We’ve all been there. There are days when every creative trail seems to lead off a cliff; when the tried and true, even the work your trusted peers tell you is wonderful, begins to feel trite and hackneyed; when you know you need to dig in a new direction but don’t know where to begin.
We are legion. I know a celebrated novelist whose first draft was downright painful even after he had worked on it for years; successful painters who destroy or re-paint surprisingly numerous unsuccessful artworks. If you are satisfied, it probably means you’re not trying hard enough. Still, as artists we need to know how to give ourselves a kick in the pants on a regular basis. Here are a few of my personal techniques.
Use non-precious materials
Even if you’ve been told that you should use good quality materials, if you’re like me, that $10-a-sheet, imported from France, 100% rag Arches paper with the beautiful deckle edges will gather dust because I’m afraid to wreck it. So paint on the back of an empty cereal box.
One of the reasons for the success of the human animal as a species is our finely tuned aptitude for pattern recognition – this exercise revs up that part of our brain and stretches it as we try to resolve the creative problems embedded in a repeat and to recognize relationships between the parts. You’re also giving yourself permission to screw up. If the first one doesn’t work, you have several more chances.
Don’t write one play. Write 10 short ones on the same theme. Stretch 10 canvasses the same size and make 10 paintings of the same subject. Take multiple photographs of one scene and then look at them together in a grid. Perform and record a stanza of music or poetry several times, then string the versions in a loop or overdub them on top of one another.
Do the chicken dance
At Tuesday afternoon painting sessions, John Climenhage starts clucking at me like a chicken whenever I fall into predictable ruts and lose the nerve to take risks. I always take the bait.
Art is so much more about courage than skill. The skill will come with practice, and you may already possess skills you don’t yet recognize, but courage is something you have to bring every single time you attempt a creative act. You have to leave it on the floor. Your best work happens when you are unconditionally willing to fail miserably.
Use unfamiliar materials
Write when you think you should paint or dance instead of writing. Wail on some pots and pans when you can’t resolve a melody. Tear up an old sheet and make something with it. Use a stick for a paintbrush. Chances are you will surprise yourself.
Read. Walk. Or do housework
There is something about reading that always ignites my imagination. Maybe it activates neurons in a different part of my brain and then they start connecting to my habitual neural networks. Likewise when I walk, or start doing some mindless task, enough of my mind is occupied with routine actions that the rest is free to wander in unexpected ways. Housework is particularly effective for me. Not only do I end up with a tidier house, but I probably subconsciously would rather do art than housework. Lucky for me (though perhaps not for my visitors), the art eventually wins.
Give yourself a time limit
I was surprised to hear that Luc Tuymans always paints his large canvases in a single sitting. Alternatively, if you find yourself overworking things, commit to a deadline – if it’s not done by say, 3pm, just walk away and make like Orpheus – don’t look back.
Run in the opposite direction
Intentionally create something so awful that your own mother wouldn’t hang it on the fridge.
Tear it up
My former teacher David Bolduc once assigned the class a carefully defined exercise; after we worked on it obsessively for an hour or more he told us, “Now tear it up.” Harsh, but a lesson I never forgot. I’m guessing this works for writers and musicians too.
Go ahead, try it. If you are a real artist you won’t be able to.
I have often been surprised that some creation I thought was ghastly at the time, pleasantly surprised me when I pulled it out of a closet a few years later. My artistic sophistication had not developed enough to appreciate what I was actually doing.
Your body, your instincts and your heart know so much more than your rational mind. Trust them when it comes to art.
Shake it up well and shake it up often. Artists don’t have to know where they are going. They just have to go.