How I work…

While I love reading other people’s “rules for creativity” (check out Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist) I don’t think of myself as having any particular such list. Or at least I didn’t until yesterday. I ran into my friend A who is so excited about a new writing project that she can’t stop talking about it—in that infectious way that makes you want to be part of her project in whatever way you can. The more I thought about A’s project, the more I thought about how inspiring it is to be friends with someone who’s so creative. Which made me realize that the people I seek out and get along with best are those that are actively creative, whether or not they are professional artists. I also realized that though I don’t usually articulate them, I do, in fact, have a set of principles that surround my art practice. I’m not sure this is an exhaustive list, but these are the ones that seem most apparent to me.

Surround myself with people who are actively engaged in living a creative life. One of the reasons I love my day job is because I spend a great many days getting to talk to and interact with artists, some of whom I’m interviewing, and some of whom I work with. There’s no greater boon to my arts practice than an invigorating conversation that leaves me inspired and ready to dare. And while I do happen to meet a lot of practicing artists in my line of work, living a creative life isn’t restricted to those who are artistically gifted. Give me your museum goers, your theater lovers, your nesters who can’t stop rearranging the furniture and hanging more art on their walls. You are who you hang out with. (Check out today’s post on art is fear for a really good take on this idea.)

Plan. I’m as surprised as anyone at my #2. Despite the fact that my day job depends on my ability to plan (and plan b and plan c….), I’m actually not a fan of planning. I want to write poems as they come, on whatever theme, whatever schedule, whether or not it fits with what I’ve already been working on. And I also try not to consciously think too much while I’m writing. I write much better, I think, when I act on instinct, and allow the poem to be as much of a mystery to me as any other first reader. Last year, however, I spent a great chunk of time immersed in Hermione Lee’s brilliant biography of Virginia Woolf. And what struck me—in Lee’s book and also in Mrs. Woolf’s own diaries—was how much thinking Mrs. Woolf did around her work, really thinking through what effects she was going for, in what order she wanted to write things, etc. So when I knew I had a poem-a-day challenge coming up last November, I tried out the planning thing. Which in my case turned out to be a great deal of thinking about general subject matter (love poems) and how I would handle the days I really had nothing to say (found poems from interviews with a certain actor). While I still felt free to write what I wanted and how I wanted, having those two guidelines in place made a huge difference, and I wrote a new poem nearly every day. Ultimately, I think that for me, planning is about anticipating stumbling blocks so you can sail right over them without breaking the flow when you’re deep in the writing.

Pay attention to how I work. The fall before I turned 30, when I’d been seriously writing for a few years, I somehow managed to win a winter writing fellowship to the Fine Arts Work Center, one of the most prestigious writing and visual arts fellowships in the U.S. When I arrived, I was one of only two of the ten writers who didn’t have an MFA. Instant intimidation. I also had a tendency to wander the streets of Provincetown—going to the library, checking out the used book store and the record store and Norman Mailer’s house—while pretty much everyone else holed themselves up in their studios emerging only as the sun set and our evening shenanigans (by which I mean drinking) began. Even though I was writing, the fact that I was doing it in fits and starts, in between devouring huge stacks of books and wondering if I should buy a pair of Blundstones, clearly meant I was doing it wrong. I mean I’d go whole days (and weeks) without writing much more than some journal entries. I was surely a fake and didn’t belong with the real artists. Luckily, the poet Carl Phillips was a visiting writer that winter, and somehow I ended up out at dinner with him, a dinner at which he professed to being a binge writer. He’d write a chunk of poems at a time and then go fallow for weeks or months. Despite the fact that he wasn’t at a desk every day, the number of books—really good books—he has to his credit was proof that he was indeed the real deal. I will never be that writer who spends hours at a desk. Heck, I don’t even really like sitting at a desk, period, it makes me feel trapped. I need the freedom of physically wandering, even if it’s only from one end of my apartment to the other, to set my mind free to wander toward the poems that are waiting. It’s fine to try out other people’s work habits (see #2) but ultimately I believe we each have to figure out what best supports our art practice, whether it’s painting overnight while everyone sleeps, like my painter friend S, or writing in bed like H, or something else that works for you.

Set up play-dates with my muse. I know you’re not supposed to sit around and wait for inspiration, but, let’s face it, starting with inspiration sent from the heavens is way preferable to staring at the blank page when you’ve either got nothing or too much of everything to say. But I’ve learned that there are certain sure-fire things that will provoke a poem out of me—reading other people’s poems and visiting visual arts exhibits. I actually don’t read a lot of poetry because reading a poem to me is a call to write, and, quite honestly, when I come home from work, I want to play, not do more work. That being said, I can barely sit still through most poetry readings cause the right turn of phrase, the exquisite image, and I want to get to work on my own stuff. I mean I have yet to get past the first poem in Terrance Hayes’ Lighthead cause he brings on the muse and how! As for the museum shows, well, there’s no other way to say this—the paintings (or sculptures or photographs) talk to me. It doesn’t always happen, but there are certain shows I walk into and my neurons just start firing. It happened with the last Cy Twombly show at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Richard Diebenkorn show at the Corcoran this summer, and when I saw Holly Bass perform a piece at the (e)merge art fair. It’s as if this conversation starts up in my head over which I have no control. All I can do is listen and try to get it all down. I should add that when I encounter visual work that makes me act in this way, it’s actually kind of freaky because the poem doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with how I’m consciously experiencing the work. I thought the Diebenkorn Ocean Series pieces were luminous and joyful, yet the poem I “heard” was about a couple breaking up. (I also used to get creatively turned on by live music, but since I left Chicago that rarely happens…sigh…)

So, those are just a few of the ways I keep my creativity flowing. I’m curious to know how you stay creative.

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Posted on January 3, 2013, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I’m going to keep this post handy, especially for the next 30 days when I inevitably get stuck, and also to help me stay on track to knock out a first book draft by June. (!!!) Love reading that you compose while you wander. I swear I write my best stuff while I swimming.

  2. eugene holley jr

    Excellent! Date: Fri, 4 Jan 2013 02:32:10 +0000 To: eholley@hotmail.com

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