Betony and I and several of our friends had dinner a few weeks ago with Wes Sam-Bruce and his wife, Emi. He had just gotten back from doing a HUGE installation in the San Diego Children’s Museum. It had been half a year of work that had just reached completion. We had a lovely dinner and Wes told us stories of the adventure and shared all about his process, the headaches, and how everything came to be.
As we were leaving another friend of ours said, “Wes, your attention to the process is just unbelievable.” And that’s what’s special about Wes’s work. Your first encounter is incredible, but then layer after layer you realize just how thoughtful every move and decision and icon is. It comes through subtly as a great depth you can get lost in.
So Bet and I started thinking, how are we doing in our own creative process? Are we giving intentional attention to it? With a large family and other full-time work it’s difficult for that to happen.
So we took some notes and did some fun dreaming as we talked. Listed here are bits and pieces of Betony and my creative process. This is where we find inspiration and also what helps us fine-tune the work. Feel free to add to our list in the comments. Hearing how different people approach making things can only aide us all in our creating.
There’s a website called This is Colossal that continually posts unbelievable projects and finds. As I am writing this today’s post is titled “The Milky Way reflected Onto the Largest Salt Flat in the World.” Right?
It’s sites like this that stoke something in me. Honestly, it’s media that takes a bit of effort for me to digest… like watching a documentary rather than a summer blockbuster (we’ll talk about “twaddle” further down). But after navigating this site for a while you begin to come away from it inspired and full, like from a big, nutritious dinner.
My wife always keeps a sketchbook. It’s where the beginnings of ideas are born and others are completely framed out. It’s the place she keeps inspiring words and ideas and experiences. She’s constantly drawing and writing from the environment, capturing moments with our kids or something someone said. It almost as if she carries an external processor for life!
Another friend of mine keeps this practice of journaling as well. He talks about how if he’s keeping a journal everything has so much more clarity and even his understanding of himself is enriched. When he lags on the practice, things get murky.
Makes me want to keep a journal! I haven’t for years but I’ve found similar experiences in prayer, myself!
Betony has been doing this for some time. We actually have a list of favorite quotes that are mantras we come back to; greatest hits if you will (and Betony will sometimes randomly illustrate them!)… My favorite quote of all time is included on this list, one on empathy (probably because I’m not a highly empathetic person so I need the reminder). It’s,
“Always be kind, for everyone you meet is going through a great battle.”
So true of life.
So we remind ourselves of these sayings often, but we also send them to each other too. I just sent Betony this quote from Wendell Berry someone posted on FB:
No, no, there is no going back.
Less and less you are
that possibility you were.
More and more you have become
those lives and deaths
that have belonged to you.
You have become a sort of grave
containing much that was
and is no more in time, beloved
then, now, and always.
And so you have become a sort of tree
standing over the grave.
Now more than ever you can be
generous toward each day
that comes, young, to disappear
forever, and yet remain
unaging in the mind.
Every day you have less reason
not to give yourself away.
Doesn’t reading that fill you with a sort of quiet, peaceful inspiration?
On a last, funny note. While writing this I’ve realized Betony has inspired me to send quotes all the time. Just this week I sent a friend this quote from Addams Family (the movie). Mortitia Addams is talking to Fester about their family motto:
“Sic gorgiamus allos subjectatos nunc!”
We Gladly Feast on Those Who Would Subdue Us”.
Not just pretty words…
I knew I had to send that one off to someone.
Betony just began homeschooling our kids and this term “twaddle” comes from a homeschooling guru named Charlotte Mason. (Mason wrote about children’s education methods in the early 1900’s and has seen a big resurgence lately.) “Twaddle” is kind of hard to describe. But I’m referring to it here as hyper, titallating media that is weak and diluted; it feeds on our lowest intelligences and is generally poor quality.
So avoiding twaddle would be: choosing to watch Mr. Rogers over Power Puff Girls. Or reading a classic over a pulp novel. Or engaging a music documentary rather than New Girl. Not letting hours of your day be sucked up reading facebook comments and twitter feeds.
Honestly, I think some twaddle in life is good. At the end of a good and full day I’m tired! Raising children and doing substantive work takes it out of you, so a brainless sit-com is just what I need sometimes.
But (another food metaphor) just as having a frozen pizza for dinner is easy and habit-forming, so is consuming twaddle. Over the years I’ve realized that when I take the energy to read some poetry over skimming Facebook for example, my art thanks me for it. In the same way that my body thanks me when I partake in a real dinner and not another frozen pizza.
A strange thing happens when I play a new song live for people. I can immediately tell whether it’s working or not. I can sense the weak parts and where I want to change lyrics… all before anyone gives me any actual feedback.
And so I try to workshop songs with people I love and trust all the time.
Sometimes it’s as simple as a friend coming over and sharing the tune. Sometimes I have seasons where Betony and I will actually have an arts small group. In that space we share our work with each other and give feedback. I’ve found these settings to be terrifying at times! It’s so vulnerable to share work that isn’t completed yet. But it’s also one of the most valuable ways of shaping work.
When we share our art in a trusted community it is an amazing litmus test and a real catalyst for taking the art to new places.
You can actually see in history that great works have been born more because of a good community than genius. Melville, Hawthorne, Emerson, and Thoreau all ran their works by each other. The impressionists all new each other and started the movement together. Stravinsky, Copland, and Phillip Glass all had the same composition teacher in Nadia Boulanger.
We want to attribute greatness to individuality, but that simply is NOT the case! So often these waves in literature, art, and music comes from a great community.
Along those lines, Betony and I are BRUTAL with each other when we critique. We’ve learned over the years how to do it so it doesn’t hurt feelings… Sometimes I’ll walk by a piece she’s working on and she’ll say, “Don’t say anything yet! It’s still coming together. I’ll show it to you soon…”
*Chasing the Spark
This one is written by Betony – I am starting to realize that when an idea hits or a fascination is discovered, it is best to see where it leads. I call it chasing the spark. Tim and I have this funny ongoing argument/joke about the way I work. I will have major deadlines and projects due and instead of doing what I am supposed to, I find myself making concrete candle holders or weaving willow baskets. Asking questions like – what am I going to do with a bunch of concrete candle holders? Or will anyone actually buy a picture of a giant grasshopper? – can get in the way of my creative energy and innovation. One of my favorite definitions of creativity is the “Art of Making Connections”. I am constantly finding that my itch to quilt in November, my love for baking for friends, that sudden need to explore a vast field, or to try my hand at a new craft – are not wasted. I rarely know how those handicrafts and time spent will feed into my work, but they do. The connections made and soul-filling time spent doing what I am most excited about always pay off.
Lastly, a great live experience can wonderfully affect process and inspiration!
Betony and I went to see the musical “Once” this year. I came away wanting to try a host of new things: in songwriting, performance, even in how I lead worship experiences… all from a musical.
Often high-quality live experiences can be expensive. From Cirque du Soleil to a family vacation, these are outings that require some budgeting. But we’ve found they can be well worth the money, creatively speaking.
What would you add to the list? What practices enrich your creative process? Did you resonate with one of the processes listed? Feel free to comment here!