A Process, at Last

When I started looking at tumblr, one of the first people that I followed was therealkatiewest. Katie West is a lovely young woman from Toronto that teaches English in college and takes incredible nude photos of herself and posts them on the internet. I had noticed that she hadn’t been posting much lately and wondered why. Today, she posted a short text post to tumblr and pointed to her blog. It is just what I needed to read.

She has been spending time on a Teacher and Trainer of Adults graduate certificate program and had been very busy. She was also licking her wounds from an unfortunate run in with a narrow minded and vindictive person in authority but I’ll let her tell her own story. I was inspired with her attitude toward the whole experience and the way she threw herself into becoming a better teacher and rekindling her muse.

Earlier this week I watched a YouTube video of Ron Carter, the famous jazz bassist, giving a master’s class. He said a lot of things that have affected me profoundly but the most important thing he said was to practice honestly. He further clarified that when you practice, you aren’t making art, you are refining the skills that you use to make art. When you sit down to practice you should have an objective and you should keep practicing until you have mastered the skill that was your objective.

I realized that the whole morning words exercise was practice. The missing thing was having a clear objective. At first, just writing seven hundred and fifty words a day was objective enough. Then I started refining the objective. I wanted to write the words without spending most of the time talking about how many words I had written or how many I had left to go. I sketched from life. I made lists of things that I had to do. I observed what was going on around me.

Then I decided that I wanted to earn badges. The most prominent badges revolved around how many days in a row you had written or how many words you had written since you had started. One of the badges was for not getting distracted. Another, that I am still actively pursuing, was for writing your words in under twenty minutes ten days in a row. Now that I have acquired many of the badges, I realize that I need to focus on goals that are too specific and in some cases too personal for there to be badges awarded for them. I need to set my own goals and award my own personal badges when I achieve them. I also need to start making art outside of my practice sessions.

I remember the point where I realized that I could actually play the violin. All the practice that I had done had finally paid off. I need to practice the things I love to do more so that I can hone my skills at them. But, I don’t need to practice at the expense of not creating anything.

Another spin on the whole practice thing is to practice until you get to some level of competence and then give yourself permission to fail when you attempt a piece. Keep attempting things until you succeed but don’t let the interim failures get you down. Sucking at something is a necessary step on the path to mastery.

I also thought a little bit about the process of creating. I thought about it in the context of writing but it is equally valid in other creative contexts. The origin of this line of thought was the assertion that writing (or more generally, doing) and thinking (about doing) are not necessarily the same thing. You don’t necessarily have to do them at the same time.

In fact, a little bit of thinking beforehand actually enhances the process of creation. It lets you decide what you want to say, where you are going with a piece. It’s not that doing and thinking are necessarily mutually exclusive, i.e. you can take notes (sketch) while you are thinking and you can think while you are creating. The important epiphany was that when you thought about what you were doing first it was easier to achieve the elusive state of “flow” while you’re actually creating.

I think I have discovered an artistic process that works for me. I sketch my writing with an outliner. Then, I sit down and write what I’ve sketched. The amount of effort that I put into the sketch depends on the size of the work that I am sketching. At some point though, you’ve got to quit sketching and just do it.