Set Up Starting Points

21 minutes, 11 links

My observation is that the doers are the major thinkers. The people that really create the things that change this industry are both the thinker and doer in one person.Steve Jobs*

You probably think about doing more creative work a lot. At a certain point, it’s time to just pick up the brush and start painting. “Many people die with their music still in them,” physicist, poet, and polymath Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. said. “Too often it is because they are always getting ready to live. Before they know it, time runs out.”

There is no right way to do creative work; the only wrong way is not to do anything. This chapter will help you get started.

Choose a Creative Operation

Whether you have grand ambitions or are simply curious to explore, it helps to begin concretely. Pick a creative operation you will explore.

If you don’t have a creative area to work in and are nervous about getting started, think about what area might expand on your existing skills. If your job involves writing, for example, and you enjoy doing that, creative writing might be an interesting place for you to start.

If you already do creative work but feel blocked, consider a new creative operation—it could be something entirely different than your usual work. This decision could be a temporary experiment, and not necessarily the medium you’re going to stick with forever.*

You could start with a community you appreciate. For example, if you regularly read a subreddit like r/startups, you could start by responding to questions or sharing business opportunities you’ve noticed.

Look into your routines and the daily things you enjoy, and list all of the possible related creative fields. If you find yourself hanging out at jazz clubs, you might want to try something related to the recording arts or mixology. If you really appreciate hip-hop, you might want to try songwriting, spoken word poetry, making instrumental tracks, stage design, or designing streetwear. Many of your interests contain or are connected with a host of creative possibilities that you can try.

You might be saying, “Jazz club? I work 80 hours a week.” If you haven’t made creative work a part of your life in the past and don’t know where to begin, start by taking yourself out on “artist dates,” as The Artist’s Way author Julia Cameron suggests. Visit a museum by yourself, letting your feet carry you to the work that draws you in. Go to a concert and sit as close to the stage as you can—which instrument do you find yourself hearing the loudest, which musician do you watch while the band plays? Spend three hours on Saturday reading a book outside of the genre you normally read. You may find that a clear answer emerges from expanding your horizons.

Lastly, consider the objects that you love. If you’ve always loved light fixtures, you can choose an operation related to industrial design. If you like skillets, kitchen knives, and cookbooks, you can try an operation related to the culinary arts. (See Select One Tool.)

Michael Saviello, also known as Big Mike, paints during his lunch hour inside Astor Place Hairstylists, where he has been a manager for 30 years. It’s not difficult for Big Mike to paint during the lunch hour at his day job. “This is my favorite part of the day,” he says. If you find yourself paralyzed by choosing one creative operation—which can be difficult!—then stick with what feels good to you. Ask yourself, “Could this be the favorite part of my day?”

Once you’ve narrowed in on a creative operation, getting started might feel like another task in your to-do list—even a chore, on some days. Instead of feeling “I need to do this,” you can cultivate the attitude of “I get to do this.” If you don’t enjoy it, then you need to ask yourself what you’re doing and why. Is the goal something different from enjoyment, or passion? Are you driven to change your career path, or to learn a new skill for a different reason?

Questions like this might enable you to realize whether the operation you’ve picked is really the right one for you. Lindsay Jean Thomson’s first 100 day project was taking a photo each day, only for her to realize that writing suited her better. Nonetheless, Jean Thomson fulfilled her 100 days of photography. Some days must have been hard and others easy; but she made it happen.

Be easy with yourself—if you don’t actually like it, don’t force it. It may help to remind yourself that you’re practicing this skill in service of what you really like. (For example, you need to practice research in order to become a good writer.)

You may also realize that, after a few days of practice, it really becomes the best (or second best, or third best) part of some of your days. This isn’t necessarily meant to be a lasting, permanent, “I’ve found the thing!” but rather, “I’ve found something.”

Many people pick up two or three different crafts throughout their lives. Maybe you’ve found the first one, and the second one awaits you somewhere down the line. Once you’ve found it and committed to your chosen creative operation, the next moves are to figure out how to fit it into your day, and how to make sure you keep doing it. You can liken this to the experimental process of a scientist: when you choose an operation, you’re coming up with hypotheses of what you may or may not like. When you observe something doesn’t work, you’ve completed the experiment, and are free to test another hypothesis.

Work with What You Have

Artist Chuck Close describes the tendency for artists to spend years finding, designing, and outfitting the perfect space to work. Once the space is done, though, they end up selling it and building another. Close says in Inside the Painter’s Studio, “It seems more often than not a way to keep from having to work. But I could paint anywhere. I made big paintings in the tiniest bedrooms, garages, you name it. You know, once I have my back to the room, I could be anywhere. I could care less.”

Even before we start our creative work, it’s easy to find reasons to stop—it’s common to say, “I can’t create because I don’t have professional tools or the right space.” We spend hours—maybe even days—getting around obstacles that we set up for ourselves. Even for something like writing, which can involve as little as a single tool, you can stop yourself from actually working by cycling through an endless series of questions: what word processing software or notebook should I use? Where should I publish my work? If I’m deciding to set up my own blog, which software should I use? Should I be building my audience first instead of writing?

These questions are all well and good. They also have absolutely nothing to do with writing. Just put the pen on a page (or even a scrap piece of paper), and start writing.

In reality, we don’t need anything except our brains and bodies to practice our creative work. The goal is to put this reality into practice with the fewest tools possible, in any environment.

Adorn Your Space

Chuck Close may be able to turn his back on any room and get to work, but shutting out the world might not work for you—or not work all the time. You may not have a Parisian atelier with floor-to-ceiling windows (or need one) but there are ways to make the space you do have more inspiring and conducive to creative work.

In his biography of Leonardo da Vinci, Walter Isaacson quotes da Vinci describing an artist at work: “The painter sits in front of his work at perfect ease. He is well dressed and wields a very light brush dipped in delicate color. He adorns himself with the clothes he fancies; his home is clean and filled with delightful pictures, and he is often accompanied by music or by the reading of various beautiful works.” (In psychology, enclothed cognition covers the influence of clothes on the mind of the person wearing it.)

You can also experiment with the temperature, and be mindful of how that influences your thought process. Singer-songwriter Ester Dean says, “I always have an electric heater behind my feet, but I like to be comfortable so that I can be vulnerable.”

Because this is a book about creative doing—which means creativity in the physical world—test some things out that play with your senses, to see what affects your creative mind. Light a candle or apply some essential oils. Create a playlist of songs that pump you up, and then try music that calms you down. If your work is mostly done on the go and on the screen, you can also take some time to make your virtual environment—screen brightness, wallpapers, and software—more conducive to creative work. Whatever or wherever it is, make your environment a place you want to spend time every day.

Draft, Demo, and Sketch

No creative work emerges finished. Preliminary work is rough, and often bears little resemblance to the polished, completed product released to the public.

Mozart would often start a piece, set it aside, and then pick it back up months or years later. Musicologist Ulrich Konrad called these beginnings “departure points … a delineation of intellectual places to which Mozart could return as necessary.” Each field has different names to describe preliminary creative work. In writing, a preliminary work is called a “draft.” In recording arts and software, preliminary work is called a “demo” and often used to demonstrate the artist’s or group’s capabilities and the work’s possibilities. In visual art, preliminary work is called a “sketch,” and used to assist in making the final work.

Preliminary work is not optional, and every version of preliminary work is crucial for improving the work we’re making. This stage is far too early to demand perfection; it’s best to keep expectations low, to refrain from self-criticism, and to support psychological safety (the feeling that it’s okay to make mistakes) to allow every single detail of the idea to flow out.

One of the most fascinating properties of the creative process is, every version of a piece of work can be seen as preliminary work. While you can finish different versions and variations of a project, there doesn’t have to be a final sense of completion. Pablo Picasso said, “If it were possible … there would never be a ‘finished’ canvas but just different states of a single painting.” And here’s W. H. Auden paraphrasing a line of Paul Valéry’s: “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.”

Dacoury Natche and his collaborators worked on the song “Time” on Childish Gambino’s 3.15.20 album for nearly two years. Natche said there are multiple versions of the song, including one that sounds more like a party, and another that sounds more like a live version. He was willing to commit that time because the song held potential. He described his mindset: “Let’s just try as many versions as we can because I know this song feels like something special.”

Our goal here is to practice not worrying about whether or not something is perfect. Instead, it’s about creating one version of a project that will likely either be improved upon in the future or serve as inspiration for something else. The key is to cultivate the commitment and conviction to declare that something is done, for now.

“Anything you do is basically a demo until it comes out, or it’s present,” said Dacoury Natche. “Sometimes even if it comes out, it still can be a demo.” It’s fitting that Natche brings this up, since iterating on final products often takes place in music through remixes, samples, and covers.

It might sound counterintuitive, or even painful or scary, to your inner craftsperson to complete work in so little time that it doesn’t feel ready. That’s the whole point. Your judgment of your work may not reflect how somebody else interprets or experiences it. It’s fine to know something that you made isn’t your best, and still declare this version of it complete—or to release it to the world. The work that resonates with the most people may not be the one that you declare to be the best; still, it can make an impact on people.

This prompt requires that you focus on starting something and finishing a version of it. Think of everything you make as a demo, a sketch, or a draft. Remove all ideas of expectations and goals, and focus simply on the process and taking a draft to a state where you declare it finished and acceptable as a working version. With every end comes a new beginning. It’s only by finishing a preliminary version of your work imperfectly, that you can start a new one.

Organize Your Departure Points

Every effort begins somewhere, from some idea, some element of work. The vision of this prompt is to build your own collection of elements that you can apply and combine with others, sometimes more than once.

It’s important to keep these departure points as small as possible. These days, we are blessed with technology that can store and organize all of our departure points.

For example, even though I’d written hundreds of articles in my 20s, many of the ideas—points, stats, and quotes—embedded in them were too interlinked and dense for me to move around and re-use in new ones. My solution to that was to extract the ideas and put them into index cards and Notion for my Zettelkasten note-taking system, which I learned from How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens. Each stat would get its own separate index card.

It’s possible to do this with other forms as well. If you’re in the recording arts, you can separately save different elements of songs for easy access. If you’re in visual arts, you can work digitally and do the same by saving elements in different layers or files altogether. Be descriptive in your filename so you know what to search later. I’d highly encourage you to take even just a few minutes to set up a simple system for staying organized.

This can also be as simple as starting a project with a banker’s box—a literal cardboard box—and keeping everything related in there like choreographer and author Twyla Tharp does. Or it could mean setting an hour every Monday to review your notes in your journal and phone.

Combining and connecting are key parts of any creative process. As you go through these departure points, and your mind soaks them in, you’ll notice that new ideas and connections start to emerge.

Say Yes

If you go to an improv comedy class, you’ll see that participants are encouraged to agree to and build upon everybody else’s ideas. Comedian, filmmaker, writer Tina Fey calls this the “Rule of Agreement” in her memoir Bossypants, describing it as a reminder to:

“Respect what your partner has created” and to at least start from an open-minded place. Start with a YES and see where that takes you.

So try saying yes to every prompt or idea from others, at least once. If the need arises, you are free to make modifications and to add an element of your own to the prompt. I would be extremely happy to hear that you’d augmented one of these prompts to fit you better.

When you say yes, you train your brain to let go of your preferences and expectations, and to let go of them to work with whatever’s in front of you.

The other benefit to saying yes is that it opens your mind up to chaotic, creative, energy. If you feel like you don’t have this—like you’re not creative, or you’re better at executing other people’s ideas, or that your work sucks—you’ll need to trust me on this for now. The energy may simply be dormant or latent, waiting for you to tap into it.

Chaotic energy is incredibly valuable. You could consider it to be the raw material of all creative work. One of the best explanations of this comes from Professor Betty Flowers’s response to her students’ woes of getting started writing, which I learned from my editor on this book, Rachel Jepsen. Flowers writes:

What happens when you get stuck is that two competing energies are locked horn to horn, pushing against each other. One is the energy of what I’ll call your “madman.” He is full of ideas, writes crazily and perhaps rather sloppily, gets carried away by enthusiasm or anger, and if really let loose, could turn out ten pages an hour.

The second is a kind of critical energy—what I’ll call the “judge.” He’s been educated and knows a sentence fragment when he sees one. He peers over your shoulder and says, “That’s trash!” with such authority that the madman loses his crazy confidence and shrivels up. You know the judge is right—after all, he speaks with the voice of your most imperious English teacher. But for all his sharpness of eye, he can’t create anything.

Flowers so well articulates the innate duality of the madman and the judge that exists in all forms of creative work, between making and releasing, recording and editing, working and reworking, programming and debugging, doodling and drawing.

When each of us grows up, we learn to seek validation, approvals, and reviews for our work. We grow to depend on the critical energy from the judge, at the cost of starving the madman of the very crucial, chaotic, energy.

It’s later in the book—when you’re well used to agreeing with where your inner chaotic energy is taking you, that you’ll reconnect with your opinions, taste, and discernment. As Rachel Jepsen writes, “In order to get to unity you have to begin with chaos.”

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Make Your Work a Craft18 minutes, 8 links

In writing about the sea I have learned the important truth that a writer’s subject is always far bigger and more important than the writer himself.Rachel Carson*

Writing in The Craftsman, sociologist Richard Sennett explores how culture is made. He defines craftsmanship as, “An enduring, basic human impulse, the desire to do a job well for its own sake.” A craftsperson is “dedicated to good work for its own sake. Theirs is practical activity, but their labor is not simply a means to another end.”

When a person is dedicated to doing something as well as it can be done—beyond commercial and external interests—their labor becomes craft.

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