Visit the Greats

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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.

“If you have writer’s block, you’re not reading enough,” says poet Nikki Giovanni to author Mason Currey. In order to improve your output, you first need to improve your input. Experiencing other people’s work is the best first step to understanding what quality might even mean in your field. Everyone who is making something, right now, has been inspired by someone else.

I’m personally not a huge fan of lists. But, if you don’t have any references or places in mind, start with the greatest-of-all-time lists for your field. For example, if you’re making music, you could look at Mojo’s Top 100 albums of all time, or perhaps just of the last decade. If you have no idea where to start, look for your favorites in the list, or start at the top and work your way down.

Pay attention to what you notice. Dacoury Natche first notices the beat on a song, not the lyrics. Michael Saviello steps right up to the painting and starts looking at it. Don’t worry too much about what to do. Just try, and you’ll know.

Besides making time to experience art, look into the lives of artists. Dive into their creative processes and their perspectives on their craft. Read their biographies. Study their heroes, too. Know the bar that your heroes set for themselves, and set your own in that direction as well.

Eventually, it’s also important for you to experience work outside of your field. For example, a person who writes can find inspiration in a song, or a coder might be inspired by a design. But this prompt suggests first understanding what excellence means and feels like in your field.

Study the Craft

Select a piece of work you love or that is revered in your field. Study it. Answer this question: “What makes it great?”

Write down the first thing that stands out to you about the piece of work. Then, write down the second thing. And the third thing, and so on, until you don’t notice any more unique things. Then, read someone else’s commentary on the work—or if none exists, just call a friend and ask them what they notice about the piece. What do they experience that you didn’t? What interests them? What’s the difference between what you noticed and what they noticed?

For example, if you’re a writer studying an article you really like, write down the first 20 lines that interest you, and compare them with the first 20 lines of the piece. Or compare your 20 lines with 20 lines that another writer identifies, or perhaps 20 lines that an editor identifies.

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