Resisting the Urge to Create, Seriously
My improvisation teacher, Joe, frequently includes in his directions for an exercise, "Don't get creative with this." He also tells us not to think, and cautions us against planning ahead.
He's not encouraging us to be dull, stupid and chaotic. He is helping us to recognize that art is often served by paring away artifice, rather than erecting elaborate structures.
In one memorable exercise, he had each of us reach into an imaginary bag and pull out an object, which we then had to use. The catch was that we were not allowed to decide beforehand what the object would be. "Just stick your hands in, and see what positions and relation they're in when they come up. Then you'll know what the object is." This was much more difficult than it probably sounds, but it really worked--when I was able to clear my mind of preconceptions and performance pressure, and simply trust in the moment, I was able to "see" my objects clearly and use them in dynamic ways.
Last week, I took a workshop in musical improvisation in which the teacher discouraged us from making up melodies. Instead, he said, the trick is to find the melody that is already there. Again, testing this out entailed a leap of faith, but the results felt miraculous--and also solid and real. He told us about an improvisational actor/singer who is much admired in that world, and whom "everyone" loves to work with because scenes with her come to blazing life. "What's amazing about her," he said, "is that when she makes a choice, your reaction is never, 'Wow, that was brilliant; I could never have thought of that!' Instead, it's, "Duh, that's so obvious; why didn't I think of that?"
Then, a few days ago, I went to hear my friend Susanne Kessler, who is currently visiting artist in residence at John Jay College, talk about her work. Lately, Susanne has focused on "site-specific"conceptual art. She engages to create a work in a given space, without a preconceived idea of what it will look like or what the theme should be. "When I experience the site," she said, "the nature of what the work must be becomes clear to me."
I have been thinking about all of this, of course, in terms of my writing. How often do I "get creative" to solve a problem rather than searching the characters and situation to discover the answer that is already there? How often do I miss real, obvious beauty and truth because I am stuck on a clever idea? I am trying to learn from all of these great teachers to become a better, and humbler, artist.
Susan O'Doherty, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist with a New York City-based practice. A fiction writer herself, she specializes in issues affecting writers and other creative artists. She is the author of Getting Unstuck without Coming Unglued: A Woman's Guide to Unblocking Creativity (Seal, 2007). Her Career Coach column appears every Monday on Inside Higher Ed's Mama, Ph.D. blog, and she is a regular guest panelist on Litopia After Dark. Send your questions to her at Dr.Sue at mindspring dot com.