Over the last year or so, I’ve started to use Twitter to get know other artists and other folks interested in animation, comics, and film. I try to post interesting stuff on Twitter that other people will want to read, but every now and again, I will post things that seem totally unrelated to art. I’m particularly fascinated by lightcraft, water bears and earthships, and will post about those things as quickly as I post about anything else.
I do this because I’m a curious guy, and I think curiosity and creativity are linked at the waist. Being fascinated and in awe with the world around you is the quickest way to fill up your creative tank and keep you in the mood to love new ideas as they bubble up from your subconscious.
We all start being curious. It’s thrilling watching my 9 month old daughter as she discovers everything. Every shoe, toy, cupboard and chunk of dirt is new. She’s filling her mind with a fire-hose and her neural network is clicking together like a giant Voltron made of millions of chrome and plastic robot-cats. We were all like that once.
But somewhere along the way, we start putting up barriers to curiosity. The fire-hose slows to a trickle and suddenly Voltron looks like an amputee. We’re left with going-with-the flow-and doing as we’re told.
So what are the barriers that keep us from filling our minds with new ideas, and how can we knock them down?
I think there are two big barriers that really keep us from exploring our world and being more creative.
Barrier 1: Judgment
Back to me posting on Twitter about tardigrades. What if I said to myself, “I shouldn’t be wasting my time looking up info on tardigrades, I need to focus on studying art.” That’s a barrier of judgment. There is an expectation about what is appropriate for us according to our social role. As a result, doctors should only read about medicine, writers should only read about writing and football players cannot possibly enjoy ballet.
Everyone needs some sort of unstructured play-time where what you do has nothing to do with survival (i.e. paying the bills). While I’ve never been a fan of sports, or even much of an athlete, I started playing soccer with some of the guys at work about a year ago. It’s the highlight of my week, every week. It has absolutely nothing to do with my profession, and it gives me a chance to work my brain (and my body) in ways that I never get to with art.
Stuart Brown says it better than I can in his book Play. Play is about far more than winding-down and diversion. Healthy play can make us more creative and curious about life. And if we can find out how to incorporate play into our work, the results are explosive. The best artists I know, are the ones for whom every day is game. They love drawing, and they’ll do it until they’re blind and have carpel tunnel.
One of the great lessons about judgment I learned from Orson Scott Card’s Literary Boot-camp. Our first day of the workshop we had the assignment to go to a library or bookstore and find a book on a topic we had no interest in. I found myself looking at books on salt mining and medical fraud. At first they didn’t do much for me, but it didn’t take longer than a couple of minutes for me to be totally fascinated by what I was reading. The material from those two books eventually inspired the short story Coney Island that I wrote for the workshop, and eventually adapted into a short film. All I needed was that little push to get past my judgment about what I would or would not find interesting.
Which brings us to the next barrier, which is really four barriers tied into one, and probably the most important barrier for you to face and overcome:
Barrier 2: The Gut Feeling
So even if you can get past judgment and crack open a book that doesn’t interest you, you may find that the book is boring, weird, disturbing or scary and that becomes the end of it. You put it down and move on to something that is more your cup of tea. It makes sense. You’ve got a gut feeling that you don’t like it, and you probably want to make art that is like the stuff you like, so why waste your time?
If you want to be creative person, and think up actual, original thoughts you have to move outside of your comfort zone. The boring/weird/disturbing/scary signposts are like the skulls and roasted armor that litter the mouth of the dragon’s cave. They don’t lie. The experience ahead will be uncomfortable, but there’s also a pile of riches available for the knight that’s willing to pass through the fiery vale.
A brief example: In 1913 Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring premiered to crowd that quickly erupted into a riot. It was too dissonant, too dark and too savage. Yet, only years later it was hailed as a masterpiece and even made part of Disney’s Fantasia. What, at one time, was an unbearable piece of art had transformed into a musical classic. Why? Well, obviously it wasn’t the music that changed. So, it had to have been the brains of the listeners. After hearing something unsettling, their brains went to work and formed new connections that made sense of the disorder. Their brains grew to understand the music. (The whole story is told brilliantly by WNYC’s RadioLab)
If you haven’t watched a film by Miyazaki before, chances are you are going to think it’s pretty weird. Bizarre animals, weird magic and a total lack of narrative structure in some of his films. But if you keep watching his movies, they start being less weird, and you start to see the patterns and the logic in what he is doing, and suddenly you have a new way of looking at the world, and an expanded tool chest for solving your own artistic problems.
B/W/D/S experiences do the same to our brains. They are uncomfortable, but they physically change the structure of our brains. Neural connections form where there were previously none before, and suddenly we’re thinking thoughts that we’ve never had before.
Some of my most formative artistic experiences started with an unwanted feeling, and ended with me being a more enlightened artist. The first time I watched Akira I was disturbed, scared and weirded out, but I eventually learned to love Otomo’s grounding of fantastic elements in brutal naturalism. It’s a pillar of what I look for in any sci-fi or fantasy.
On the other extreme, Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story was so boring the first time I watched it, I fell asleep. But in its real-time pacing it captured something so true about family and life, that I’ve never seen it repeated in any other film.
Slowness and boringness in art can be one of the biggest barriers, but it can be extremely rewarding if you’re willing to take it on.
Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami has a great interview where he talks about slowness in art. This is one of my favorite lines: “Some films have made me doze off in the theater, but the same films have made me stay up at night, wake up thinking about them in the morning, and keep on thinking about them for weeks.”
You can watch the full interview here:
Did you get the part about how he was thinking for weeks? As artists, we should search for experiences that make us think – that force us to re-evaluate the world and make new connections. Cozying up with the familiar all the time will never open up those opportunities.
In the end, an artist needs to be creative. To be creative you have to fill your head with novel ideas and then stand back as they form original thoughts. If you’re hindering the process with judgment and impatience you stop the flow and seriously hinder your brain from making steps it needs to come up with that next brilliant idea.