Creative Surge

I don't know if this is something unique to myself, or if other artistic types experience it as well, but I find that being creative is never a switch I can simply flip on. In college, I had to isolate myself in the basement, and there would be bad nights when things were going horrible, when I wanted to rip the paper up as soon as I made a mark, and felt like I had forgotten everything I learned and was wasting my time. But there were also good nights, where things started clicking and as an image took form before me in paint, pencil, charcoal, or ink, I was pleased with it. I used to call those moments my “groove”, and a lot of times music helped. I'd throw in a Metallica cassette and lose myself in the process. A lot of times it was like a trance, and an interruption killed it. If my parents shouted down that dinner was ready, it was all over. Sometimes I'd snap in frustration, but every time was like waking up from a really good dream. I can never go back to sleep and pick up where I left off, and the same seemed to be true of my pictures.

Putting this all into words, it's no wonder that my parents thought I was on drugs in those days. Besides the crazy facial hair, flannel shirts and torn jeans, when I was working on a project I was like someone on a trip, in my own zone. Creativity would arrive in a surge of inspiration, and I had to ride it until everything was down on paper. I didn't always succeed, but I kept working at it, believing that effort and practice contributed as much as inspiration and natural ability. I find I'm like that with writing as well. Some nights I force myself to say something, and it shows. Other nights, words spill out of my brain as fast as my fingers can dance. Just as with drawing, interruptions would break my concentration and snap me out of my groove. Many is the time my mom would start telling me a story about some cute thing her friend's cat did, and by the time she was finished I realized I'd started typing what she was saying, instead of what was in my brain.

Professionally, an art director doesn't have the luxury of waiting for inspiration to strike, or long stretches of uninterrupted time. In the commercial field, deadlines must be met, at times with unfortunate sacrifices. There are twelve months in the year within which I create nineteen catalogs, not counting book jackets, assorted flyers, side projects, and twelve issues of another catalog. With such a mathematical dilemma, and a routine finely developed over seven years, I invariably get lazy and fall into a rut. Design gets reduced to a boring formula. I put a picture of a book on the right side of a spread. I put words next to it. If there's room, I blow up a detail of the illustration on the book jacket, then run a headline in a bold font over everything. Maybe I'll do something fancy and make the type metallic or shiny or put a shadow under it, but I spend fifteen to twenty minutes on an unoriginal composition at most, then move on to the next two pages. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

It's rare, but sometimes that creative surge slips in to my work, and I'll spend time making a page or a book jacket look really special. These are wonderful times, when I lose myself in what I'm doing, and sit back and admire it when I'm finished. There's no greater feeling than surprising oneself, than staring at your computer screen and thinking, “I did that?” It's in these moments that I remember why I went into this field. Sometimes the surge creeps up on me, and other times I'll need a little push. Criticism can be a challenge, and in adversity I find fortitude.

About two weeks ago, I dropped off a few pages for my boss to approve. I had rushed, and followed my formula, but handing it in sooner would allow me time for any revisions. I really had fallen into a pattern, and he finally called me on it, explaining that I needed to redo the pages and in general, do a lot more than I had been doing since, after all, it was my job. Again, creativity is not achieved by flipping a switch, but in an office environment an artist may be challenged to do just that. He showed me examples from magazines for inspiration, and though I was feeling defeated and dejected as I returned to my desk, I was oddly fueled to attack the pages, and really do the job right. Sometimes I just throw page after page together, my only goal to get to the next page. I wanted to get to the next page, and hated having to go back and work on pages I thought were finished. Hours vanished as I fell into a zone though, dare I say even a groove. When I reemerged, it was one of those rare times that I didn't mind working late. I looked at the screen and thought, “I did that?” But art can be somewhat subjective, so I hoped others felt the same way. I left printouts on my boss' desk and headed down to gym for the evening.

The next morning he called me in to his office. “What happened?” he asked, beaming, “These pages...this new cover...these are all GREAT!” I had succeeded in what was expected of me, and broken out of my mold. The rest of my team were pleased when they saw my work too. It's tough to force oneself to break habits, especially within a rigid structure. Sometimes a successful creation can arise out of an angry, competitive desire to prove oneself. Other times, all it takes is a little caffeine. I hit Starbucks during my lunch break on Wednesday, and though not in the mood for an afternoon meeting to start my next issue, found myself bursting with ideas when I returned to my desk after the meeting.

I've never done drugs, but I can see how artists fall in to the trap of using artificial stimulants, such as the painter Isaac on the television show Heroes, or the musician Charlie on Lost. There are natural ways to be creative without relying on chemicals. I think those creative surges must be some kind of natural chemistry, some endorphin the body is producing, triggered by the right thought or mood. The best thing to do is relax and go with these moments, and appreciate their rarity and accept their brevity. Some nights, driving home, I'll get the urge to draw something. By the time I get home, have dinner and unwind with a DVD or television show, I'm too tired to pick up a pencil. I guess that's why real artists, full blown illustrators, carry a pencil and paper at all times. A true photographer is never far from his camera, any more than a musician is far from his instrument. My old music teacher used to keep all his cases open in his studio, so at any moment he could pick up any instrument without effort and play something when he was in the mood.

You never know when or where a creative surge of inspiration might strike.


Blogger b13 said...

First off, who took the handcuffs off and let you go to Starbucks? Second, get back to work and don't let me catch you slacking again. ;)

Ah the creative times... but a wisp in the wind. I remember those times fondly.

12/22/2006 10:20 AM  
Blogger Scott Roche said...

It's weird where inspiration comes from too. And my problem often is that it will strike in a place where I can't act on it. Fer instance getting a story idea when I'm driving. I then have to strive to burn the idea into my brain so that when I do get to a keyboard it will still be there. I just have to hope that if I fail in remembering that it wasn't that good of an idea to begin with.

12/22/2006 11:53 AM  

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