Snakes!

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The creative process can be quite a struggle. Where are all the good ideas hiding? How does one find that elusive spark? It’s frustrating. Ideas never seem to come from the same place twice and when you get one, it’s been done before, or it’s boring, or it feels insincere. So we just wander around hoping to happen upon something real - like we might accidentally step into an invisible, magical cloud. Inspiration can be a skittish little animal. If you chase it, you will never catch it, and only if you stay very still will it come up and sit quietly beside you. Another method is just to pound yourself on the head until the the truth cries out, OK, OK — I GIVE UP — I’LL TELL YOU EVERYTHING YOU WANT TO KNOW! Wandering, waiting, pounding… it’s torture. But of course, these are just metaphors. So where do the good ideas really come from?

Let me tell you a story:

Years ago, I was an art director at an advertising agency named Atmosphere, and for a time I shared an office with another art director named Brett. He and I both worked on multiple projects simultaneously, and occasionally they overlapped. When you regularly put in 70+ hours a week together in a tiny office, you pretty quickly develop a unique friendship.

One of our other colleagues was a writer named Chris. He was a buttoned-down, khakis and docksiders, wire-rim glasses, good-looking, New-England-type of guy. He was also quite a good writer, and I really liked being paired up with him — due in part to his sideways sense of humor. It always struck me as surprising coming from this person who looked so, well, NOT weird. One of my favorite expressions of this unique point of view was his drawings.

Whenever Chris would come into our office, as he often did when the three of us were brainstorming on a project, he would invariably pick up a marker and start absentmindedly doodling on our whiteboard. The drawings had nothing to do with what we were working on; I think it was just a way for Chris to do something with his hands while we were talking. We’d work for awhile and then when we were done, Chris would go back to his desk, leaving behind a whiteboard filled with these strange characters. Snakes! Guys with knives! Pirates and boats! Smoking alligators!

Is this not beautifully  INSANE?!  — to see more of Chris’s work, [  click here  ]

Is this not beautifully INSANE?! — to see more of Chris’s work, [ click here ]

Well, after a short discussion, Brett and I decided that we were in the presence of genius. These drawings had a sort of Picasso-meets-Gary-Larson feel. His style was so unusual, so raw and different, and we had never really seen anything quite like it.

Now Brett and I were experienced designers/artists, so we understood how rare it was to see something truly authentic… and this guy was just gushing with it! We assumed that no one ever tried to tell him to do it any differently, and his style just evolved unchecked and wild.

We became obsessed, and we wanted more! On a few occasions, we asked Chris to draw for us, but he didn’t really get it. You see, he didn’t think of himself as a visual artist. He was a “words and ideas” guy, so our requests didn’t really find any place to take hold. In fact, it had a bit of an opposite effect. After straight-out asking for drawings, we noticed that he started to get a little bit self-conscious about it. He began holding back on the white board, so Brett and I immediately stopped talking about it and came up with Plan B.

We started leaving piles of copy paper and loose Sharpies near his desk, by his telephone, and anywhere else we knew he might be hanging out and thinking. If we were in a meeting with Chris, we’d casually sit next to him and plop down a pile of paper and pens, just hoping to catch a little more of that magic.

Well, it was a decent plan, we did collect a couple of gems that way, but I think Chris’s preferred medium was always the whiteboard. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that it was constantly being erased to put up new thoughts and ideas. Nothing was precious there. And he did continue to make those amazing drawings, in spite of the fact that Brett and I almost ruined it. When we stopped meddling, the drawings slowly returned.

I’m sure Chris never saw his creations the way we saw them, and watching the way he reacted to our admiration, I started to understand something about authenticity and inspiration. We were friends, so Chris didn’t expect us to pay that much attention to his sketches, AND THAT WAS THE KEY! He was at his best when he felt safe to express himself unconsciously and without scrutiny. I started noticing in my own creative process that I would often hit a roadblock when I was trying too hard to reason my way through my ideas. I would get hyper-focused and the whole thing would lock up. It was much easier to get to something true if I just trusted my feelings and only looked at the thing through a sideways glance.

But It’s an odd thing to practice: trying to work on a problem by loosely holding a fuzzy version of it in your periphery. Sometimes I’d go for a meandering walk and wind up somewhere I’d never been, or go sit on a rock in the park and just “zone out” for awhile. On a few occasions I literally spoke out loud to the problem: Hey, you strange little problem, tell me what your secret nature is… TELL ME, DAMMIT!

When it comes to making art, much of the good stuff, the real stuff, the authentic stuff comes from the unconscious. It’s the part of our mind that makes no value judgments and is unafraid to look foolish or weak or incorrect. It just doesn’t care. It understands the beautiful truths and ugly truths alike. The tricky part is in order for your unconscious to be so good at ignoring things like ego, doubt, and self-judgement, it has to operate in the background — far away from that stuff. Because of that, it’s impossible to access directly, and the only time it ever peeks out, is when it’s completely safe to do so. That’s why it often feels like a nervous little animal — because it’s so easy to scare off. All you have to do is be aware of it, and it’s GONE!

— — —

Years later, I wound up applying this idea to my work as a creative director. I was in charge of a group of designers/writers/editors/etc. After awhile, I realized that a large part of my job was to create an atmosphere where they could feel safe to express themselves and then just to get out of the way. It was their job to come up with fresh, new, surprising options, and it was my job to help them nudge those raw thoughts into something more solid/usable. I found the less I needed to meddle and tweak in those early stages, the more pure the ideas would remain… and more times than not, the more effective they would be.

And so I came up with this short statement as a reminder to myself:

CREATE & PROTECT an environment in which the most authentic part of our creative selves (the unconscious) feels safe to come out and play.

BUT HOW?! you ask, and I will tell you… next time…


/ / / see more wonderful Chris Stevenson artwork [ here ]


Ron LentComment