I have been paying attention to what people do as part of their creative process lately. So I was happy to read George Saunders’ piece in The Guardian from last month, “What writers really do when they write.”
I think there is often a tendency for people to attribute artists with amazing insight and skill that they don’t feel they possess themselves. In the past I have written about how even artists themselves seem to overlook all the effort that goes into creating new content and credit flashes of genius for the success of works.
What I liked about Saunders’ article was that is emphasized that both multiple mundane revisions and aesthetic judgement often contribute to the final product, with the emphasis on mundane and multiple revision. (my emphasis)
Stan acquires a small hobo, places him under a plastic railroad bridge, near that fake campfire, then notices he’s arranged his hobo into a certain posture – the hobo seems to be gazing back at the town. Why is he looking over there? At that little blue Victorian house? Stan notes a plastic woman in the window, then turns her a little, so she’s gazing out. Over at the railroad bridge, actually. Huh. Suddenly, Stan has made a love story. Oh, why can’t they be together? If only “Little Jack” would just go home. To his wife. To Linda.
What did Stan (the artist) just do? Well, first, surveying his little domain, he noticed which way his hobo was looking. Then he chose to change that little universe, by turning the plastic woman. Now, Stan didn’t exactly decide to turn her. It might be more accurate to say that it occurred to him to do so; in a split-second, with no accompanying language, except maybe a very quiet internal “Yes.”
He just liked it better that way, for reasons he couldn’t articulate, and before he’d had the time or inclination to articulate them.
An artist works outside the realm of strict logic. Simply knowing one’s intention and then executing it does not make good art. Artists know this.
And also this anecdote:
When I write, “Bob was an asshole,” and then, feeling this perhaps somewhat lacking in specificity, revise it to read, “Bob snapped impatiently at the barista,” then ask myself, seeking yet more specificity, why Bob might have done that, and revise to, “Bob snapped impatiently at the young barista, who reminded him of his dead wife,” and then pause and add, “who he missed so much, especially now, at Christmas,” – I didn’t make that series of changes because I wanted the story to be more compassionate. I did it because I wanted it to be less lame.
But it is more compassionate. Bob has gone from “pure asshole” to “grieving widower, so overcome with grief that he has behaved ungraciously to a young person, to whom, normally, he would have been nice”. Bob has changed. He started out a cartoon, on which we could heap scorn, but now he is closer to “me, on a different day”.
Making multiple incremental improvements until something feels right or is less lame are both valid paths in the creative process, along with dozens of others. There isn’t any lightning strike of inspiration that produces a finished product after one iteration. Thinking that is what should happen results in a lot of staring into the sky waiting for that lightning bolt and afraid it will never come.
The creative process is different for everyone. Sometimes the process is different for the same person at different times. Sometimes staring at the sky works.
It is important for people who don’t think they are creative to understand that there isn’t something special going on in terms of some ineffable magic that some people can tap into and they can’t. Mostly it is boring process. You don’t always create something others think is great by adjusting plastic figurines and making a character less of an asshole.
What seems magical about the process is expressed by the sentence I bolded above. Working outside the realm of strict logic can be an uncomfortable prospect. But that feeling is pretty normal, even for people who have been doing it a long time.