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 "Creativity, Talent, and Craft"

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Join date : 2009-07-07
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PostSubject: "Creativity, Talent, and Craft"   Thu Nov 18, 2010 8:08 pm

I came across this post on the Escapist forums, and though people here would find it beneficial. It is on the long side, but well worth the read. Re-posted with permission from the author:

Quote :
He who has imagination, but no learning, has wings, but no feet. - a fortune cookie I once ate

There have been a lot of posts lately from people looking to break into various arts--writing, game design, and the like--and asking what to do. There have also been a lot of people giving tons of advice to those people, from a wide variety of perspectives. I thought it would be interesting to post a topic about some of the issues I've studied over the years as a musician and educator in the arts, as well as a hobby composer and performer, pen-and-paper game designer, and short story writer.

(Do note: I say hobby, not professional. I have no desire to be a professional, but I dabble at my leisure and I work diligently on my projects. I do not purport to know the ins-and-outs of the business aspect of all of these things. I'm talking only about the craft itself.)

There seem to be three forces at work in any artist, regardless of medium. To hear it told, the balance of these three forces is entirely different if you ask the artist, the critic, and the audience. I'd just like to touch on what I've learned of this balance from my interactions will all of the above in a variety of media.


Well, first of all, throw it out. At least the common definition of "talent," and the way it is used. There's this idea that talent is something a person is just "born" with, and it turns them into an amazing whatever in no time flat. Observers use this principle to explain to themselves why they're not as famous/incredible/what-have-you. And artists themselves sometimes use it, even unintentionally, to increase the mystique of what they do and make it look more unattainable.

In actuality, talent is just the ability a person has built as a result of their development and exposure. They may not even be aware that they were building this ability over the years, but it results in the art seeming and feeling more intuitive. But make no mistake--it's learned. One person may be able to learn it faster than others (again, due to early life experiences that secretly laid the ground work), but never let the notion of "talent" convince you that there are things you'll never be able to learn or do.

Consider Mozart, child musical prodigy, often the poster child for "natural talent." Was he born with it? Hardly. His father was a famous and accomplished musician himself, and he drilled it into the boy from and early age. As a result, what he did seemed more natural, because it was such an integral part of his life. But it was all learned, as there is nothing "natural" about playing the keyboard or writing effective counterpoint--they're skills, not instincts.

Talent is a head start, and nothing more. If you don't allow the notion of talent to define your ability, you'll find that--given time and effort--you can learn to do the same amazing things. So don't put your stock in talent.


This is another one that is sometimes given too much credit. There are plenty of artists who will talk about the "Eureka!" moment in which they conceived a particular work, or a particular portion of it. The thousands of pieces rattling around in the subconscious clatter together for a moment of clarity and purpose, and the artist gets a glimpse of the finished product, or a step along the way that was missing. That's inspiration!

Inspiration plays an important role in the process, as it provides the seeds that can grow and flower into new and amazing things. It is the emotional subconscious "throwing you a bone" when you feel out of ideas, or giving you the impression that there's something you haven't considered about a particular subject. It's the spark that ignites the flame.

But it is just that. A seed, which can do nothing without quality food and care. A spark, which can go nowhere without adequate fuel. Michaelangelo was famous for claiming that his sculptures were "already there in the rock" he was carving, and he was just "letting them out." He'd look at a stone and "see" what he wanted to make from it. But what if he hadn't put in the time and effort to hone his carving skills? Would he be able to release that idealized work from its stony prison?

Consider the age-old Edison quote, "Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration." It applies equally to art as it does to invention. Inspiration can get you started... or restarted... but it won't get you where you're headed on its own.


Simultaneously the most important and the most downplayed force behind all good art. We tend to ignore its influence because it happens behind the scenes. We are shown the result, and it doesn't come with a time sheet showing the hours (or years!) that went into it. This is what separates the good from the great, when you come right down to it.

What is it that makes Beethoven more famous than your local metal band? Is it because it's classical music? No, not at all. What people like Beethoven realized is that anyone can write "a riff" (or "motive," as they're called in music). That's the inspiration part. And anyone can write ten riffs and link them together into a five-minute "song." But the create artist will take that single riff and spin it out into other parts, twist it, alter it, tinker with it, to create a larger whole that is, at its core, still comprised of that original seed. The "riff" permeates the entire structure, informs it, and holds it in an organic, unmistakable whole called his fifth symphony (You know it. It's the "DUN DUN DUN DUNNNNNNNN" one.)

In simpler terms--he didn't just take the little nugget of inspiration, lazily staple it to another, and then move on. He took his "1% inspiration," and added the perspiration to turn that into something greater, where all of the pieces are still connected to the source. That is the result of craft--the nuts-and-bolts techniques and knowledge that allowed him to express the entirety of that inspired "riff."

When we under-emphasize the building of artistic technique, usually with some flowery platitude like, "You need to feel it, not think it," we do our selves a great disservice. Picture someone who has, in his mind, the simple and beautiful solution to all war, famine, and disease... but he has no mouth to tell you, no hands or feet to write or draw it for you. Or maybe he simply knows no words. Without the mechanical means to communicate that idea effectively, the idea goes to waste... or comes out in a half-cocked, unintelligible way that doesn't represent the idealized whole in his mind. Technique is not expression, no, but it is the vehicle of expression.

Developing Your Craft

When it comes to building your technique and your craft, there are limitless ways to do it. There are, however, a few guiding principles that are common throughout, and I just thought I'd throw those out into the universe and see which stick for you:

1. Saturate yourself with it. Do a little bit every day, even if it's just a sketch, doodle, jingle, limerick, or whatever. These can be (and often are) little throw-away projects, but they can sometimes come back in the form of those "seeds" and "sparks" mentioned earlier. Don't labor over them all, but don't throw them away, either. You never know when that little blurb you wrote will turn out to be the glue that holds your newest project together. What's important is that you're keeping your momentum up by doing this every day.

2. Start small. You don't need a masterpiece to break into the field. In fact, starting out with a project that's too big can lead to frustration (if you never finish) or shallow, hollow work (if you do). Make your first projects miniatures, so that you can spend time focusing on how to turn a single seed of an idea into a larger shape. Over time, you can gradually increase the size/length of the project. The guiding principle here is that if you can't hold it together on the small scale, your chances of holding it together on the grand scale are pretty minimal. A poem. A scene. A tune. A shaded sketch. See how much art you can squeeze into these small ones before you decide you need a bigger container.

3. Imitate, Imitate, Imitate Take works you enjoy and outright copy them. Then make slight variations or extensions. Then try a new project that closely imitates that one. The idea here is that you're finding out what it is about that project that moves you, distilling it down to elements and principles that you can add to your toolbox. You're not only building your technique, you're changing how you look at each piece so that you can find new things--not just looking as the audience, but beginning to look at it as the artist.

4. Do not fear formula. Plenty of writers, if you ask them, will say that they had their first real "breakthroughs" as writers when they stopped trying to reinvent the wheel and did some projects according to the formulas their teachers/mentors were recommending. Formulas are excellent teaching tools for that reason... after all, they became formulas usually by being very effective (and thus very popular). This also takes the pressure off of you for having to create everything from scratch--just as a cook would have a hard time innovating if he also had to farm.

Creativity doesn't mean everything you do is original. Sometimes it just means you're doing something original with old stuff. Very often, people try to be creative by creating a whole new space or flavor to work in... only to end up doing the same old stuff in it. Instead, learning to work within formulas pushes you to do the opposite: Do new stuff in old spaces. Learn the limits, and then start pushing against them here and there.

5. Do be mindful of habit. While formulas are routines and frameworks that can help give meaning and structure, habits are routines that have become separated from their meanings. We do them because we do them. Some habits are built on very good routines, but if they've gotten to the place where they're no longer intentional, or we're no longer aware of them, we limit ourselves. Do you always tend to write in the third person? Do you always start on the tonic chord? Do you always use human subjects for your drawings? Do you always write happy endings, or have trouble killing off beloved characters? Become aware of your personal "ticks," and work to move away from them.

But don't lose them entirely. It's not that they're necessarily bad things. You just want to be sure that you're in control of them, rather than unknowingly enslaved by them. Make sure that when you do use these "old familiar friends," that it's because you've made a conscious choice after considering other options.

6. Realize that creativity does not come from freedom. That's right. We tend to think it does, though. We think that creativity is the result of someone exercising the freedom to do something new, when in fact it's the exact opposite. Creativity is a direct reaction to limitation. Every invention that was ever invented was created as a reaction to some obstacle the inventor could find no other or better way around. It's not exercising the freedom to do something new, it's being driven by the necessity to find another path.

Ask a group of people what they want to eat, and a lot of times people will just sit and go, "Umm...." for ten minutes. There are so many options, it's hard to know what to do. After awhile, they'll end up choosing something with which everyone is already pretty familiar--the same old, same old. When people have unlimited options, they tend to go where they've already been most of the time.

Now, ask that same group what they want to eat, and put some limitations on them. Give them a list of ten unfamiliar places. Or just say, "No pizza, no subs, no burgers." Put limits on them, and suddenly they must be more creative about their choices. Do the same thing to yourself with your art.

Put limits on yourself. Play little games that force you out of the same-old. "Today, I can only write in questions." "Today, I can only draw with triangles." "Today, my characters can't be human." "Today, I can't use the major or minor modes to write." Tighten and loosen them, try different ones, make this part of #1's daily exercises. You're forcing your mind to react by creating new pathways and new ways to engage. If you start to notice habits, break them up by creating new rules that block them out for awhile.

7. Get critical and seek out criticism. Get picky about your work. If there's something you feel wrong about, take it apart, find out why, and fix it. If you finish something and discover a better way, go back and fix it--even if it's been a year! Show your work to others, and tell them they may not compliment it. Make them tell you three things they didn't like before they say anything nice about it. (This might be extreme, but you get the idea.) You're not looking to reassure yourself. You're looking to improve and refine. Refining requires fire, and fire reveals weaknesses.

8. Comfort and growth cannot happen simultaneously. When you're a child, you know you're growing when your legs hurt, your shoes fit funny, and it's hard to get that favorite t-shirt on and off. It's uncomfortable. If you're in a big, fluffy, cozy chair, you tend to not move until you're bored, hungry, or needing to poop--it's discomfort that motivates you to change something. Seek out this kind of discomfort. Become familiar with a state of carefully-measured discomfort, because that's where you grow.

You'll find this discomfort when you try new things--new subjects, new genres, new instruments, new techniques. You'll find it when you get new criticisms, or criticism from new people. When you find yourself uncomfortable, even hurt, that's when you know the door is open to grow in one direction or another. You can really only move forward in those moments where it's more comfortable to recoil. You'll also end up tying this into your art, realizing that not every element can be pleasant and comfortable--you need some tension to move the audience forward or to set up expectations.

9. Art is war. At least, it can be. Inspiration is what sets men off and sends them to war. Strategy (or craft) is what wins the battles. War sends people through the full range of emotions, and it requires that they face the ugliness to achieve the beauty. Your art is the same way.

In your work, you're doing battle. You're battling the uncomfortable, you're battling old habits, you're battling the desire to avoid criticism, and along the way you'll be experiencing the full range of emotions yourself. This is normal, it's natural, and it's part of the process--victory only comes after battle. There will be days you'll hate it, but remember that this pendulum swings both ways. If you're not willing to truly hate it sometimes, you'll never really be able to truly love it.

And I'm Spent

Yeah, this is the kind of thing that should be a series of articles or somesuch. And I don't work here, so that's not my deal. It's long, and it's probably not meant for much of the general population. But hey, if it's any help to someone that's looking into writing, game design, or any of the other arts that grab people around here, then that's what it's for.

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