Find the Simplest Element of Your Craft

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Updated November 3, 2022

You’re reading an excerpt of Creative Doing, by Herbert Lui. 75 practical techniques to unlock creative potential in your work, hobby, or next career. Purchase now for instant, lifetime access to the book.

One of Shantell Martin’s most popular projects involves two objects: a black medium-width Staedtler Lumocolor marker and a white wall. Using the permanent marker, she’ll cover an entire wall in elaborate line work. She also draws murals on walls and surfaces at live shows, incorporating an element of performance art to her process.

Martin has said, “It takes a ton of work and practice to get to the point when a line is a true reflection of yourself.”

It can feel incredibly inspiring—and overwhelming—to consider a final body of work. Instead, as you’re starting out, turn your focus away from the final vision of the project and toward the simplest element of it.

In Martin’s form of visual art, each piece of her work is made up of lines. In all forms of writing, each article, book, or poem, is made up of words. In the recording arts, each bar and song is made up of notes.

As you start to discover these common elements, you’ll realize final pieces of work are just polished combinations of them.

The simplest elements may take a day to learn but a lifetime to master.

Or flip this prompt: Work with What You Have

Remove Imaginary Barriers to Your Work

After years of learning and applying rules, you might live within these constraints even when they don’t actually apply to you. You’ll feel like you’re bumping into invisible walls. For me, a huge invisible wall was the traditional publishing system; I felt like I needed to have a book agent, write a book proposal, and build an audience, all before I could actually start to write a book. For years, I tortured myself with that idea that I needed the system’s buy-in before I could write a book. This fixation on being accepted by the traditional institutions distracted me from the clear vision of what was in front of me and the valuable experiences and ideas I already had.

The reality is, as I found out years later, I could’ve written a book at any time. A book can be as simple as 20,000 words strung together. If I stitched together 20 articles at 1,000 words each, which I was writing every week, I could’ve put a book together. (In the traditional book publishing world, some books are even just 11,500 words.) This is true for you as well. As soon as you’ve figured out the simplest elements of your craft, you can start creating. Elsewhere in this book, you’ll do exercises that involve finding new materials to work with—new lines, words, and sounds, for example—and more deliberately setting a mission and theme, which can be based on one specific element of your work.

Even before we start our creative work, it’s easy to find reasons to stop. We don’t have the equipment that the professionals use, we have no one following our work, and we’re unsure if what we’re trying to do is even “really” what we want to do. If you’ve let your craft get more complicated in your head—through the mystique and magic of creativity—it’s time to let them go. Don’t impose fictitious rules on yourself.

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