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!


Jess Lourey said...

I always love your posts, Cricket, and that quote is priceless. It gels all the angst I have about the creative process, every day. So, permission to write shitty first drafts, and then bedazzle away! That's what I'm getting from your post.

Keith Raffel said...

Cricket, as hard as it is to write the first draft, I love the challenge. I get to flee this world and end up in a world of my own making. Good luck with your SFD.

Beth Groundwater said...

For someone who is in the midst of a shitty first draft, your post and the very apropos quote from Samuel Johnson are a shot in the arm. Thanks, Cricket! Now, I'm off to write...

Darrell James said...

So true, Cricket! I'm in the middle of as SFD. Thanks to you and Mr. Johnson for giving me permission to hack away.

Shannon said...

I adore this quote and will be keeping it. I discovered this the hard way with my last book. What works for me is to plow through the shitty first one at breakneck speed. I know I will have to change and fix it--I'm messy that way. As for cooking, I am grateful for creative types like you who can tweak and perfect so I can simply follow your recipe.

Alan Orloff said...

Nice post! I'm thinking about legally changing my middle name to SFD.

Cricket McRae said...

"...gels all the angst..." -- now if we could just bottle it, eh, Jess? Bedazzle on!

Keith, your worlds are great for your readers to spend time in, so I'm not surprised you enjoy your time in them so much.

No better time to be immersed in a SFD than when it's snowing and you're warm and cozy, Beth. Thinking of you up in Breck.

Darrell, it does feel like hacking sometimes, doesn't it? (Like you need my permission -- or Sam's ;>)

Welcome Shannon! Yeah, I learned it the hard way, too. ; )

Alan, how many middle names do you have now?

Vicki Doudera said...

Great post, Cricket. A super explanation of the process, and Sam Johnson's words are so apropos.
Thank you!

Kathleen Ernst said...

Lovely post! I've always loved the shitty first draft logic.

Sebastian Stuart said...

That is one fantastic post! So true.