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Pay Attention When Your Work is Going Well

August 25, 2016

Simply put, what you did got you here, and if you apply the same methods again you will likely get the same result again. This is true not just for being stuck, but for all other artistic states as well — including highly productive states. As a practical matter, ideas and methods that work usually continue to work. If you were working smoothly and now you are stuck, chances are you unnecessarily altered some approach that was already working perfectly well.

--Art and Fear, David Bayles and Ted Orland.

In their book, Art and Fear, David Bayles and Ted Orland discuss how supportive work processes are essential to productivity. “The hardest part of artmaking” they say, “is living your life in such a way that your work gets done, over and over— and that means, among other things, finding a host of practices that are just plain useful.” As a creator, part of your job is figuring out the methods that work for you, and formulating them into repeatable practices.

Figurative painter Francis Bacon's studio.

Ernest Hemmingway working while standing.

People often don’t worry about their work process until things grind to halt—their ideas dry up, their passion dies, they can’t sustain their energy and focus. But the time to study your methods is when things are going well, so that you can identify the habits and practices that inspire your thinking and enhance your efficacy. There are two areas, in particular, that you should attend to: work setting and inspiring forms.

Work Setting: What kind of space allows you to do your best work? How is the lighting? What music do you listen to (or do you prefer silence)? What do you see out the window? How many people are around you? Are you inspired by clutter, or do you flourish in an organized space? Possibilities abound: the Irish-born figurative painter Francis Bacon worked best when surrounded by piles of clutter (think Jackson Pollack meets a hoarder); the dark, intricately detailed drawings of Laurie Lipton are made within a shiny-floored, meticulously ordered space; Ernest Hemmingway liked to write standing up in a cramped alcove in his bedroom, with his Remington typewriter perched atop a chest-high bookcase; E.B. White preferred to pen his children’s books seated at a wood desk in the spacious living room of his coastal farm-house.

Inspiring Forms: What materials, ideas, work examples, and artifacts put you in the mood to create? Some examples I’ve encountered include: a writer who keeps notebooks of beautifully written passages, and begins each day by re-writing a passage in longhand; a furniture maker who begins projects by examining three specimens of wood and quickly sketching ideas that come to mind; a multimedia artist who keeps her thinking fresh by making “5 minute throwaways”, or pieces quickly assembled from random materials lying about; an architect, who inspires his designs by contemplating line drawings from artists and architects such as Andy Warhol, Edward Hopper, and Ryue Nishizawa.

If you want to be creative and impactful, you can’t waste energy re-inventing your work processes. Take care to identify the habits and practices that support your work.  

References

David Bayles and Ted Orland. Art & Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking. Image Continuum Press, 2001.

George Plimpton, “Ernest Hemingway, The Art of Fiction.” The Paris Review (21), 1954.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. Harper Perennial, 2013.

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