Sunday, May 06, 2007

creative habits: subtraction

There are many myths surrounding creative people and the way they think and live, and one of the biggest, as any creative will tell you, is the myth that everything they touch turns to gold.

Sure, there are times when everyone has sudden bursts of effortless creativity. But there are just as many times when a seemingly insignificant creation was preceded by hours, even months or years, of grinding hard work and hair-tearing angst.

Ever curious, I’m always interested in the work habits of other creatives and one of my favorite books on the subject is The Creative Habit by international choreographer Twyla Tharp. “Creativity is not a gift from the gods,” she says, “ … it is the product of preparation and effort.”

When we first toy with a new idea or project, sensory intake increases dramatically as we consider feasibility and play with various viewpoints, forms, media, visuals, and other possibilities.

Tharp says that during this phase, she wants to place herself in a bubble of "monomaniacal absorption" where she’s fully invested in nothing but the task at hand.


She’s turned this process into a ritual she calls subtraction. “I list the biggest distractions in my life and make a pact, to myself, to do without them for a week.”

Her subtraction list includes:

Movies, multitasking (no reading on the StairMaster or eating while working), anything related to numbers such as contracts, bank statements, bathroom scales etc., and background music.

The first time I read this I thought, brilliant! Obvious, but brilliant. So at the start of my next project, I cut out several of my biggest distractions and, of course, thought more clearly and accomplished much more in a shorter period of time.

And then, being human, I forgot all about the ritual of subtraction until I recently re-read her book.

Timing was perfect. About to begin pre-production on an important project I decided that a little subtraction would work well this week. For me, this isn’t a hardship or applied discipline or forced structure. I genuinely find that subtracting for a week, or sometimes even just a day or two, really helps to put me in a different zone.

My subtraction list includes:

Television & radio.
Daily newspaper.
Personal email, snailmail, phone calls.
Internet.
Shopping of any kind ( … so I need to get milk and cookies in!)

As well as subtracting, I also add a few simple things that feed my soul such as nightly bubble baths, evening candlelight versus electric light, extended walks on the beach, and music.

What creative rituals or processes work well for you? Do you add or subtract things from your life? What are your distractions?

23 comments:

Jeff Roberts said...

I have to get away from distractions like the internet and e-mail and all the food calling to me from the kitchen.

It doesn't necessarily have to be a quiet place, though. At work I might find an empty conference room, and I like to write while my daughter is in violin class at the fine arts building of our local college. The place is a cacophony of squeaky violins, french horn duets and pounding tri-toms, but it's a nice creative vibe.

I also like putting pencil to paper. At work we have tools to model the software, and I may put my designs into them eventually, but I like a pencil and a big sheet of 11x17 paper to start with. When working on a story I like to start in longhand, then edit that first draft into the laptop later. There's something about shaping each letter that seems to help coax the story from the right brain.

Cazzie!!! said...

I shop fortnightly so I dont have to battle the crowds and waste my time there. Then, I find I enjoy the experience and the people more.
I don't read the paper any more, because it is all doom and gloom.
I won't place myself around negative people anymore, they just zap my energy.

I make sure I have me time daily.
I make sure I get back to nature even for 5 minutes a day
I make sure I keep mu own promise to be good to my body and exercise :)

I try to watch my thoughts, and if I de-rail, I can laugh I off and begin again :)

dinahmow said...

Things I try to subract? The *^%*!!telephone!
Loud noises.
People.I will love them when I've finished my work.

Ian Lidster said...

Thank you Vicki, you captured most of the thoughts going through my mind this morning, at the beginning of another 'creative' week. I thought the Twyla Tharp observations were good. Yet you, with your media connections, surely cannot detach yourself from those elements in your life -- can you? I can't eschew newspapers since they are so much of what I do, yet they are also reminders of my personal angst.
I recall reading a piece about how Norman Mailer prepares for his day, which consists of playing a few electronic hands of solitaire and doing the NYT crossword, and he said that uncluttered his mind and allowed creativity to flow.
I have no direct answers as to how it works for me and, like you, sometimes it flows, and other times it's outrageously constipated (unintentional scatological allusion). I cannot have music (as much as I love it), or the TV playing. I must also take breaks and allow thoughts to take their course. Mainly I just have to 'do it' and be trusting enough in myself to always believe in Occam's Razor, that simplest is always best.
Thank you for your bit of inspiration today.

Ian

peteknowles said...

I don't consider these rituals but my wife would!

Before I begin a new book I go up to our cabin for a few days with the dog (not the wife) and fish. It destresses me so that I'm fighting to get back to my keyboard.

I also stop drinking coffee and sip a lot of tea. Why? Who knows but I think the act of pouring from the teapot helps me think better, and I don't need the jitters of my triple shots when I'm trying to live in someone else's head.

What? Who said authors are weird?

Bibi said...

Jeff, it's amazing how many writers do write longhand ... I did a post on this a while back, and some really great movies and plays have been written by pen.

Cazzie, subtractions and adds all sound good and obviously work for you. And yes, a sense of humor is invaluable!!

Dinahmow, I'm with you on the telephone and loud noises ... we've become such loud society.

Ces said...

Oh Bibi, for years I have been doing subtraction without knowing what it is called. In fact, in my latest regular post (not the ones related to art challenges submission) I told myself to stop blogging/posting freestyle until I have a new painting. I like blogging but I need to get to painting. Well, it seems that this one will take a long time. Sometimes I am stuck on zero for days, weeks and months and then just one day, I reach 100 before the day is over. Thanks for this wonderful post. Hey, you are one of the best thinking bloggers.

Bibi said...

Ian, it very much depends on the type of projects I have on the books. I'm always working on several at one time, and some, as you pointed out, require more immediate in-your-face attention.

The one I began last week required me to get more introspective and think way outside the box, hence the withdrawal from stimulants that I sometimes find negative or that simply take time from the project in hand. Other times I need to be in the heart of things/in a super-high energy environment.

I never like following a strict clock regimen and tend to work very organically ... as long as I am clear on my goals, I usually adapt and get in the zone very quickly. I like your keep it simple, just do it philosophy!

Pete, um, they sound like rituals/habits/processes to me ... but maybe your real ritual is in denying that they're rituals(?) LOL.

Bibi said...

Ces, oh thank you! I guess I'd been doing a form of subtraction too, without giving it a name. I used to say I was 'cutting back' and 'hunkering down' for a while. ;-) But I like the term subtraction ... and since you are one of the most prolific artists I know, I am guessing that you have truly mastered the process!

homo escapeons said...

My biggest distraction with the task at hand is the next project and the temptation to half time both of them or develop some lame scheme to even try to blend the two if possible.

Usually I find myself calibrating the reward/effort ratio (work to fun) and try to pick the most ego satiating work..but I usually end up strolling down the path of least resistance ((sigh)).

Since I started blogging a year ago, I haven't drawn or sketched ONE THING! Which is weird because I intended on having a political cartoon with every post...but then I had to learn how to write again, and now, after an entire year, I'll probably have to learn how to draw again. Sheesh.

Plus I can't seem to turn off PBS or Frontline because I love learning more than creating and I am trying to keep my noodle nice and spongy.

Pamela said...

silence.
Sometimes even the fluorescent lights distract me

Doesn't take much, does it. (:

Ultra Toast Mosha God said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ultra Toast Mosha God said...

What a great question.

I don't have a ritual for taking things away or adding them in to fuel my creativity..

When it comes to music, it always starts with a melody on the guitar. Then, I build the song around it as and when I see fit.

I don't work on the premise that I MUST get something done within a certain timeframe - some songs I have written in a day, others are still ion the process of being written, years down the track.

With writing, it goes the same way. If I can't think of anything to write, I don't write anything.

If I worried about it too much, I would never get anything done, as oppose to sometimes getting something done.

Bibi said...

homo escapeaons, yes, the 'next' project is always tempting for me because I like new beginnings. Frontline is a great production and I wish we had more of that type of programming; they really get into things in (typically) a very objective way. And political cartoons would be great ... a picture paints a thousand words etc...

Bibi said...

Pamela, I have days like that for sure ... oh, what's that piece of cotton on the floor??

Ultra toast, true ... we can worry ourselves into a corner. From a musicians point of view, it's always interesting to see what comes first ... melody or lyrics. And you say melody for you.

mikeym said...

Process? Moi? ho ho ho. I do like to hear how other guys do their thing though. Maybe one day some it will rub off. :-D

Michelle O'Neil said...

What a great idea?


I lock myself in a room and no one is allowed to even knock unless they are bleeding or dying.

I'll have to think about cutting off outside distractions (e-mail,etc.) as well for a period of time to create more inner space.

Ultra Toast Mosha God said...

It's always the guitar melody that comes first. I write the vocal melody based around it, but a lot of people write the other way round - singing the vocal melody first, then work out what music should go behind it.

Bibi said...

Ultra toast ... I just read that the George Harrison wrote Let it Be after going to his mother's bookshelf, grabbing the first book he laid his hands on ... then he read the title and said ok, let's write a song around the title of the book. (Don't know if that's true, but it's a nice story!)

Kiyotoe said...

why am i so behind?

Anyway, does it sound like a cop-out to say that movies and t.v. actually help my creative process? I get ideas from what i see good or bad in the movies. The music i hear in movies inspires me to a certain mood, hence a certain act, poem or story.

But what I do subtract are people, internet and any stress producers. And then i'm ready to go.

Bibi said...

Kiyotoe, I don't think it's a cop out at all. It's your business so you're just studying the competition. ;-)

Ultra Toast Mosha God said...

Paul McCartney wrote Let it Be, so I suspect this applies to another song. I like the pro-active method of song writing employed in that story.

I read that Harrison used to have family BBQ's when he was in The Travelling Wilbury's with Dylan and Tom Petty.

They would all come round, and he would start playing something whilst they were chowing down on burgers. He would just shout at the other band member to sing a line - off the cuff.

That would become the song.

Bibi said...

Ultra toast ... yes, you're right and I can't recall the song I meant to cite (but it was GH's big one). I think musicians must have the best time!