I started out wanting to be an actor, went to school for it, performed in quite a few plays before moving on to means of expression more suitable to my talents. Play acting, though, has always been for me a kind of ur-creativity, the first creative effort of children, that’s the act of make-believe. “Pretend you’re the Daddy!” “Let’s pretend I’m the princess!” “Let’s pretend I’m Batman!” “Let’s put on a circus!” Nobody teaches children to act; they just do it.
All children are naturally good actors, but very few adults. Why is that? In acting class, I learned that acting well was all about “being in the moment”, “being connected”, “listening attentively and allowing myself to respond”, “pursuing a goal”, “being private in public”. All that is pretty abstract, it seems to me, and until explored in the context of actually trying to do it it makes little sense. As prescription, these phrases don’t work very well. The process is more like this: if you want to act, you just have to do it, and, because it is a natural human activity, you will inevitably do it well some of the time.
But how do you repeat your success? To do that, you must be able to describe what happened: that’s where all the phrases come in. It’s not much help to be told, “Just be private in public”. But if you do that, an observer can say: “Hey! Do you know what you just did? THAT’S what we mean by ‘being private in public'”. Once its named it can be repeated (unless the actor in question is completely talentless — but that’s rarely the case).
I’m trying to get to the idea that one way we grow as artists is through this dialectic: one tries, quite randomly, to make something happen through experimentation and accident. Eventually, that will be more or less successful. Then if one can name what has occurred, it may be possible to repeat it. It becomes part of one’s creative arsenal to be drawn upon when needed and thus act as a kind of launch pad from which to take off into the next unknown territory.
But there is a problem inherent in this approach. Once a piece of one’s process has been successfully named and one has mastered it through repetition, it is sorely tempting to repeat that skill over and over again. Growth becomes stunted. And the more skills one acquires, the more difficult it is to take off into the unknown. Edgar Degas summed up this difficulty quite vividly:
“Painting is easy,” wrote Degas, “when you don’t know how, but very difficult when you do.”
One way to keep creatively alive is to find new ways of describing process. Which brings me to the point of this column—a great way to find new understandings of process is to learn how other types of artists describe their process. It is an astonishing thing to discover that the essentials of process are the same in every art. The writer reading of the insights of the actor, the painter, the dancer, the composer, even the creative businessman, will find startling similarities.
So that brings us to the muse punking suggestion for this week: take some time to study an art other than your own. Learn how practitioners of these other arts describe their processes. Study painting, music, circus performing, acting, piano-playing, school teaching, whatever — listen to the technical language. Read books on the history of these other arts. Take a class. Peruse biographies. Use these other process descriptions as metaphors for what you are doing: Don’t “write a poem” — “compose a sonata.” Try doing your work while taking for a role model an artist in a completely different field: write a short story as if you were Beethoven working on a concerto, Picasso drawing a sketch, Wallenda walking a tightrope, or Bill Clinton campaigning for office.
See what happens.
– Charles Kruger
The Storming Bohemian