Tag Archives: art

Stop killing your ideas

Creativity needs quantity to produce quality

17th century map of South America

CC image Mapa antiguo de America del Sur via Douglas Fernandes on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

I have tons of ideas. The problem isn’t a shortage of ideas. I have ideas the way a dog on the street has fleas, the way South Carolina has mosquitos in the summer. I have ideas bothering me all the time; they itch; they plague me. I swat about my head and shoulders, trying to end the nuisance. Instead, I miss and get irritated. And maybe a headache, if I whack too hard.

I’ve never had a problem getting ideas. The trouble arises when I start evaluating them. How many of them are good? I get annoyed because so many of them are nascent ideas, ideas in utero, provisional ideas. Why can’t I have any better ideas than these? I ask myself. These aren’t good enough. I need improvement.

Sound familiar?

I’m not a betting woman, but I’m willing to bet that you do the same to your ideas. You want good ones, and most don’t measure up. So you swat them. Or use broad-spectrum anti-idea juice (“I never have any good ideas!” you tell yourself. Later on you are amazed how true that is).

Idea-killing is counterproductive

I’ve been known to massacre the pesky, low-value ideas which make merry about my head and shoulders. When more return, I equip myself with DEET.

And then wonder where the buzz has gone.

I read a fascinating article about the insects in the cornfields of the American Midwest. Or, more precisely, the lack of insects.

Turns out there’s a shocking absence of hum in our fields of monoculture.

Studies have shown that the diversity and number of insects on American cropland has plummeted. This should surprise no one. After all, that’s what pesticides are for—to kill pests.

The trouble is, some of these “pests” are pollinators. Their absence creates problems in the environment.

I feel that way about my ideas. The instant I fumigate the pests — No, can’t have this here, trying to grow quality — almost all of them disappear.

Ideas take us places

Sometimes, as with me, they literally are the map to new adventure.

My mother has an atlas — a huge, bound book, two feet tall and a foot wide — printed in the days of the USSR. The world is broken down by continent, and within each continent the countries are set off from each other by color: brilliant pinks, yellows, neon blues and greens. Rivers are small, squiggly things, their names like faded Egyptian hieroglyphs. The seas are huge and strange, the contours of the shorelines, mysteries. The atlas was out of date by the time I started hauling it off the top shelf, but that didn’t stop me from poring over the pages for hours, tracing rivers and mountain ranges with my fingertips.

At some point I conceived of the idea of making a map out of our backyard — and not just our backyard, but all the adjoining backyards, too — creating countries, enormous landscapes, and adventure. I didn’t stop to think about this idea. I walked around with a notebook and a pen, and started drawing.

I included topographic features: a low, loose rock wall separated the long side of our yard from one neighbor: it became a mountain range. The incline from our yard to our other neighbors’ fence became a canyon; the fence, a cliff. At one end of the canyon, a brace to a nearby tree with branches just the right height led to climbing opportunities. The tire swing was featured on my map; the stone wall at the back of the garden became a high-wire act. All the features received names. As did the under-the-deck area, which was boxed off with wooden latticework, and the side of the house, which was a wall of hostas in the summertime, so thick spiders could parade across from one side to the other and knit webs that got all over my face and hair (insert shriek here).

I made a half-dozen versions of this map over the years. I drew in notebooks and tucked copies into my diary. My friend T and I constructed games located in the places detailed in my maps. We spent hours exploring different worlds.

We don’t get one without the other

Ideas are collegial, and they like to hang out together in groups. When we get rid of the “bad” ones, we are stuck with none: a clean, antiseptic monoculture of the mind, lacking any hum.

When we let them grow wild, yes, we get spiders in our hair, but we also find portals to new dimensions.

Let’s stop killing our ideas. We don’t know where they might take us.

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What’s one crazy idea that brought you magic and adventure?

Word counts: Do you want candy, or a meal?

candy apples on bed of sprinkles

CC image Candy Apples courtesy of Andrea Williams on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

I saw a piece recently discussing the incredible shrinking word count for the children’s storybook. The topic resonated with me, although I am not a children’s writer, because I get the feeling a similar trend is happening in novels and some sectors of nonfiction books. The crux of the matter seems to be that too long is unacceptable, and will turn off the audience.

Let me point out for a moment that “too long” is a relative and subjective measurement. Someone’s Harriet the Spy is another person’s War and Peace. And some may prefer War and Peace over anything bite-sized.

It’s true the media has been supporting a move towards the bite-sized. News stories on American TV are quick and punctuated by commercials. In total, the coverage lasts less than an hour. Social media platforms for the pithy and quickly witty proliferate: Twitter by definition seeks a short hit, Facebook trends favor the visual and the funny, Vine (6 second videos) is a thing, texting (with a character limit) is the new telephone call.

Flash writing has also been rising in interest among readers and writers. As a method of writing, flash can be quite satisfying: been there, completed that, all in my lunch break (I can go back to edit later, of course, but you get the idea). As a method of reading, flash also satisfies—like much social media—the desire for a quick diversion, something we can access easily on small devices like our phones without having to focus too much attention or the work of a “real” computer on the event.

Shorter content is like candy. Longer content is a meal. We’re not always hungry for a full meal—occasionally, that’s too much food. Candy, meanwhile, is known for its addictive properties, the way it pretends to satisfy and always leaves you wanting more instead (my father, when we kid him about the tiny portions of ice cream he serves himself, famously says, “there is no such thing as enough ice cream. No matter how much you eat, you always want to have a little more. So why do I need a big portion?”). There is almost no time when we admit we’ve had enough (or too much) candy. We feel vaguely sick after a while, and have to take a break… we feel too sick to have a real meal, either.

A meal takes time to prepare and ideally takes time to truly enjoy. A meal involves care and attention, often the participation of other people, and the opportunity to savor. As payback, the meal satisfies, often for a long period of time. If I have a good meal, and I enjoy the preparation and the eating of it, I may spend time dwelling on the positive experience of the meal, and I also don’t feel like having another immediately afterwards. I need time to digest it. Eventually I’ll get hungry again, but for now that meal stays with me and sustains me.

Candy sometimes is good. I think we can and should give ourselves small bursts of pleasure and luxury. I believe that we should pamper ourselves and take the opportunity to make a special moment, an exception, to do something fun that may not be the best for, say, our dental health if we overdo it. I just don’t think candy replaces meals in any way. Just as an obsession with word count doesn’t replace a true story. As someone who enjoys both preparing and savoring a real meal, I hope I am not alone in this.

Faceoff: Creativity and goals don’t mix well

close face photo of a brown bear

Be creative…now! CC image Eye to Eye courtesy of Tambako the Jaguar on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Being creative and being goal-oriented are two different things. This statement may sound like a resounding example of the obvious, but for me this has been the discovery of week.

I start my writing residency soon. Early on after being accepted, I had grand plans for what I would do in preparation for the residency. I would get the manuscript ready in myriad ways: writing first drafts of chapters and scenes; research; organization; the digitization of all my notes. In short, I have not met these goals. With the impending “deadline” of my departure on the near horizon, I have found myself in a state of agita about my failure to accomplish these tasks.

But really, who cares? I mean, this isn’t a homework assignment. No one at the residency is going to approach me with a checklist, before or after my residency begins, and ask, “Did you do X, Y, and Z before coming here? Have you completed A, B, and C while you were here?” The whole point of a writing residency is time and space. The work is the writer’s own.

The muse is a fickle flirt. Courting her is akin to courting a cat: you never know quite where you stand, or whether you will be met with purring affection and head butts, or raised hackles and a clawed swipe or bite. We receive contradictory recommendations on how to make the muse love us.

These include: Set a regular schedule for writing, and stick to it. Be ready for inspiration whenever it strikes you—carry a notebook, computer, or voice recording device wherever you go (this piece of advice is especially nefarious for overachievers like myself, who see bringing the notebook with them everywhere as a challenge to, you know, write in it. Accomplish something!). Keep a pen and paper by your bed. Allow yourself to go about your everyday routine without thinking of writing. But most of all, DON’T FRIGHTEN THE MUSE AWAY BY BEING TOO NEEDY.

Ah, goals. Goals to be ready for Optimum Creativity, goals to execute specific steps, goals for deadlines. Goals are great, and meeting them is fun and useful, of course. But to be an absolutist in the face of writing goals (they must all be done and they must ALL be done exactly right) is a recipe for muse disaster.

As @joannechocolat pointed out in a recent tweet and blog post, this is all-or-nothing thinking. If you do this in writing, you might also be absolutist in other areas of life. Take note. You won’t take well to not meeting your word count and you will be unhappy when your writing plan doesn’t go to plan. I speak from experience.

Let’s take a moment to visit that friend to all writers, the dictionary. Merriam-Webster has this to say about a goal:
:  the end toward which effort is directed :  aim

Notice the entry doesn’t say, “the achievement of that end.” The emphasis lies on the action or aim, not the result.

While checklists are great, don’t let them rule your life. Word counts are useful targets, but if you fall short by, say, 235 words today you don’t need to add exactly that many on to tomorrow’s count, to “make up the difference.” Deadlines are fine… when you have finished your draft and are talking to an editor or a book designer. Deadlines for your draft are not fine. Deadlines and creativity don’t mix well.

Set the stage as well as you can, but allow yourself to have fun improvising. If you lose sight of the joy in play, you’ll lose sight of why you started this endeavor in the first place. Note to self.

Violating trust and artistic integrity

I'm looking at you, Yahoo!

hamsters playing tug of war with a carrot

CC image “Stealing” courtesy of ryancr on Flickr. Some rights reserved. NOT a commercial license!

Recently, it’s come to my attention that Flickr is doing something new with its users’ photos. Or rather, Yahoo!, which owns Flickr, is doing something new. They are doing it WELL below the radar. As someone with a Flickr account, I never even received an email notification*, something even Facebook is good at doing, with its recent news about the updates to its privacy policy.

What is Yahoo!/Flickr doing? Yahoo! is exploiting other artists’ work for their personal gain. I can put this another way. Yahoo! is stealing.

Not that I found this out from Yahoo! mind you. Thanks to the glories of social media, I found out about it from a friend who also uses (used?) Flickr, far more intensively than I do.

You won’t see Yahoo! saying anything remotely like “stealing,” of course. Yahoo!’s official position on this (once I went to the trouble of hunting it down; as I said, I didn’t receive any notification from Yahoo! A search under “Yahoo selling Flickr photos” which is as close to what’s happening as a search query can get, didn’t even turn up a press release on the first page of results. In fact, even when I went hunting specifically for a press release or official announcement, I didn’t get any information. I finally found a link to Yahoo!’s Tumblr through another article on The Daily Dot. That’s great outreach, Yahoo! *snort*), is as follows:

Yahoo announces printing of commercially licensed photos

screen grab from Yahoo!’s Tumblr

Yes, you are reading that correctly. Yahoo! is posing this whole situation as a boon to the consumer of photo art. Indeed, I think it IS a boon to the consumer. Only recently I came across this awesome artistic rendition of a Language Family Tree by Minna Sundberg, and really wished there was a poster available for it. The image is beautiful — appealing both to my inner language nerd and my wannabe-artist. Judging by the comments, I’m not the only ready-made consumer, either. However, I feel that Yahoo!’s move is no boon to any but the most select photographers. I think this move violates trust at a basic level, and thoroughly mauls artistic integrity and choice.

(See the bottom of this post for links to additional information on this issue)

Basically, Yahoo! is offering the printing of images from two sources: selected photographers, with whom I presume they had a conversation about this arrangement before the announcement went live to consumers; and a number of Creative Commons commercial-use-licensed images, which I doubt had any prior notice. They are offering two payment schemes, one to each group. The pre-selected photographers get to keep 51% of their profits.

The Creative Commons-licensing photographers get zero.

While I think 49% is a steep commission, let’s face it, those photographers had the opportunity to discuss the deal and accept the terms. I’m much more concerned with everyone who licensed their photos through Creative Commons, who are now being treated like shabby work-for-hire widget-makers, only without the hiring part.

Yahoo! is under its legal rights to do what it is doing. However, legal does not make right. Morals and the law might intersect sometimes, but this is far from a given. I am incensed with Yahoo!’s hubris on behalf of artistic and creative folk everywhere. Someone else has done the work, had the vision, and then expressed their joy in sharing what they’ve been able to create. Yahoo!, who had absolutely nothing to do with this creative process, decides to cash in. On work that isn’t theirs.

That is crap, Yahoo! That is real crap.

I can think of a number of more thoughtful ways of pursuing the idea of making beautiful photos accessible to people who want the art. What all of these ways have in common is that a) they take more time, b) they take more work, and c) they involve dialogue with the artists who’ve created this opportunity in the first place.

I can imagine that reaching out to all the creators and setting up a dialogue has the potential to create any number of administrative headaches. But the payoff is almost without price. People are posting their photos on Flickr with Creative Commons licenses — or they were; that’s certainly changing — because they WANT to share their work. If they are sharing their art for free, they are certainly there for recognition, and given the opportunity might jump at even more recognition! On the flipside though, remember they are offering their work for free. How can you presume to take that as a tacit agreement for you to charge for it? And keep all the change?

The gall is breathtaking.

Yahoo! has acted unilaterally and way overstepped its boundaries. You could argue that Yahoo! is serving the consumer, but in the process, the artist gets screwed. Almost no one has a problem with this, except the artists themselves, but in reality we all suffer. How long do you think someone whose work is so disrespected will continue to create work, or if they create it, to share it with anyone else?

When we drive creators off the stage, we all lose.

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*If you are a Flickr user with Creative Commons-licensed images, and you received an official notification from Yahoo! about this, I’d love to hear from you. I haven’t licensed my photos, which right now I am profoundly relieved about. Perhaps notices only went out to those who were affected; I want to be accurate and level-headed and not make any unjust accusations.

Note: I use a lot of Flickr Creative Commons-licensed images in this blog. I always use photos that are not commercially licensed, and I provide links back to the Flickr page and credit to every photographer. I appreciate everyone whose images I’ve been able to use, and their gracious permission to do so. Strictly speaking, my ability to find images this way should not be impacted because the license is different than what’s under discussion here, but you never know. Folks may pull out of the license altogether. I feel like I am making a conflict of interest disclosure, which might be overdone… but I want to be transparent.

Note 2: Links. You may already be informed of the issue discussed in this post. If you aren’t, feel free to type in a few search terms. Here are two more links that I turned up, in case you are interested in diving deeper:
Wall Street Journal


Your opinion of my art is awful, really

Adjectives are about as useful to a working artist as quicksand is to the through-hiker

view of a bay with Quicksand sign in the foreground

Help! I’m sinking in a morass of value judgments! — CC image “quicksand” courtesy of Mark Roy on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

I finished a drawing last week!

Actually, I finished two, I think… time to invest in fixative that doesn’t bill itself as being “workable.”

I’ve been stockpiling a growing folder of images that I wanted to use to draw from. With each one I’d think, “I’d really like to draw that, but…” When I opened my sketchpad, I was confronted with page after page of unfinished drawings.

Finally, I decided that before I could start any more new drawings, I’d have to finish the old, to the point where I would spray them with fixative. Any fixative, even “workable” fixative.

For a long time that resolution meant that I wasn’t drawing anything at all.

A couple of weeks ago, I pulled out the sketchpad again and realized how close to finished one of the drawings actually was. In the time since I’d started it, and the day I was looking at it, I’d been learning about different techniques I wanted to try, and this drawing was a perfect candidate.

I want to note for the record that I am not an artist. I’m a writer. I like to mess around with drawing, “just for me,” as I tell my friends, who are sometimes interested to see what I am doing. I don’t want to share my drawings partly because I have higher standards for my work than what I’m able to produce, and partly because people are usually prompted to share an opinion when they look at a piece of art. They do this when they look at a piece of writing too, which is why I’m allowed to make the current analogy.

Bad opinion — Bad!

With love, people: I’m not looking for an opinion.

I want someone to talk to me like a craftsperson. I’d like to hear about techniques, different choices, and skills I either have or can acquire. Instead, many people react to a piece of art as though they’ve been asked to provide reassurance. That is, they tend to respond like this when they look at a piece of art in person, with the artist. They don’t usually do this in a museum. In a museum you are much more likely to hear genuine critiques and deconstruction of a work. You’ll get to hear why they feel the way they do about a piece of art.

Details, details, details

The hallmark of a good critique is specific details. The most over-used and, to me, most frustrating adjectives imply a value judgment only, with no reference to why or how that judgment was formed. The piece is “good” — one of the most useless adjectives ever, right up there with “interesting.” “Good” tells me absolutely nothing. Why is it good? How is it interesting?

I would mind sharing less — of my writing, too — if people wouldn’t always respond in this way. If instead, they did what one of my friends, who saw my second newly completed drawing, did. She eyed it for a moment, and said, “I like how you made that part negative, brighter than everything else.”

I loved my friend’s comment so much because it was specific.

The enemy of the good

“Good” just invites us to compare ourselves to other artists and writers we think of as “good” (our own value judgments). We know where we stand in relation to their work. Most of the time, they are more skilled than we are, and we can point out in what ways this is so. Comparisons and value judgements are no good for my art. Specifics, on the other hand, are valuable, because I can gauge my work against itself — I’m not worried about anyone else.

Worrying about how we compare to other artists is a crippling disease. We need frequent booster shots to inoculate ourselves against this state of mind. Specific details are the booster. Remember this, the next time a friend asks you to look at his work.

When’s the last time you had your shot?

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Does anyone have suggestions on how to frame a preference for detail over opinion to their friends and acquaintances? I would love to hear your thoughts.