How do we create?
Is creating work — writing, art, music, photography, film and television, radio, oral stories, events — magic? Sometimes it seems so because we can’t recognize how an end product came into being… it must be magic. Is creation the result of hard work, discipline and practice? Some of what I’ve written could have used more and smarter work.
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot,” Stephen King famously wrote. “There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”
Over time I came to agree. Looking back at my extemporaneous writing — similar in technique to what Jack Kerouac did in stream of consciousness — it seems pretty lame. Creativity requires practicing the craft. Gaining awareness of other aspects of society is equally important to creativity. What King wrote about writing applies to other art forms.
In the 1960s and 1970s, I looked to Bob Dylan as a creative model, particularly during the time leading up to release of the album Bringing It All Back Home in 1965 through his work after the motorcycle accident with what would later become The Band. The stories of him living in Woodstock, New York, sitting at a typewriter for hours on end, and consuming the work of other musicians was how I envisioned myself.
The collaboration with Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel, who lived at Big Pink in West Saugerties, New York, and with Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm, resulted in the bootleg tapes. A friend in high school secured a copy and we thought it was something. How my Dylan modeling played out over time is worth considering, but that will be later. Suffice it I knew I would be no Dylan but his work influences mine, even today. The process of his creative endeavor remains something to model.
I knew Leslie Bell mostly through my neighbor and friend John Kiley. I can remember only two personal interactions with Bell. I picked him up hitchhiking to visit a friend when he studied with Father Edward Catich at Saint Ambrose College. I also engaged his band to play at a high school class reunion. Everything else I knew about him was through someone else.
When I returned to Davenport from Germany, Bell and others had founded the Open Cities Film Society. While the films screened were less diverse that what I experienced in Iowa City where I attended graduate school, it was something available in a river city where a shoppie mentality continued to prevail among the populace. I don’t know how, if at all, Bell’s creative process influenced mine but this segment from a 2013 interview by Painter’s Bread is close to my creative process.
PB: How do you go about making your work and what kinds of challenges have you experienced?Painter’s Bread, Leslie Bell Interview, Aug. 17, 2013.
LB: Since my work is improvised and doesn’t rely on models or observation, my working method requires a lot of front-loading. Film, novels, music, and life played out in real time all help me build an archive of possibilities. I certainly keep my eyes peeled when I’m out and about. The years I spent as a street photographer have helped me scoop useful experience from the broader kettle of stimuli in the form of interactions, gestures and changes in the social fabric.
In the studio, I begin with a blank canvas and no ideas. The canvas serves as a screen on which I can imagine random images, stories and compositions. I’m looking for a place to start—a strong-but-vague impulse. From that point on, it’s a process of call-and-response. I react to what’s on the canvas with a move that seems an appropriate extrapolation of the narrative, the color etc. I may not know what the painting is about until it’s almost done if at all.
Like many writers, I start with a blank page. I take a snippet from life, or a point from an outline, and type a couple of sentences on the screen. How and what I end up with is based on the “front loading” process to which Bell referred. The content seems better for diverse experience brought to the work. When adequately front loaded, the work product is better.
At the same time, there is magic to writing. When I hit on a sentence that stands out as universal, I can’t say where it came from. Such moments make the work worth while.
One has to let go of quotidian affairs while creating. Being grounded is important. It’s not always the point of a creative piece. Blending everything together takes practice… with a bit of magic to pull a good story together.