Archive for June, 2008|Monthly archive page

Lessons Learned from Indulging my Passion

In these newsletters I usually discuss different ways to explore creativity, but since I’ve recently completed a focused creative project, I thought I’d take a more experiential approach and share some of the things I learnt from the process. I’ve also attached a photo of the finished work, for the curious among you 🙂

Creativity Quotes
I find working with glass meditative, almost therapeutic. I can leave the world behind, and focus… The simplicity of form, the drama of rich, intense colour, the joy of challenge, and the challenge of endurance… The piece, when it is over, is not what is made, but how it is made – Andrew Kuntz

I know what I’m doing with my work, and that’s really a nice feeling, that I’ve created something that wasn’t there before, that’s mine – Tracey Emin

Lessons learned from indulging my passion
Although I’m now in a desk job, metalwork art – and specifically the modern aspects of blacksmithing – remains one of my abiding passions. Every now and again I indulge in a trip to a local studio with a project in mind. After a two year break, I was beginning to feel a bit bored and restless at work, and took leave to get back into my groove.

Part of being out of the creative loop is the lack of project occupying my imagination. I can think of many things I could make, but none has instilled a burning desire to get going. That was resolved one morning looking out of my (quite suburban) windows, and wishing I had a bay ‘window box’ to sit snuggled up at the window – a literary fantasy I’ve always nurtured. Then it struck me that a bench under the window would provide the same effect, and that making one would be an excellent studio project. Enter all-consuming desire…

I soon had a design drawn up for a set of matching benches to go under each window. A bit more planning (sourcing material, confirming available studio space, and taking leave) saw me back in the studio with a somewhat ambitious plan for four days. But again, a burning desire to complete it drove me along.

The first couple of days were less than spectacular. I cursed myself for: ● not being as fit as once I’d been; ● not ‘keeping my eye in’ as the stock I’d bought seemed too heavy; ● trying to do too much in too little time; ● feeling out of control with some of the heavier work.

Strangely, these negative thoughts seemed utterly familiar – even when I’d been smithing full time, these doubts were a constant companion. Since I didn’t have time to give in to worry, I just had to keep pushing through. Fortunately I was working with a group of highly experienced and helpful people who saved me hours of work by showing me some useful alternatives.

By the end of day three I felt okay, thinking all the individual pieces were complete and ready to weld together, but on the last morning I realised I’d left off a piece. And another. And I’d changed the design ‘on the fly’, which hadn’t worked, so had to redo the backrest. This all felt like a blow to the stomach, but… I wanted my benches.

Recut and now ready to assemble, finally the magic started to kick in – the pieces fell nicely into place and the last afternoon passed in a glorious zone as I watched the benches come to life.

I had overestimated the task – cleaning and sealing required another full day that I had to go back for a week later, and being out of practice, I’d forgotten to accommodate the cushion height so they’ll need adjusting. Nevertheless, by the end of a four-day week I was sitting (and bouncing) on my very own pair of elegant window benches.

Window benches 

Lessons learned:
• It’s easy to be too ambitious – in fact, you’re likely to be, so make sure you have a back-up time plan.
• Work with supportive people who know more than you do – access to knowledge and experience is invaluable.
• Those negative thoughts will probably be there forever. Learn to ignore them instead of succumbing. Each time you succeed at your plans, they become a little less convincing.
• Sometimes your materials will be wrong, and there will be design changes along the way, but there are always alternative plans to be made, so being flexible about it helps.
• A burning desire to get something done is a huge contributing factor for success. Also doing things that others don’t expect of you is immensely satisfying – and gives you more fuel to counter that negative voice in your head.
• Immersing yourself in a creative endeavour does wonders for your sense of self. Hearing only your own thoughts, and avoiding email and cell communication for a few days can be wonderfully liberating, knowing the world will be there when you get back.
• It’s true that a change is as good as a holiday. Four days of hard labour might not sound like a rest, but the refreshed feeling with which I returned to my desk job could not have been greater if I’d spent a week sipping cocktails in a beach cabana.

Some more general observations:
• Sometimes ‘creating’ feels more like ‘making’ – creative endeavours are still just projects, with start and end times, tasks for planning and executing, and constraints that help to shape the outcome. Without demystifying the creative process, knowing this helps to gain some control over an otherwise elusive process.
• Technical experience is one of the cornerstones of the creative process. If you don’t have a lot of experience, instead of letting this be another negative message to repeat at yourself, book yourself on a course. This way you’ll have access to the knowledge you need, be surrounded by supportive people, and be able to immerse yourself in a pre-organised space. You can let go of the details and focus solely on learning and creating.
• We learn about ourselves in everything we do. Different arts have different ‘outcomes’ or products, but whatever you do will leave a lasting ‘memento’ of the whole experiences, both in the work produced and the deeper, less tangible personal discoveries you make, which will be with you forever.

Wishing you the opportunity to delve into your own world of making and creating.

Dealing with Criticism

Creativity is one of the areas where criticism affects us most. Many people believe criticism is necessary to the creative process, yet no matter how strong we are feeling, or how many compliments we receive about our work, a single word of criticism can completely derail us. As creative people, it helps to be able to understand the context, and know how to respond when our worst fears are realised.

Creativity Quotes
Creativity is so delicate a flower that praise tends to make it bloom, while discouragement often nips it in the bud – Alexander Osborn

Criticism, like rain, should be gentle enough to nourish a man’s growth without destroying his roots – Frank A. Clark

Dealing with Criticism
There are two kinds of criticism – the kind that helps and the kind that harms. Helpful criticism affirms our ability while opening up new avenues. We very rarely receive this kind of input, and when we do, we seldom call it criticism 🙂 Usually what we receive in the guise of “constructive criticism” might be well-meant, but is really harmful.

We might be told flat out “I just don’t like it” or “it’s rubbish” by someone who believes that their ‘honest’, ‘candid’ approach is the best route – note, they don’t say ‘helpful’ or ‘supportive’. Alternately we might receive criticism that stems from our friends / colleagues / mentors’ own fear of failure or rejection – we hear this as a reference to “what others may think” – too risqué, too busy, too subtle, too obscure – fill in your own adjective here.

This input can be very persuasive, but hold on to your direction – how are you going to learn how to be you if you don’t follow exactly your own instincts? It helps to remember that there is no single group of “others” out there – audiences shape themselves around the authentic output of people they resonate with. If your work doesn’t resonate immediately with your family’s sensibilities, that doesn’t mean it’s not going to add value to someone else’s life – or indeed, your own.

This kind of input needs to be understood as rooted in someone else’s fear – we can thank these well-meaning advisors for their concern, and even respect their feelings without taking them on (since we have enough of our own fears to deal with 🙂 ).

And finally, every now and again we might land up on the crippling receiving end of a destructive, scathing attack. Often this is more about the “critic” than it is about us – our work, in the course of following our expression, might hit someone else’s raw nerve, or they might simply have been out to pick a fight. However, there is nothing logical about our reaction in the moment – it hurts!

Sonia Simone, author of the marketing blog Remarkable Communication, wrote a brilliant post on this earlier this month, and I encourage everyone to read the original – Sonia is a compelling writer and handles this topic with humour, empathy and a great deal of wisdom. In summary, here is my take on her five points:

  1. Keep a testimonial file
    Where our creativity is concerned, we find it hard enough to believe compliments, let alone remember them. When you receive a compliment, keep a record of it somewhere easy to find, to have on hand whenever you need to remind yourself that you are okay, really. If you haven’t got one, trawl through your email (if you’re like me it can go back for years) looking for positive messages from friends and family.
  2. Resist the temptation to kick yourself for getting upset
    You don’t have to be strong in the face of adversity. When you acknowledge the hurt and give yourself permission to feel it (or “wallow in it”, as Sonia puts it), it stops lurking in the back of your mind, ready to attack the next time you’re feeling low. And once you’ve done this, you’ll find you can look at the information you’ve received objectively.
  3. Control your outward reaction
    Responding with bitterness and further insults is often satisfying at the time, but eventually leaves us cold, and carrying both the pain of the criticism and the harsh words we’ve let into the universe. Walking away is okay here; as is saying “Thanks for the input” if you’re at all able to. Chances are that down the line you’ll be able to pick out the positives you aren’t feeling right now – but it’s okay if you wait til then to feel grateful 🙂
  4. Don’t over-correct
    As above, your creative exploration is taking you somewhere. Don’t change your course based on someone else’s criticism – they may have something of value to add, but rather let that work itself into your work naturally and slowly, than swing over to ‘their way of seeing things’.
  5. Congratulations! You’re succeeding
    Yes, you have produced work, and it has produced a reaction. It really is worth a celebration, and while this is not the same as drowning your sorrows, it’s probably okay to do both at once 🙂

One thing I’d add is to learn how to give truly helpful criticism yourself (see the post below). This way you’ll know it when you hear it, and even be able to assist others in giving useful criticism.

Wishing you the courage to remain authentic and positive in the face of any challenge.

Giving Constructive Criticism

In the post above we discuss dealing with criticism. This exercise follows a process for giving others positive, affirmative feedback…

Take an objective piece of work (a photo from a magazine, a song, a new fashion, etc.) and pretend it was made by a friend.

  1. List what you like about it, and what has been done well – the colours / range of sounds / emotiveness / daring / etc. Say as much as you can here. We tend to forget that while we’re talking about particulars, others can’t hear the context of the rest of the thoughts in our head. On the whole I think we should spend more time praising each other’s efforts, as it really does foster creative energy. 
  2. Think about the objectives that the work sets out to achieve, as far as you can see. Ask yourself how well you think it meets them, and how it does that. 
  3. List what you don’t like about it, what jars or disturbs you, and what you would do differently. Ask yourself whether this is a difference in personal symbols, or if you genuinely think it hasn’t been handled well. Personal tastes are a big influence – if you don’t like rap music, you probably aren’t in a position to evaluate its merits  If your tastes differ, say so while acknowledging the good. 
  4. Then ask what you really think could be improved, and how that will change your experience of the work. I firmly believe that “weaknesses” are areas of opportunity for us – once we know what we do well, we can choose areas we’d like to improve on for ourselves – but it’s a whole lot easier if we receive this input in a friendly fashion. 
  5. Respect the fact that the recipient can take or leave your feedback as they choose – which will allow you to do the same…

When we’re able to give truly constructive ‘criticism’, we also become able to evaluate feedback others give us. Over time, this exercise will not only strengthen our hit-taking muscles, but also influence our own work as we learn more about our own preferences, interests and strengths.