Does creativity have to hurt?

May 18, 2010

I am right in the middle of one of the most uncomfortable stages of the creative process, I’m stressed out, and my husband asked me if this was really necessary. He’s lived with me for over 25 years and has seen me go through this repeatedly, but still doesn’t understand why I can’t just obsess a little less. And trust more.

Well, I asked myself the same thing. I have a book cover to design, a deadline two weeks from now, and a perfectly workable solution. But I want a better one.  Why? Because no artist or designer with guts settles for ‘good enough’. 

The first solutions, for me, are almost always a matter of getting the cliché’s out of the way so you can start digging for the deeper stuff. The first solutions are things one knows already. Granted, every now and then, you do get struck by lightning right off, and get The Perfect Idea delivered on a silver platter, and you KNOW this is IT. But that is the exception.

So why don’t I just accept the designy, neat, and perfectly usable cover design I now have and stop fretting about not having a better idea?

Firstly, this design doesn’t ring my bells! It doesn’t ‘hum, sing, or give off light’.  It doesn’t touch the soul of the book, (I should know, I wrote the book). When I see it up on my studio wall, it doesn’t make me catch my breath, it hasn’t taken me any new place I haven’t been yet. It doesn’t make me shiver or feel warm all over.  It simply solves the problem in a more or less predictable fashion.

But aren’t I being ‘a bit too perfectionistic?’ , my dear partner asks. Especially since the deadline is creeping nearer.

Yes, probably. But being a seasoned artist, I know the stages of the creative process intimately, and can therefore pinpoint approximately where I am, which explains a lot. Here is a list of the most commonly recognized stages:

1 Beginning idea, question, or problem
2 Information gathering (research, dreams, sketching, photographing, collecting)
3 Saturation (enough or too much information, stop gathering)
4 Incubation (the idea simmers in the subconcsious; on the surface, nothing much is happening)
5 Aha! or series of aha-ettes (The !!Eureka!! moment where a new solution comes seemingly from nowhere)
6 Working out the idea in materials (writing the book, sculpting the form, painting the image, etc)

These phases can take minutes or months in varying proportions.

With the cover I am still in Information gathering, and resisting it because I feel I should be further along. Everyone wants to go straight to Aha, but you generally can’t skip steps -you must pass GO every time.

What makes Information gathering, Saturation and Incubation so uncomfortable, especially with deadline work, is that you have to be patient and above all trust the process! The hours are ticking by and nothing visible is happening. You are waiting when you feel you should be working even harder.

I have to trust that even though I don’t have the new idea now, by a strange alchemy of waiting, working, noodling around, playing, being serious, letting go, holding on, trusting and freaking- in the end something whole and new and glowing and unexpected will emerge from the mess.

My husband looks on concernedly while I thrash around in the chaos, but that’s simply the part of the process I’m in.

I’d be curious if any other professional designers or artists who work on commission recognize this. Please leave a comment if you do.


6 Responses to “Does creativity have to hurt?”

  1. katie Says:

    I absolutely love your writing and your website. I feel your process, as though it were my own. Thank you for being open and sharing and going that extra bit to let people into the beautiful chaotic process that is art mixed with business. Thanks.

  2. Liz Powley Says:

    LOL, I can so see where you are coming from. I’m currently working as a graphic designer on several fronts, and often find myself looking for solutions in a very similar way to yours.

    For me I need to know about the job in advance. Once I have the details, I throw it into what I call ‘the stew pot’. The nature of my job has me working on several projects at once, all of which are at several different stages, so a new project with a deadline in the distance, gets stewed on in the shower, driving home, while lying in bed first thing in the morning (and unfortunately sometimes in the middle of the night, I’m a practised insomniac – No design before bed! or there will be no sleep, stupid brain). I find if I let it simmer in the background, eventually a solution will arise before the crazy moments before deadline.

    On occasion that does not work, and I find myself with a nearing deadline, a right-royal panic session in the making, and no graphic solution (this is why clients should give decent lead-in-times). There have been times where I have had to sacrifice that perfect solution for the good enough, it will do, omg, is it 2am already and I have to work tomorrow…aaaaargh! I’m sure you know the feeling.

    But it is so wonderful when I find the solution that clicks. The one that I just know will work and it FEELS right. The resultant work can still fall flat on its face, but often it doesn’t and it gains that wonderful glow you were talking about – the work says exactly what I want it to say, it is executed well, and I know the client will be happy.

    Last year I was commissioned to do a painting of client’s dog, Pen (it can be found a couple blog posts back on my website – http://www.lizpowley.com/pen/ ). I’ve only been painting for a few years and although I was confident with the theory needed to execute the painting as I saw it, I still had some reservations about actually pulling it off. When I completed the painting, I could not believe I had actually done it – it is one of the few works I am 99% happy with.

    But yes, there always does seem to be some mental anguish of some kind in every piece of creative work (especially those with a deadline) – it is either at the beginning (aaaargh, I can’t think of anything that will work!), in the middle (this isn’t as good as I thought it would be, it looks awful, it’s not working, why am I doing this???) and hopefully a lot less at the end (okay, that sucks bigtime, it didn’t work, onto the dud pile with you, start again, damn, I don’t have any other ideas….ooh, distraction ::insert social media, TV or a sudden need to go outside in the sun right here:: )

    I had a look at the cover of your book 😀 I like it. It has that feeling of art around the edges, of creativity creeping into the lives of the patients. Works well 😀 Just imagine if you hadn’t held out and had put up something you weren’t 100% happy with and then had to face it all the time while promoting it. Ugh. An artist always sees their art differently to their audience – I know I see all the faults in my art, they glare at me (note I said 99% a couple of paragraphs up? Yes, there are still faults in that painting, but they are much smaller than usual 😀 ) You should be proud that you know yourself, that you wouldn’t settle for second best and you succeeded.

    And I have waffled so much! Sorry! It must be all that pent up blogging I haven’t been doing the last couple of years. I’ll go over to my blog and waffle there for a bit and see if I can answer your question about freeing up art.

    Last thought: Hubbys are the best, aren’t they 😀

    Best wishes,
    (the waffler)

    • Yes, there are a lot of parallels in our working process. I recognise everything you’ve written about.

      One thing I’m glad about in my life, it that I no longer work to deadlines, because…well, I no longer work (to other peoples briefs). I had a burn out after writing, designing, illustrating and digitalising my book, all to an impossible deadline. And after that I just never picked up on my ‘career’ work again. I entered ‘the space between’ (when the old story stops making sense and there is as yet no new story to step into) and as far as I an see am still in it.I haven’t stopped doing the things I love, though, painting and writing and gardening. But no deadline work again, ever I hope.
      It has been 7 years now and a cancer diagnosis later. I’m doing great healthwise and writing a book about the’ place between’ and art as a transformative force in society rather than a product.
      thanks for your thoughts and appreciation,
      kind regards,

      ps yes hubbies are the best!

      • Liz Powley Says:

        I’ve never liked deadlines, but lately I have come to respect them as a way to keep my work organised and getting done. But, yes, stress is a companion I’ve been snarling at lately (part of the reason I’m getting back into blogging).

        It sounds like you have found your place and purpose 😀

        Be well.

        Best wishes,
        (trying her best not to waffle any more 😀 )

  3. I agree with you that deadlines have their positive side, for sure.
    I have come to understand at least in my life, that ‘finding one’s place and purpose’ is ongoing. I still feel in between in a lot of ways, but grateful for the health and time to keep pursuing my painting and writing. best, Sarah

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