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To create or consume? (#1030)

Topics/tags: Miscellaneous

When I think about the creative aspects of my life and career (e.g., art, musing, programming, teaching, scholarship), I struggle to figure out how best to balance what I think of as creating and consuming. That is, what portion of my time should I spend making my own works and what portion should I spend looking at and reflecting on the works of others? My end goal is to create. But I know that I will create better when informed by careful study of the works of others.

Of course, it’s more complicated than that. Rather than just two C’s, there are probably at least five P’s: Should one produce, practice, ponder (a better word than consume), perfect (well, make better), or even just play (such as to learn something new)? I tend to fall more on the create side (or produce and play, when I consider all five). I’d often rather muse than read, program than read a program, conduct research than read research papers, sculpt or design sculpture rather than look at or read about sculpture, start something new than revisit something I’ve created already. That doesn’t mean that I don’t read, or visit museums, or read scholarly papers, or perform some etudes for programmers. I gain joy from exploring the works of others, but, in practice, I tilt more toward the create side [1].

Ralph Savarese’s syllabus for The Craft of Creative Nonfiction shares a tip about these issues.

Thirty-four years in the classroom has taught me that creative writing courses need to focus primarily on exemplary models. By practicing what we discern, we can begin the process of not only finding our own voices but also producing noteworthy work. This is the enabling paradox of art: originality comes from deeply absorbing and re-constellating the achievements of others.

Now that’s a great title for something: The Enabling Paradox of Art. Perhaps, someday, I’ll be able to write a piece that lives up to it. For now, I’ll continue to struggle with the choices.

Note that Ralph writes, deeply absorbing, which I’ve rephrased as pondering. You don’t just glance at a work to learn from it. You delve into it deeply, consider the crevices, explore the edges, tease out the things that make it special. Perhaps you even find a few flaws. After all, no work is perfect. Or at least almost no work. I’m also reminded of what Jeremy Chen told me about visiting museums; rather than trying to explore all of the work, you should find a few pieces with which you engage deeply. I’m not always able to follow Jeremy’s advice, but I try. And when I succeed, I find that it’s been worth my while.

There are times that it feels right to engage with a group of works, rather than an individual work. After visiting Elias Sime’s Tightrope exhibit [2], I felt myself compelled to return again to consider the different aspect ratios he used, the recycled media he chose for different pieces, how he aligned the panels (in a grid or offset, as with bricks; horizontally or vertically). Was I exploring technique as much as the works themselves? Probably. But part of the goal of deeply absorbing a work is to understand some of those techniques [3], even if you won’t necessarily apply them.

And then there’s the whole issue of practicing, doing work not to produce a final piece, but to improve your skills. I know that I should go through The Art of Styling Sentences and practice each of the sentence patterns, if only to familiarize myself with those patterns [4]. I sometimes write programs just to learn a new language, which isn’t quite the same thing. And I know that it’s good practice for a visual artist to replicate some extant works to better understand how they work and to develop skills.

So how should I balance it all? I’m not sure. With more free time, I might be better. I might schedule an hour each day to read and reflect on appropriate kinds of nonfiction [4], an hour to experiment with my writing, an hour to practice different sentence structures, an hour to muse, and an hour to write something more serious. And that’s just for the writing! There’s also scholarship, sculpture, teaching, and more. But I rarely feel like I have the mental energy for one extra hour each day, let alone the five for writing, or the however-many for all of the above. And so I’m left to wonder about the balance. I also don’t want to sacrifice musing to these other activities, even if they might improve the musings.

It appears that I must think at a larger scale. I can probably spare thirty minutes of mental energy beyond musing each day, at least when I’m not doing homework. Perhaps it’s time to put together a monthly work on creativity schedule. That seems like a good task for spring break [5]. At worst, I could set up a jar of things to do (read, study art, write programs, edit, etc.) and pull out one thing each day.

Or maybe I’ll just stick to my current habits and accept that I’ll never be a great writer, or sculptor, or scholar, or educator, or programmer. In the end, it may not matter. I do pretty well at all that I do, I enjoy doing it, and, whether or not my work is great, it seems to impact people positively.

Nonetheless, change is good. I’ll report back in a month or so on whether I was able to set aside creativity time each day and, if so, how I used it.

Postscript: I wonder whether this is one of those pieces that I should have set aside for editing time. I realize that it’s impossible to perfect any piece of writing, but there’s always room for improvement. I’m relatively confident that this piece has a convention center’s worth of room.

Postscript: I’m also reminded that I need to revisit the basic rules of English grammar. Conveniently, Amazon had Bryan A. Garner’s The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation on sale. I’ll add that to my list of things to explore during creativity time.

[1] Given how much I consume, that feels a bit ironic.

[2] I’m still waiting for the release of the monograph.

[3] I’d swear I wrote something about that visit, but I can’t find it anywhere. I wonder where my notes are. They’re not in my pocket notebook. They’re not in my iPhone notebook. I’ll need to look harder.

[4] I do spend a few hours on that for Ralph’s class.

[5] Along with a not-yet-canceled external review, some meetings, preparation for my talk on the open curriculum, gathering resources for my advisee essays, cleaning the house, revising and writing essays for The Craft of Creative Nonfiction, and a bunch more.

Version 1.0 of 2020-03-09.