Life — “Hand versus Eye”

Recently I’ve been bogged down with the fact that I’ve been watching and reading so many masterpieces, it’s been hard to think about how I could possibly compare. Now, I realize that every artist experiences this, so I know it’ll wash off in time, I just hope it goes sooner than later. Watching the film adaptation of Count of Monte Cristo and (unconsciously) comparing Lisa Stenton to the Dresden Files has left me seeing how far I really have to go before I can ever be on any comparable level. I’m making a deliberate effort to steer away from a Dresden Files vibe, but everything I make distinctly different feels like a downgrade rather than a different artistic choice. Maybe this means I’m turning at the wrong junctions.

Through all of this,the concept of “Hand versus Eye” comes to mind. Yesterday, my brothers and I were talking about the inevitable difference between what your hand can create and what they eyes can perceive. I can draw, but I can’t come close to the level of detail Michelangelo could achieve. I can write, but I can’t forge a work of art others in my craft can. If my hand was slightly better than my eye’s ability to perceive greatness, I would never have to deal with this discrepancy.

This all derives from the mind’s drive to compare and find patterns. We like frames of reference, and sometimes all of the easily accessible frames of reference are all way better than you. I imagine learning to pitch a baseball is tough because you want to be in the Major League, so you have to think about how you just can’t throw a 90mph fastball yet. You don’t want to compare yourself to the rest of your team, who is on the same level as you, because they aren’t people you aspire to be.

I could easily browse websites full of awful writing to boost my morale. I know how much better I am than any high-schooler trying their hand at writing their first fanfiction. That was me once upon a time, after all, and I can see how far I’ve come.

And in the end, that’s all that should really matter. “The only person you should compare yourself to is you. Your mission is to become better today than you were yesterday.” A quote whose only credit I could find is to John Maxwell. This is a much safer comparison, really. You can’t compare yourself to people you aren’t. If they’re in the field you want to break into, you may be inclined to think that the comparison is one of pure volume of skill alone, but it isn’t. You’re comparing the volumes of two different liquids, with different densities and properties and everything. There is no fair comparison there.

You’re only going to get disheartened if you keep letting your eye see things way above your hand’s level. Don’t let yourself dwell on who you aren’t. Just look back and make sure you’re happy that you aren’t who you used to be. If you’re an artist, just draw something better today. It doesn’t have to be “Starry Night”, or “The Last Supper”. As long as you can see improvement from the day before, and the month before that, and so on, then you’re on the right track.

Life — Creativity

One of the most frustrating things I encounter consistently is the idea that creativity is a talent. Society seems to reinforce this mentality, which of course doesn’t help. “Some people are creative, and others are not”. While I do think some aspects of creativity can be tapped more easily by different minds, the entire concept of how creativity works in the minds of the general public is simply wrong.

Many would define creativity as the ability to pull good ideas from nowhere, or perhaps being able to invent completely original meanings in new contexts. If you’re not capable of thinking “outside the box”, you’re not creative. I would go so far as to say this is the exact opposite of what creativity truly is.

As a writer and improvisational actor, I’ve learned that creativity isn’t the ability to pull something out of nothing. Creativity is actually the learned ability of working around a set of previously defined constraints. “There’s no way that can be true,” you must be thinking. “What constraints were J. K. Rowling, or Van Gogh, or Leonardo DaVinci under when they created their masterpieces?”
As it turns out, quite a lot. Let me pose it this way. Creativity is controlled chaos. Perhaps a joke is lined up in such a way that its audience is led to believe Assumption A. But, since a joke is often meant to subvert conventions, the punchline turns out to be Line B. It’s amusing because it seems out of the blue. There’s no way you could have expected it, right? Not necessarily. If it truly came out of nowhere, perhaps the joke would have ended about some irrelevant line about how zebras can’t fly, or why you should never eat flowers that are pink. If it was really out of the blue, it wouldn’t be funny. So Line B is a way that is in line with what had already been said, but changed things in a way you simply didn’t expect, not in a way that was completely unimaginable.

J. K. Rowling was under the constraints all writers fall under: the limits of writing an interesting story. There are only eleven basic plots, and every story you read will fall under one of them. It’s the author’s job to make it sound like you’ve never heard that story before.

Van Gogh had the constraints of the canvas, limited colors, and his own perception of reality. Painting is always constrained by the real world. If random colors were thrown onto a canvas with no rhyme or rhythm, its resemblance to anything tangible would be flimsy at best, and no meaning could be drawn from it. So a painter, most often, must create something that resembles what is real, yet perhaps places it in a new light to evoke new emotions.

Inventors like DaVinci are, perhaps most unerringly under the constraints of reality. He can’t very well design something that doesn’t abide by the laws of physics. What would be the value in it? I can draw myself a spaceship that uses spray cheese as propulsion, but what good does it do? Inventions are creative because they are a combination of things that didn’t exist before, allowing something new to happen. They are a twist, a manipulation of reality, but reality has to be used as a foundation. Controlled chaos.

It’s the same thing with improvisation acting. I don’t teach how to be random and ridiculous. I teach how to operate under various rules. Here are a few examples of some games we play. Numbers: “Every time you speak your sentence must contain six words.” Ninety Second Alphabet: “Perform a scene in which each sentence starts with the next letter in the alphabet, and do it under the time limit.” Chain Murder Mystery: “Convey three different ideas using only pantomime and gibberish, no words, in the time limit.” Improv has restrictions, too. It seems like its purely a creative thing, but that really isn’t the hard part. And it isn’t just actors. Whenever I ask the audience for a suggestion, I always say “Can I get a location/occupation/relationship?” If you ask for any suggestion at all, such an open window leaves people speechless. You have to give parameters to operate under in order to produce results.

So when you’re struggling to be creative, you actually make it harder for yourself when you broaden your scopes and allow for more to happen. Try setting an extra rule, instead. Maybe your main character somehow loses the ability to speak. How is she going to convey that important message now? Maybe you don’t know what to draw. Give yourself the rule of only drawing straight lines. Or maybe only put pen to paper once per minute.

Humans are a creative species. You are just as creative as everyone else on the planet. All you have to do is learn how to give yourself the right obstacles to jump over. Make some chaos and learn how to control it. Creativity isn’t a magic muscle you’re born with. It’s simply something you have to learn. Get to it.