In addition to taking a class from this guy, I’ve been reading some books on cartooning technique to try to improve my skills. For philosophical background and some “how-to-read-comics” training, Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics was helpful. But I really want to acknowledge Jessica Abel and Matt Hadden’s Drawing Words and Writing Pictures, which is so full of reference material about technique that I find myself referring to it regularly, every time I want to experiment with a new tool or technique or tactic.
Posts Tagged ‘creativity’
I’m in my second semester of cartooning class at Third Ward, the hipster arts & crafts/shop-class school in East Williamsburg. I signed up because I wanted to try some sort of creative endeavor that was visual and (largely) non-verbal. This was in part just to try something new, and in part to shatter my sense that I didn’t have what it took to be visually creative.
To be honest, it was a rough start for me. I’ve had to keep reminding myself that I don’t have to do any of this “right,” that it doesn’t matter which techniques are “authentic,” that any way that gets the job done is “legitimate,” that I can choose my own tools and methods according to what I like. Obviously there aren’t conventional ways of doing things, in cartooning just as in any other conventional expressive form. And there are useful techniques to learn, and practicing those techniques makes me better at the “craft” side of cartooning. But the “art” side matters too, as does the commercial side (in that comics are meant to be reproduced, which has its own implications for technique and materials).
But within a week or two, I realized that I had more talent than I thought. I turned out to be somewhere in the middle of my class in terms of drawing ability (which I didn’t expect), and I learned that being in my late 40s gives me a kind of natural vision and comfort with myself and my work that younger people (even talented ones) typically don’t have. And as I’ve learned more about technique, I’m coming to enjoy the act of cartooning more than I did at the beginning.
One thing that has helped is that as a longtime fountain pen user, I’m comfortable with nib pens, and even though I don’t have experience doing small, fine illustration work with them, I know how to hold them and have an innate sense of what kind of line will be produced by a given combination of nib and hand motion. It gave me a jolt of early confidence to see my classmates splattering ink all over themselves. I actually prefer the look of brush-drawn work, but I don’t think I have the hand control to make the brush my primary tool. (I’m practicing my brushwork today.)
I’ll be posting some of my work here as I finish it. Right now I’m working on a short project about junior high school superheroes in Queens.
I’m trying to resume a daily writing habit again, after reading Laura Vanderkam’s short book (really just a long article) about making more out of your mornings. I have a limited appetite for business books (and I have to be in the right mood, and the author has to be less oblivious of his/her own biases than they usually are, etc. etc.), but I liked this one, in part because she was making three main points that everyone basically already knows but most people are too lazy to do anything with:
- If you want to incorporate a change into your life, don’t just dabble; instead, work systematically to make it a habit. That way, you won’t have to think about whether or not to do it. Your inner autopilot will take it over.
- You have more time than you think; you’re just spending it watching Toddlers and Tiaras and screwing around on the Internet (or sitting around drinking, or whatever) rather than in pursuing the life change you say you don’t have time for.
- For most people, early-morning time is both potentially high-productivity time, and relatively free of external obligations, so it’s a good point in the day to try inserting some life-changing habits.
That’s it. You don’t have to read the book now (although you can; it’s easy and there are a few nuggets I didn’t quote here).
I flirt periodically with a daily writing habit (see, for instance, this post); it’s hard to keep up. But I seem happier when I’m getting daily creative exercise, so I’m going to try again. In terms of the emotional benefits, it turns out I’m fairly ecumenical regarding what it is I’m working on. I have a couple of poems and longer essays going; there’s a short story or two; and then of course there’s this blog, with both the short pieces I dash off and the longer pieces that take some thought. And, of course, there’s the cartooning class that I’m starting next week, which may turn out to be a bust but that I’m still excited about.
The problem isn’t finding time to write, it’s finding time to write when I’m feeling energized and creative and loose. I do have a history of productive mornings, at least before the Internet came along and ruined everything — left to my own devices I fidget for a while but I do eventually settle down and work. I’m too smart for tricks like Freedom, and besides, it’s nice to have the Internet to look things up; not screwing around on it is a matter of good habits rather than enforcement. So I think I’m going to experiment with a regimen like this for a while:
- Set a consistent wake-up time (let’s call it 7:00 during the week, 8:00 on weekends). Go to bed early enough that I can tolerate that. If I can, I’ll inch the weekday wake-up back toward 6:30 or even 6:00, but let’s take this one step at a time.
- Out of bed when the alarm sounds (and, based on my history, I’ll probably wake up at 6:58 without it). Shower, dress, and make coffee, and be seated in my “creativity spot” in the house by 7:20.
- Allow one hour (until 8:20) for unbroken creative activity. If I get fidgety, I can stop at 8:00 (40 minutes), but under no circumstances before. Fidgety is part of the point — I want to know what the awkward silence ends up producing.
- No restrictions on what: writing this blog, taking notes, doing research toward a creative project, drawing my cartoon series that will make me world-famous, finger-painting, deciding what recipes to include in my cookbook, etc. Creative work on the computer counts, or with pen and paper, or (theoretically) on a typewriter; writing in my journal counts; work for an audience or work for my secret self counts. No rules.
- Actively police my Internet screwing around during this time. Turn off notifiers. Directed Googling for links is okay, but no Internet rabbit-holes, no Twitter, and no email. Especially no work email. There are plenty of other times in the day for that.
One of the important points here is that I’m not predefining what “creativity” means. Really anything I do that is expressive or experiential, rather than about consuming the endless stream of low-signal-to-noise junk that’s around in the air, ought to count.
After that, we’ll see. But I’ll live with that for a while and see what happens. I’m excited!
Patricia Cohen’s essay in the Sunday Times about the creative power of midlife struck a chord for me. A lot of my own musings on this blog are consistent with Cohen’s thesis, that people in their forties often feel more comfortable with themselves and their own knowledge and mastery, freer to be creative, and less constrained by society and limited by what they don’t know than people in their twenties and even thirties. Certainly it’s been that way for me — I’m a happier person now than I was earlier in my life, my confidence is higher, my interests are broader, and I’m much less concerned with what anybody thinks.
I particularly liked this part, given that I’m currently reading widely and, with everything I read, thinking “Hey, I bet I could write something like this”:
The mix of experience and native ability often reaches a high point in the creative realm as well. Despite the media’s obsession with young talent, psychologists like Carl Jung and Erik Erikson maintained that middle age propelled individuals toward their greatest achievements. Consider, for instance, the difference between Beethoven’s First Symphony, written at 29, and the Ninth, composed in his late 40s and early 50s. Profound genius is midlife’s territory.
Countless writers, filmmakers, musicians, poets and painters have expounded on the artistic insight of midlife. “I’m glad I didn’t get a chance to make movies in my 20s or 30s because I was a very bad writer,” said Paul Haggis, who was in his 50s when he wrote screenplays for the Oscar-winning films “Million Dollar Baby” and “Crash” (the latter he also directed).
Works for me!
Gregor Poynton tweeted this article by Dan Schawbel from the Time website. Its main contention is that “employees in the Gen Y, or millennial, demographic — those born between roughly 1982 and 1993 — are overturning the traditional workday,” through flexible hours, job-sharing, freelancing, and so forth.
I understand what Schawbel is saying — certainly things have changed since the Gen Yers’ parents’ generation (which is, roughly, the generation midway between my parents and me — I graduated from high school in 1983). But the analysis of why, and how pervasively, seems a bit facile to me.
I mean, this is certainly true, and a good thing, for a relatively narrow stratum of highly empowered and self-actualized white-collar workers — people with good educations, marketable skills, and strong personal brands (Schwabel’s specialty), which includes me and Schwabel and almost everyone who works at Time.com, and most people we deal with professionally. So, yay us!
But the day-to-day world is operated not by people who blog and work for marketing agencies (like me and Schwabel), but by people who make donuts and build bridges and clean up after our grandparents in nursing homes — and almost none of those people (or, for that matter, their managers) are being released from the constraints of routine. It’s very nice to say “Gen Y workers won’t accept jobs where they can’t access Facebook,” but a lot of the people in those age groups — the majority? — don’t get to be so fussy. That was true at the height of the last economic boom, and it’s much truer now than it was then.
I thought Matt Yglesias’ take on the economic policy debate as just another culture war issue was right on the money. The sorts of people who live empowered Gen-X and Gen-Y lives (and I certainly include myself), especially the childless and well-paid, don’t ever have to make the choices that many middle-class people (nevermind working-class people) have to make, and it’s harder for us to empathize with those choices than we would like to think.
In the spirit of my 2012 resolutions, here’s a post with a similar spirit from Gala Darling. Now, Ms. Darling is a bit more earnest than I usually go for (as everyone knows, I’m a macadamia nut of earnestness inside a chocolate coating of cynicism inside a crispy shell of authentic feeling inside a gigantic heart-shaped box of bitter, hateful envy), but you know what? A little more self-love wouldn’t kill you. So jump on that trampoline, take that day off, buy those fingerprints and that gigantic roll of wax paper — whatever it takes. Because YOU’RE WORTH it.
Inspired by the Holstee Manifesto and Dear Sugar and Aileen of Creating Clever, I’m trying to think bigger this year about where I want to take my life. It’s easy enough to make lists, and lists are important. But if you really want to create change, you also need to think about where you’re headed and what kinds of habits will help move you there.
Habits matter. At the margins, and whenever you aren’t focused on anything in particular, or can’t decide, or aren’t sure, it’s habits that determine the choices you make. And so getting good habits in place at the beginning of the year will serve you well throughout it.
Here are some of the habits I’m flirting with making… well… habitual in the year that’s just begun.
I’ll take some time to think every day.
“Thinking” isn’t just “going through your to-do list” or long-term planning, although it can include these and other medium-term exercises. It should also include stock-taking time. You need time for zooming out to consider what it all means, how the things you’re doing are connected to each other, how they serve your broader life aims, and how they make you feel.
I’ll pay attention to how I feel.
I’m not as good at paying attention to myself as I’d like to be. An exercise that I’ve found useful is that when I’m feeling uncertain, I stop. I center myself mentally and take a few breaths. Then I ask myself, “Is the thing you’re in the middle of right now making you feel good? If not, why not? Is there something else that would make you feel better?” And if there is, and if I can, I stop doing the first thing and start doing the second thing. A version of this exercise can be applied to almost any life question, big or small, from “What should I have for dinner?” to “How should I respond to my crazy aunt’s crazy ravings?”
I’ll listen to my body.
Two things I learned from my body in the past year were these: (1) I like getting a little exercise every day, and the easiest way for me to get it is by bicycle; and (2) Sometimes I eat when I’m not hungry, and when I can stop myself from doing that, I lose weight and feel better. I’ll make room in my life to make observations like those and act on them.
I’ll take seriously my impulse to create and my hunger for solitude.
It’s easy to get caught up in the urgency of work and family life. But for me, at least, stewarding my emotional well-being, although less urgent, is more important. I find that when I do that effectively, I’m happier and calmer and more able to be fully present in my work and for my family. And so I’ll try to give priority to my emotional well-being. And I’ve learned over the years that for me that means two things: making time to create (the nature of the things I create isn’t that important, and this blog definitely counts), and carving out time for solitude and reflection. I’ve rarely had as much solitary time as I feel I need; it’s hard to find, but for me it’s sustaining, so it’s worth the trouble.
I’ll be nicer to myself about the things I don’t follow through on.
The point of life is to live it. If I get distracted before I finish Neal Stephenson’s new novel, who cares? If I never actually learn to read Korean or play the bluegrass fiddle, what’s the harm? Obviously I found something else I’d rather be doing, and did that instead.
Note that there’s nothing on this list about “travel to more places” or “go out and socialize more” or “have more people over for dinner” or “learn how to X.” Things like that are important, and I’ll do a lot of them in the coming year. But I don’t feel like I have to worry about them; they’ll happen anyway. It’s the smaller, incremental changes — the ones that won’t happen unless I opt to change my patterns at dozens or hundreds of tiny moments of truth throughout the year — that really need my attention at this time of year.
Tonight I finished reading The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron’s course in creativity. And over the past couple of weeks I’ve mostly kept up with my “morning pages,” which are an important plank in Cameron’s program; basically, they are a date with yourself to write a few pages of whatever, without restriction, not to be shared or reread, every morning without fail. (I don’t always get to them in the morning, but if I don’t, I try to get to them later.) The morning pages are different from your work itself; they are meta-work, partly journaling, partly therapeutic, partly the creative noodling that frees what’s already happening in your creative brain.
One thing Cameron keeps coming back to is the importance of catering to your artistic/creative self, which she sometimes refers to as a child. This weekend I took some time to rearrange my two most frequent home workspaces — my desk, and one particular chair in a different part of the house — to make them more comfortable. I improved the lighting on my desk, made new homes for some important objects I wanted to have within easy reach. Most significantly, I hung a curtain panel in front of the desk, in a pretty bamboo theme that coordinates with the look of the desk itself, to make the desk feel more enclosed.
At other times in my life, that would make me feel claustrophobic. But I’m living in a large open apartment with mostly symbolic divisions among spaces, and having a more concrete division will help me focus.
In my creative work time, I’m noodling on a novel. I wouldn’t say “writing,” not yet, but I’m trying to see if some incipient thoughts I’ve already have will ripen into something that I feel like I want to work on. I’ll keep you posted.
I was referred by a friend (OK, it was her) to Wade Rouse’s At Least in the City Someone Would Hear Me Scream: Misadventures in Search of the Simple Life, which I read this weekend. It’s light, a loose collection of essays tied together. And Rouse takes the stereotypical gay thing a little further than I can usually stomach (and, hello, I’M GAY) but, you know, in the service of art. In the service of art.
And I have to admit I really enjoyed the book, and that Rouse’s spiritual journey has enhanced my spiritual journey.
The thrust of the book is “urban gay couple move to the great outdoors in search of a Walden experience,” “urban” meaning St. Louis (well, okay), and their “outdoors” being the middle of nowhere several miles outside of Saugatuck, Michigan. Not literally off the grid; but no Starbucks within an hour or more (!), no cable TV (at least initially), no NPR.
Can they survive? Can they thrive? Can they live without the things they have to live without, and learn to live with the things they have to live with?
You’ll have to read the book to find out, but I came to the end appreciating Rouse’s willingness to try to follow his passion (and make serious life changes in order to do it) and discuss it honestly, including the aspects of it that drove him crazy. If you want to be a writer, you have to write! And if you want to live a simpler life, you have to, well, simplify! And — if someone like Rouse can do it, someone much more deeply embedded in consumer culture than you probably are, then so can you! Etc.
Also: Dude doesn’t have to be Shakespeare to be worth reading.
Also: Why should I make fun of Wade Rouse, in my urban-cynical way, for being gayer than me? He is who he is. Not to mention that he isn’t gayer than me, he just wears more product and goes to the gym more often. Not to mention that he’s had four books published, and gets to live in the woods!
I appreciate all the response to my “dig the goddamn coal” post, and I’m trying to take my own words to heart. It’s not as easy as you might think to make an hour a day, or whatever it takes, to bring about some creative continuity; it’s easy to say “just do it” but life, in the form of both obligations and habits, actually does intervene inconveniently. Getting up an hour early isn’t always practical if, as I do, you live in a late-night household. (And it would be easy to blame my boyfriend for my late-night habits, and it’s true that he’s the impetus for them, but in fact my diurnal clock has adjusted closer to his over the years, so now I go to bed on average an hour later than I used to, even when he isn’t around.)
This morning, though, I got up early (9:30 on a Sunday), got out of bed, made myself a cup of coffee, and sat on the couch in the quiet corner near the window, with a clean Lane tabletop (with its visible dovetails) in front of me, on which sat a nice notebook and a fountain pen. I was not alone in the house — in fact, there was another person within my field of vision — but I was the only person awake.
I wrote four or five pages of Artist’s Way morning pages — somewhere between journal writing and practical exercises — and then said to myself, you know, there’s no time like now.
So I thought, well, during the time of life that I was composing (writing first drafts), how did I like to do it?
And I went over to the shelf and I found myself a nice quadrille writing tablet, with a heavy backing and microperforated sheets, and picked up the fountain pen and started to write, double-spaced and flowing. I wrote a page and a half of the beginning of a story and then said, there’s something here but it’s not where I want to go today. And so I started on a new page, and began writing something else, which turned into a character sketch, and, aha! there I went, and I ran on to five pages and I didn’t feel like writing anymore today, but I know exactly where I’ll go next when I start page six.
And I suspect that if you ask a “real writer,” by which I mean someone who makes prose as his or her primary productive life activity, they’ll say “yes, that’s exactly how its done.” To wit:
1. Find a place that’s clean and simple and free of distractions. I like that corner of my house because it’s the least cluttered and the least decorated, and it’s by the window. And you can’t reach the TV or the radio or the computer from there.
2. Have at hand the materials that you use with the most facility. For me, it’s a certain quality of paper, and a certain type of pen. There are other moments in the writing process when I prefer to type, and still others when (I suspect) I’ll prefer to dictate. But for now, it’s pen and paper.
3. If you don’t have something underway, start with a warmup exercise. Going through the motions is an adequate way to begin.
4. When you feel ready, work, and try to be sustained about it. No distractions.
5. When you’ve completed when you’ve set out to do, or when you’ve had enough, stop.
6. IMPORTANT! Repeat steps 1 through 5 on a regular schedule.
So I feel good about today — I found time to start two pieces that will each turn into something longer, I proved I could do it, and it didn’t cut into the other activities I had planned for the day.