought a saying up and decided that it was important enough to share.

Look around you – people are doing it everywhere.  They write something you think is shit – hey maybe even they think it’s shit –  but they did it anyway.  They painted something you think your five year old could paint – and maybe she could – but that didn’t stop them.  They wrote an annoying, shallow song that somehow you find yourself humming.  You can laugh at them all you want, but it’s those of us who get through the process and produce a product that are able to achieve some level of success.  Maybe it is really all about the journey – but there’s also something to be said for parking the damn car, getting out, stretching, and checking out this new place.  Because after all, our next journey starts from our last destination.  Otherwise we’re just doing wheelies in the parking lot.

Creative Blocks (Part 1): You Can’t Make ‘Paintings’ Without ‘Pain’

There is arguably no fresco more famous than that which adorns the Sistine Chapel. And yet, in a poem written by Michelangelo, the painter of that iconic ceiling, we bear witness to the unraveling of the artist – an unraveling written during, and seemingly brought on as a result of, that very painting.  True to form, Michelangelo describes his suffering in poetic detail: his body twisted, contorted, “bent taut” with a “goiter from the torture” of positioning himself in the way necessary to paint the ceiling.  While it is his physical body that bears the (literal) weight of his placement, it is his mind that feels the pain – that suffers – as he says, “because I’m stuck like this my thoughts are crazy, perfidious tripe”.  In the poem (that reads as a letter to Giovanni Da Pistoia) we hear of the treacherous and deceitful ideas that have taken up residence in his supine body – that eat away at his mind until he declares – in the final line, “I am not a painter”.  It is a shocking confession of self-doubt and creative despair.

Thank God.

Why? Because we’re talking about Michelangelo here – one of the most famous painters ever (and now I have to add ‘poet’ to his résumé) and guess what?  As he was painting Adam touching the hand of God (an image so famous it is etched in our collective unconscious and adorns everything from wine labels to IPhone skins) he was not ‘at one’ with the artistic spirit, enchanted by the muses, letting the creative flow use him like a medium.  No, at least part of the time, dude was laying up on the scaffolding in that most famous church in Italy thinking ‘this job sucks’ and ‘I am a big fat phony’.

And I’m so glad.  Because I think these things too.

I mean, not about Michelangelo obviously, but about my own work/endeavors/projects. And as it turns out (hold your breath here) – we. all. do.  And when I say all I mean all – every last one of us.

If you’re not convinced of this by myself or Michelangelo (man, how often have I written that sentence?) hop on over to your favorite search engine and type in ‘writers block’ or ‘creative constipation’ (I’m not even kidding about that one) and you’ll get literally millions of hits.  The quotes and articles and websites and blogs (what? nothing…) that search will bring you are not from would-be authors or artists.   Nope it’s the most familiar and famous, the most successful opining on how hard it is to write or make art or do anything – with some familiar tropes, two of the most common being:

1. the ‘tortured artist’ that Herman Hesse speaks to when he says “I know that today just as at any time in the past, every true poem or painting, every measure of true music is paid for with life, with suffering and blood.” Okay Herman, tone it down a little bit – the whole ‘paid for with life’ and blood thing is a little creepy coming from the guy who brought us Siddhartha. But I get it.


2. the hyperbole and a half that writers pull off so well – especially when speaking of their own artistic medium – like when Jessamyn West says that “Writing is so difficult that I often feel that writers, having had their hell on earth, will escape all punishment hereafter.” Fingers crossed!  But seriously, this is a good example of the woe-is-me/‘I have the hardest job on earth’ kind of meditation on writing that is really common.

Rarely are these two themes that separate, usually they team up, strengthening their power – and their ability to sap yours – by working together.  Like many, I am of two minds about these themes – half the time I’m like ‘alright there Mr. Tortured Writer, back it up, it’s not like you’re mopping floors or working outdoor manual labor jobs…in Texas…in August.’  Writing is fun, and anyone who gets to do it for their job is blessed and privileged.  I can get really high-horsey about this (trust me).  And then it comes time for me to actually write something, and suddenly I’m beset by those creative demons that whisper (or more often yell) at me that I can’t write, which becomes the rationale for why I shouldn’t write, and then becomes the excuse for why I don’t write.  It’s a fabulous cycle.

But what I’ve learned is that it is also a common cycle.  In fact, any bookstore with a section on writing is often filled to the brim with a plethora of books by so many authors that all promise (what amounts to) variations on the same theme, which is essentially the following: If you want to write, write.  The only thing standing in your way is you and your anxiety that what you’ll produce isn’t good enough (or good at all).  So, what these books and blogs and articles tell you, essentially, is that every writer struggles with their craft but ultimately the only way to write is to write through those blocks/demons/anxieties or whatever term a given author uses to explain this universal experience.

Now, rarely will a cultural anthropologist describe something as a universal experience – so don’t take this lightly.  If you are a writer, an artist, a ‘creative’, heck – if you have anything you want to do but are scared, listen up:  Anybody who has ever gone out on a limb has questioned a) the ability of that limb to hold him and b) his ability to hold onto that little limb.  That’s good.  If you don’t ask those questions you are likely to be the kind of person who checks to see if the water is boiling by putting your fingers in the pot.  It’s good to be cautious and it’s good to ask questions, but you’ve also got – at some point – to think less and do more.

Nike, it turns out, had it right all along – just do it.

But if you’d rather not take inspiration from a corporate ad campaign, listen to John Gregory Dunne when he says, “[t]he professional guts a book through…in full knowledge that what he is doing is not very good.  Not to work is to exhibit a failure of nerve, and a failure of nerve is the best definition I know for writer’s block.” If that’s too long of a mantra, how about this one from the awesome Lisa Papa, “Just make art, and good will take care of itself.”

Still not convinced?  Then take it from the ultimate tortured artist (the one, the only) Mr. Vincent Van Gogh:

“If you hear a voice within you saying: you are no painter, then paint by all means, lad, and that voice will be silenced, but only by working.”

Just do yourself a favor and skip the self-flagellation and, for goodness sake, the self-mutilation.

But if inspirational quotes aren’t your thing then let’s think through this issue in a different way.  Let’s go back to the Italian Renaissance, back to that famous fresco and imagine a different outcome.  What if Michelangelo had had the thought he describes in his poem: “I am in the wrong place – I am not a painter” and had actually listened to it?  What if he thought it and was like ‘okay, I’m done’ and packed up his supplies, untwisted his body, climbed down off the scaffolding and just…gone home.  What would we have missed out on?

The reality, of course, is that we have that amazing piece of art precisely because he didn’t listen to those voices.  He didn’t succumb to that anxiety, to those demons.  Instead he finished the darn painting and then took his self-doubt and turned it into a poem.  Damn, Michelangelo.  Now that’s raising the bar – or, in this case, the ceiling.

Up next: Creative Blocks Part Two: On Process versus Product…(stay tuned)

To plan, or not to plan, that is the question…

Ready, set, go!

Uber-cool comedian and author Jane Lynch spoke recently at Smith College commencement.  My Facebook news feed was all a flutter with Jane sightings, photos of her at coffee shops taken surreptiously with IPhone cameras, as well as some quotes from the speech she gave at graduation, my favorite being, “My counsel to you, women of Smith College? Let life surprise you. Don’t have a plan. Plans are for wusses. If my life went according to my plan, I would never ever have the life I have today.”

I like this idea – like it even more because as of 5pm yesterday I am, what my friend and sometimes-sister Chris termed “(f)unemployed”.  This was not a surprise, I am not one of the victims of the economic downturn.  No, this was – more or less – a decision of my own making, and a decision I made nearly two months ago.  So I was prepared, or at least I thought I prepared, to go from my cubicle to….what?  What? That was the question.  The question I was asked from acquaintances and friends, concerned parents (my own especially) and even the graduating college seniors I posed with on their big day when – clad in their gowns and caps – they turned to me and asked “so what are you going to do next”?

I’ve been really good at deflecting this question mostly because I’m not sure of the answer.  Of course actually telling people “I don’t know what I’m going to do with my life” is not satisfying.  Even if it was satisfying to me it seemed to make the person asking the question uncomfortable – as if I had just casually announced to my next door neighbor that I had sold my lawnmower and had ‘no plans’ for the front yard except to see what shape it decided to take with rain and sun and no outside intervention.  It made people nervous, as if my pathless and wild garden might bring down the real estate value of the neighborhood.   And so most of them would say something like ‘I’m sure you’ll figure it out’ – and quickly change the topic.

Indeed, I have been so preoccupied with other peoples reactions to this life change that I haven’t really paid much attention to how I was feeling about it.  I knew it was happening, I was waiting, it was like a countdown on a big clock I felt like I projected from my forehead – the only thing was that once the clock hit zero that was it.  There was no roar of a crowd, no new years ball dropping (or ascending if you live in Northampton), not even a goodbye party.  Just, nothing.

And of course, nothing was what I had planned – I mean that’s the point of having no plans, right?  But it turns out that planning on not having any plans is different than really not having any plans.  Because when the moment comes and you actually have no plans your all like ‘oh my god, what should I do, I have no plans, I could do anything’ and you can’t tell if you should hightail it out of town and spend a few days in New York surrounded by people with so many plans or lie in bed and watch TV and what does it mean if you do one or the other?  The suggestions abound: You should meditate!  You should “just take it easy” (which by the way, if anyone ever figures out how to do I’d gladly pay to learn).

I didn’t go to New York.  I didn’t meditate.  I definitely didn’t take it easy.  I chose instead to take it hard – spinning possible futures in my head, trying to calm down, talking myself back and forth between ‘look this is no big deal’ and ‘oh my god, this is like the biggest deal ever’.  Finally I decided that I didn’t have to start my new life on the day my old life ended.  And so I did what so many of us do when we find those moments where restlessness and unnamed desire meets a body stilled by exhaustion or indecision: I went on Facebook.

And there in my news feed was that quote by Jane Lynch, “Let life surprise you. Don’t have a plan”.  I reposted it, thanked Jane for making it cool to not have a plan, and returned to my newsfeed for more self-indulgent (but socially acceptable) voyeurism.  As I scrolled through the posts by friends detailing the minutia of their days, sharing pictures of the beautiful places they were visiting, or providing links to important political articles about ‘occupying everything’, I worried that maybe after a decade in the Academy I was, as the artist Pink says, “too school for cool”.  Could I really not have a plan? I fretted and scrolled, fretted and scrolled, tracing futile hermeneutic circles in my brain, when I came upon a post by singer-songwriter, life coach and writing mentor Nerissa Nields, announcing she had a few spots left in a blogging workshop happening the very next day.  The social media angels whispered in my ear that this could be perfect for me – for the website I had started but had yet to write a single word upon.  I didn’t click ‘like’.  Instead I posted a comment telling her I wanted to enroll.   I hesitated a moment, added the word ‘definitely’ – I definitely wanted to enroll – and hit send.  And there it was, I had a plan.  Okay, it’s not a long-term plan, and maybe it’s not a plan that is going to bring me a paycheck or insurance or any of the things my dad is worried sick over.  But it’s a plan nonetheless – a plan for tomorrow, a plan for today – a right-now plan.  And it turns out – cool or not cool – in this moment it feels pretty darn good to have a plan.  Sorry Jane.