Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Layers of Creativity


“Invent first, then embellish. The production of something, where nothing was before, is an act of greater energy than the expansion or decoration of the thing produced. Set down diligently your thoughts as they rise in the first words that occur; and when you have matter you will easily give it form.”

Samuel Johnson.

Long ago (25 years) and far away (okay, about three miles away) a logic professor told our class that learning something – anything, really – was always easier than creating something brand new on our own. I’ve never forgotten that. Probably because even then I wanted to be a writer, and his statement was a reminder that creativity can be, well, work. Good work, of course, but not to be taken lightly. Apparently Samuel Johnson agrees.

The Johnson quote above relates to the idea that there are different layers of creativity within most from-scratch projects. Painting a picture, the interior design of a room, planning a landscape bed, or inventing a recipe all require the spark of a beginning idea, the first implementation of that idea, and then subsequent improvements.

It’s certainly true of writing. The spark is hard to define. That “where do you get your ideas” thing that I can only answer with “everywhere” and “the weird acrobatics my brain does with my life experience.” Beyond the spark is what Anne Lamott calls “shitty first drafts.”

I love shitty first drafts. They’re freeing. I can experiment. More magic happens when I’m not trying to write something perfectly. My mind is open to greater possibility. And I really love shitty first drafts because then I get to fix them. Fixing a first draft is [almost] always easier than coming up with one in the first place, and each improvement provides a ping of satisfaction that feels like a wee hit of dopamine.

Fixing is the next layer of creativity. Problem solving. Working out the glitches. Making it smooth and clear and pretty and maybe even a little funny. For a room or a garden it’s adjusting the visual flow, changing texture, balancing beauty and practicality. Or a recipe may require a little more cinnamon or the addition of a savory herb to complement all that cheese (and bacon!).

In any creative endeavor you have to know the basics – grammar and storytelling, how ingredients work together, how colors complement each other or affect mood, what grows in your zone and blooms in each season. That knowledge is available – especially with the Internet – and easy to learn if you’re truly interested. Plus, it will grow with each use, increasing with your passion for whatever creative outlet you love.

I’m embellishing, as Johnson put it, a lot these days. And then? Onto another shitty first draft!

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