How to begin

Dwarf Bat by Marieke Nelissen

"The advice I like to give young artists," says painter Chuck Close, "or really anybody who'll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you. If you're sitting around trying to dream up a great art idea, you can sit there a long time before anything happens. But if you just get to work, something will occur to you and something else will occur to you and something else that you reject will push you in another direction. Inspiration is absolutely unnecessary and somehow deceptive. You feel like you need this great idea before you can get down to work, and I find that's almost never the case."

Likewise, novelist Ann Patchett reminds us that in order to write we need to cross the line between thinking about creating and getting down to work. "The journey from the head to the hand is perilous and lined with bodies," she warns. "It is the road on which nearly everyone who wants to write -- and many of the people who do write -- get lost."

Tree Marten and Raccoon by Marieke Nelissen

Sometimes we put off the moment of actually beginning, getting stuck in the dreaming and planning stage instead -- afraid to start, afraid to commit, afraid to go where the creative process wants to take us. Yet despite fear and doubt, wrote Rollo May in The Courage to Create, we must make the leap, plunge in, begin. "The relationship between commitment and doubt is by no means an antagonistic one," he points out. "Commitment is healthiest when it is not without doubt, but in spite of doubt."

Wolf by Marieke Nelissen

Beginnings are rarely tidy and controlled...nor are they particularly meant to be.

"For me," says Ramona Ausubel, "the first draft is really just a big mud-rolling, dust-kicking, mess-making time in which my only job is to find the story’s heartbeat.  I allow myself to invent characters without warning, drop them if they prove to be uninteresting, change the setting in the middle, experiment with point of view, etc.  I figure that the body will grow up around the heart, that it’s always possible to bring all the various Okapi by Marieke Nelissenelements up and down, sculpt and polish, as long as I’ve got something that matters to me.  The second draft (and the third through twentieth, Lord help me) involves getting out the tool belt and thinking like a carpenter.  But the first draft is all dirt and water and seeds and, hopefully, a little magic.  Of course, this method means that my first draft is almost unreadable.  Maybe someday I’ll invent a way of making a slightly cleaner mess, but until then, I try to enjoy the muck." 

Polar Bear by Marieke Nelissen

So get it down, those messy first drafts and rough initial sketches, get it down, don't judge, don't polish, don't freeze, don't get stuck endlessly rewriting the first clutch of pages over and over, never progressing any further (a habit I'm all too prone to myself) -- you can edit, fix, fill out, perfect, and pretty it all up later. 

"Don't get it right," said the great James Thurber, "just get it written."

Ermine by Marieke Nelissen

Although we've been speaking specifically of painting and writing, the crucial moment of "beginning" is important in all forms of creativity -- and each of us is an artist, a maker, in some aspect of our lives. We make homes and gardens, classrooms and sanctuaries, families and communities; we create meals and letters and blogs and adventures lodged in our children's memories; and we all have things we want and plan to do "someday" that we really ought to just begin.

This quote from Scottish mountaineer William Hutchison Murray (often erroneously attributed to Goethe*) is a good one to remember when we stand wavering at the edge of a new project:

Shrew by Marieke Nelissen"Until one is committed there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative or creation, there is one elementary truth...that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help that would otherwise never have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, all manner of incidents and meetings and material assistance which no man would have believed would have come his way. I have learned a deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets:

"Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has magic, grace, and power in it."

It does. As makers, we must trust that magic. Which, of course, means trusting ourselves.

Hare by Marieke Nelissen

To read more on the process of starting creative work (and on dealing with problem of procrastination), see this previous Myth & Moor post: The rituals of approach. For a more mythic approach to muse-summonging rituals, see: Following the white deer and The care and feeding of daemons and muses.

Pangolin by Marieke Nelissen

The charming artwork today is by Marieke Nelissen, an illustrator who hails from the Netherlands -- though having lived in Mexico and Costa DeWachtenden-04-Retina_1340_cRica as a child, her influences come from a vibrant mix of cultures. 

Nilissen has been drawing animals since she was young, creating fantastical figures and fabulous beasts as well as precise studies from nature. After studying illustrative design in 's-Hertogenbosch, she spent ten years working at a small graphic arts agency before becoming a freelance designer and book illustrator. Her extensive list of publications includes The Prince's Desire, The Wizard of Oz, Stories from De Heksenkeet, The Waterwaacke of Natterlande, Seven Ways to Fall Asleep, The House of Sinterklass, Yokki and the Parno Gry, The Monsterbonsterbulderboek, The Unicorn & Other Fantastic Animals, and Beastly Neighbours.

To see more of her work, visit Nelissen's Le Petit Studio or her Instagram page. You can also find an interview with the artist here, on Cornelia Funke's website.

Dog by Marieke Nelissen

All rights to the text and art above reserved by the authors and the artist.

* The final quote, often misattributed to Goethe in its entirely, is from W.H. Murray's The Scottish Himalayan Expedition (1951). The couplet at the end is from Goethe's Faust, the wording paraphrased from Irish poet John Anster's translation, 1835. To confuse matters futher, some Goethe scholars have issues with the wording of Anster's translation, which was rather loose and poetical.


Rituals of beginning

Woods 1

Here are more wise words on the practice of art from The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp:

"A lot of habitually creative people have preparation rituals linked to linked to the setting in which they choose to start their day. By putting themselves into that environment, they start their creative day. The composer Igor Stravinsky did the same thing every morning when he entered his studio to work: He sat at the piano and played a Bach fugue. Perhaps he needed the ritual to feel like a musician, or the playing somehow connected him to musical notes, his vocabulary. Perhaps he was honoring his hero, Bach, and seeking his blessing for the day. Perhaps it was nothing more than a simple method to get his fingers moving, his motor running, his mind thinking music. But repeating the routine each day in the studio induced some click that got him started.

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"I know a chef who begins each day in the meticulously tended urban garden that dominates the tiny terrace of his Brooklyn home. He is obsessed with fresh ingredients, particularly herbs, spices, and flowers. Spending the first minutes of the day among his plants is his ideal creative environment for thinking about new flavor combinations and dishes. He putters about, feeling connected to nature, and this gets him going. Once he picks a vegetable or herb, he can't sit there. He has to head off to the restaurant and start cooking.

"A painter friend I know can't do anything in her studio without propulsive music pounding out of the speakers. Turning it on turns on a switch inside her. The beat gets into a groove. It's the metronome for her creative life.

"A writer friend can only write outside. He can't stand the thought of being chained indoors to his word processor while a 'great day' is unfolding outside. He fears he's missing something stirring in the air. So he lives in Southern California and carries his coffee mug out to work in the warmth of an open porch in his back yard. Mystically, he now believes he is missing nothing.

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"In the end, there is no one ideal condition for creativity. What works for one person is useless for another. The only criterion is this: Make it easy on yourself. Find a working environment where the prospect of wrestling with your muse doesn't scare you, doesn't shut you down. It should make you want to be there, and once you find it, stick with it. To get the creative habit, you need a working environment that's habit-forming.

"All preferred working states, no matter how eccentric, have one thing in common: When you enter them, they impel you to get started."

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My own morning ritual is to take a walk in the woods behind the studio with Tilly, and then to sit among the trees, by the leat, or up on the hill, with a thermos of coffee, a pen and a journal for scribbling notes, sketches and early-morning ideas ... or else, on those days when I need a lift, with a volume of good poetry instead, which never fails to kickstart my imagination and reignite my love of language.

Tilly sits or prowls nearby until it's time to head home to the studio. Back at my desk, I start the work day by lighting a candle or burning white sage. It's a ritual act of muse-summoning; an offering to the Ancestors (all those previous generations of mythic artists whose footsteps I humbly follow in); and a tangible signal that the workday has begun.

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What rituals do you use to start your workday, or to help you cross over from the everyday world into the time-bending realm of creativity? This is a discussion I keep returning to here, as each season brings new work and health challenges, and as I strive to use my time and energy (my spoons) as wisely as I can.  Have your own rituals altered over the years? Did you need to make new ones during the pandemic? Or, perhaps, are you one of those contrary souls for whom the very idea of a ritual or routine is anathema?

What helps, what hinders, when you're at your desk or in your studio, and it's time to begin?

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Words: The passages above and tucked into the picture captions are from The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp (Simon & Schuster, 2003); all rights reserved by the author.

Pictures: This is a favourite stopping place in the woods, a nest of green on a crumbling stone wall -- the wall is so old that a whole ecosystem of trees has grown on the top. The wall divides a woodland of oak and pine from the slope of the open hill beyond. It's an in-between place...which folklore reminds us is where magic can be found.


On creative DNA

Ballet Dancer by Laura Knight

On Tuesday we were talking about the interplay between finding creative inspiration in others' work and learning to develop a voice or style uniquely our own. Here's choreographer Twyla Tharp's take on the subject, from her useful book The Creative Habit:

"In my early years in New York City, I studied with the choreographer Merce Cunningham. Merce had a corner studio on the second floor at 14th Street and 8th Avenue, with windows on two sides. During breaks in classes, I watched a lot of traffic out of those windows, and I observed that the traffic patterns were just like Merce's dances -- both appear random and chaotic, but they're not. It occurred to me that Merce often looked out of those windows, too. I'm sure the street pattern was consoling to him, reinforcing his discordant view of the world. His dances are all about chaos, and dysfunction. That's his creative DNA. He's very comfortable with chaos and plays with it in all his work. My hunch is that he came to chaos before he came to that studio, but I can't help wondering if maybe he selected the place because of the chaos outside the windows. 

"Of course, when I looked out those windows, I didn't see the patterns that Merce did, and I certainly didn't find solace in their discordance. I didn't 'get it' the way he did. I wasn't hard-wired that way. It wasn't part of my creative DNA.

Ballet Dancers by Laura Knight

"I believe that we all have strands of creative code hard-wired into our imaginations. These strands are as solidly imprinted in us as the genetic code that determines our height and eye color, except they govern our creative impulses. They determine the forms we work in, the stories we tell, and how we tell them. I'm not Watson and Crick; I can't prove this. But perhaps you also suspect it when you try to understand why you're a photographer, not a writer, or why you always insert a happy ending into your story, or why all your canvases gather the most interesting material at the edges, not the center. In many ways, that's why art historians and literature professors and critics of all kinds have jobs: to pinpoint the artist's DNA and explain to the rest of us whether the artist is being true to it in his or her work. I call it DNA; you may think of it as your creative hard-wiring or personality.

Ballet Dancers by Laura Knight

"When I apply a critic's temperament to myself, to see if I'm being true to my DNA, I often think in terms of focal length, like that of a camera lens. All of us find comfort in seeing the world either from a great distance, at arm's length, or in close-up. We don't consciously make that choice. Our DNA does, and we generally don't waver from it. Rare is the painter who is equally adept at miniatures and epic series, or the writer who is at home in both sprawling historical sagas and minimalistic short stories.

"The photographer Ansel Adams, whose black-and-white panoramas of the unspoiled American West became the established notion of how to 'see' nature (and, no small feat, helped spawn the environmental movement in the United States), is an example of an artist who was compelled to view the world from a great distance. He found solace in lugging his heavy camera equipment on long treks into the wilderness or to a mountaintop so he could have the widest view of land and sky. Earth and heaven in their most expansive form was how Adams saw the world. It was his signature, and expression of his creative temperature. It was his DNA.

Ballet Dancer by Laura Knight

"Focal length doesn't only apply to photographers. It applies to any artist. The choreographer Jerome Robbins, whom I have worked with and admire, tended to see the world from a middle distance. The sweeping vision was not for him. Robbin's point of view was right there on the stage. Others besides me have noted how often Robbins had his dancers watch someone else dance. Think of his very first ballet, Fancy Free. Boys watch girls. Girls then watch boys. And upstage, the bartender watches everything as if he were Robbins' surrogate. His is the point of view from which the ballet's story is told. Robbins is both observing and observed, safely, at a middle distance.

"It helps to know that Robbins grew up wanting to be a puppeteer, and I think this way of seeing the world -- controlling events from behind the scenes or above, but not so distant that you cannot maintain contact with the action on stage -- pervades almost everything he created. I doubt it was something he chose consciously, but in terms of creative DNA, it was a dominant strand in his work. Check out the film of West Side Story, which Robbins choreographed and co-directed. The story line is famously adapted from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet -- in other words, it's not his own. Yet even with a borrowed plot, you still see Robbins' impulses coming to the fore, imprinting themselves on the drama and the dancing. Nearly every group scene involves performers being observed. Jets watch Sharks, Sharks watch Jets, girls watch boys, boys watch girls. This is not how Shakespeare did it. But it is Robbins' world view.

Ballet Dancers by Laura Knight

"Other artists see the world as if it is one inch from their nose. The novelist Raymond Chandler, whose Philip Marlowe books like Farewell, My Lovely and The Long Goodbye are classics of American hardboiled detective fiction, was obsessed with detail. He works in extreme close-up, a succession of tight shots that practically put us inside the characters' skulls. The plots of his stories are often incomprehensible -- he believed that the only way to keep the reader from knowing whodunit was not to know yourself -- but his eye for descriptive detail was razor-sharp. Here is the opening of his first full-length novel, The Big Sleep:

'It was about eleven o'clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn't care who knew it. It was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.'

"Chandler kept lists of observed details from his life and from the people he knew: a necktie file, a shirt file, a list of overheard slang expressions, as well as character names, titles and one-liners he intended to use sometime in the future. He wrote on half-sheets of paper, just twelve to fifteen lines per page, with a self-imposed quota that each sheet must contain what he called 'a little bit of magic.' The 'life' in his stories was in the details, whether his hero Marlowe was idling in his office or in the middle of a brutal confrontation. No long-distance musing the the state of the world. No middle-distance group shots. Just a steady stream of details, piling one one on top of the other, until a character or scene takes shape and a vivid picture emerges. Up close was Chandler's focal length. If some people like to wander through an art museum standing back from the paintings, taking in the effect the artist was trying to achieve, while others need a closer look because they're interested in the details, then Chandler was the kind of museum-goer who pressed his nose up to the canvas to see how the artist applied his strokes. Obviously, all of us look at paintings from each of these vantage points, but we focus best at some specific length along the spectrum. 

Ballet Dancer by Laura Knight

"I don't mean to get too caught up in observational focal length. It's one facet out of many that makes up an artist's creative identity. Yet once you see it, you begin to notice how it defines all the artists you admire. The sweeping themes of Mahler's symphonies are the work of a composer with wide vision. He sees grand architecture from a distance. Contrast that with a miniaturist like Satie, whose delicate compositions reveal a man in love with detail. (It's only the giants like Bach, Cézanne, and Shakespeare who could work in many focal lengths.)

"But that's the point. Each of us is hard-wired a certain way. And that hard-wiring insinuates itself into our work. That's not a bad thing. Actually, it's what the world expects from you. We want our artists to take the mundane materials of our lives, run it through their imaginations, and surprise us. If you are by nature a loner, a crusader, a jester, a romantic, a melancholic, or any one of a dozen personalities, that quality will shine through your work....A little self-knowledge goes a long way. If you understand the strands of your creative DNA, you begin to see how they mutate into common threads in your work. You begin to see the 'story' you're trying to tell; why you do the things you do (both positive and self-destructive); where you are strong and where you are weak (which prevents a lot of false starts) and how you see the world and your function in it."

Ballet Dancer by Laura Knight

The imagery today is by the great British artist Dame Laura Knight (1877-1970), whose paintings and drawings of ballet dancers, in my opinion, are up there with Degas' dancers in atmosphere and beauty, capturing the aesthetics of her generation.

Born to an impoverished family in Derbyshire, Knight attended the Nottingham School of Art on a scholarship, and went on to become one of the most celebrated painters of her day. With her husband, Harold Knight (a landscape painter and portraitist), she lived in a succession of rural art colonies in Yorkshire, the Netherlands, and Cornwall, gradually moving from realism to a more Impressionist style. At school, she'd been forbidden to attend classes that used nude models (women students were given plaster casts to draw instead), and she insisted on drawing from life thereafter -- which caused consternation in some quarters but never dissuaded her from working as she saw fit.

Knight had a keen interest in lives lived on the margins -- gypsies, circus folk, and other wanderers -- and she traveled across the country with small circus troupes, living and painting in all kinds of conditions. This proved good preparation for her subsequent role as an official War Artist during World War II, documenting daily life on the war's home front and paying particular attention to the role of women in the war effort. Afterwards, she traveled to Germany to paint the Nuremberg war crime trials, then returned to her beloved dance and theatre subjects in the post-war years.

In 1967, Knight wrote to a friend: 

"I had what has been called my 90th birthday a week or so ago. It's a bit shattering to suddenly become an antiquity. I don't believe I'm really as old as that, but everyone assures me that it is true. All the same I don't believe them. I'm not going to fall into a decline and I cannot give up hard work or the enjoyment of life itself."

She died two years later, creating art and exhibiting art right up to the very end.

Self-portrait by Laura Knight

Words: The passage quoted above is from The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp (Simon & Schuster, 2003); all rights reserved by the author. The poem in the picture captions is from Poetry (April, 2008); all rights reserved by the poet and translator.

Pictures: Backstage paintings of the Ballets Russes during their London seasons by Dame Laura Knight. The final image is a self-portrait, painted by the artist in 1913.


Standing on the shoulders of giants

Old Oak 1

I've just finished reading Kent Nerburn's Dancing With the Gods: Reflections on Art & Life, and I'd like to pass on a final passage from the book discussing artistic influence -- not as a thing to be wary of but, rather, to be celebrated. He writes:

Arthur Rackham"One of the great joys of the creative life is getting to live in dialogue with works of genius that have been created by artists who have proceeded us. We observe their work across the barriers of time and space, and they become our brothers and sisters who have walked a path that shows us, however dimly, our own way forward.

"I remember vividly the exhilaration I felt in my teenage years when I first encountered Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's Night Flight. For the first time, I realized that writing was more than topic sentences and supporting statements. I would hide under my covers at night and try, by lamplight, in my own stumbling way, to create sentences that sang like his.

"And then there was the moment when I came across a stream-of-consciousness passage in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath that was like no prose I had read before. For weeks, in the hidden pages of my school notebook, I struggled to describe the world around me in the same fragmentary, cinematic manner. The experience came again as I read the works of Carl Sandburg and, later, studied the sculptures of Donatello. These artists spoke to me across time and space and became my secret friends and mentors. In my heart of hearts I dreamed of creating like they could create, and I did what I could to learn the secrets that lived inside their works.

"We who work in the arts stand unashamedly upon the shoulders of those who came before. In the secrecy of our creative lives we try to do what those who have inspire us have done. We trace their lines, we copy their movements; we mimic their prose, we practice their phrasings. Whether with a brush or a chisel, our body or a pen or our voices, we try to enter into their creative decisions by recreating those decisions in our own work.

"It is not mere copying; it is mentoring. It is letting our hands and hearts and minds be guided by theirs. To know how Nureyev achieved the muscularity of his expression, or how Donatello carved a risk, or how Willie Nelson phrased a song, we must attempt it ourselves. We must inhabit the experience and try to make it our own in order to see the choices that were made. We are, in effect letting them become our teachers."

Fairies at work by Arthur Rackham

This is exactly what I was trying to get at in an essay of mine, "On Influence," published back in 2011. You can find it here. Ten years on from writing that piece, I'd love to hear your thoughts about artistic influence and the role it has (or hasn't) played in the development of your work.

Old Oak 3

Old Oak 3

Words: The passage above is from Dancing With the Gods: Reflections on Life and Art by Kent Nerburn (Canongate, 2018); all rights reserved by the author. The poem in the picture captions is from The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov (New Directions, 2013); all rights reserved by the Levertov estate. 

Paintings: Two illustrations by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939) for Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens by J.M. Barrie. Photographs: Tilly stops for her daily visit with her good friend Old Oak.


On art, risk, and carrying on

Nattadon Nest 1

Today, here's one last piece on fear, risk, and uncertainty in art-making. It comes from Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland :

Drawing by Eleanor Vere Boyle"To make art is to sing with the human voice. To do this you must first learn that the only voice you need is the voice you already have. Art work is ordinary work, but it takes courage to embrace that work, and wisdom to mediate the interplay of art and fear. Sometimes to see your work's rightful place you have to walk to the edge of the precipice and search the deep chasms. You have to see that the universe is not formless and dark throughout, but awaits simply the revealing light of your own mind. Your art does not arrive miraculously from the darkness, but is made uneventfully in the light.

"What veteran artists know about each other is that they have engaged the issues that matter to them. What veteran artists share in common is that they have learned how to get on with their work. Simply put, artists learn how to proceed or they don't. The individual recipe any artist finds for proceeding belongs to that artist alone -- it's non-transferable and of little use to others. It won't help you to know exactly what Van Gogh needed to gain or lose in order to get on with his work. What is worth recognizing is that Van Gogh needed to gain or lose at all, that his work was no more inevitable than yours, and that he -- like you -- had only himself to fall back on.

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"Today, more than it was however many years ago, art is hard because you have to keep after it so consistently. On so many different fronts. For so little external reward. Artists become veteran artists only by making peace not just with themselves, but with a whole range of issues. You have to find your work all over again all the time, and to do that you have to give yourself maneuvering room on many different fronts -- mental, physical, temporal. Experience consists of being able to reoccupy useful space easily, instantly.

"In the end, it all comes down to this: you have a choice (or more accurately a rolling tangle of choices) between giving your work your best shot and risking that it will not make you happy, or not giving it your best shot -- and thereby guaranteeing that it will not make you happy. It becomes a choice between certainty and uncertainty. And curiously, uncertainty is the comforting choice."

Nattadon Nest 4

Today's photographs: The hound at one of our favourite spots on the hill behind the studio. I often sit and work here in the spring, nested among granite and moss, while Tilly watches ponies and sheep drift through the valley below. By summertime the pathway to these rocks will be impenetrable, swallowed up in bracken and briars. This is a secret place, a faery place, opening up and disappearing again as the seasons turn. Folklore warns us to be careful of such spots lest we, too, vanish under the thorns.

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From Sleeping Beauty illustrated by Walter Crane

Art & Fear

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Words & Pictures: The passage above is from Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Art-making by David Bayles and Ted Orland (The Image Continuum, 1993). The poem in the picture captions is from All One Breath by John Burnsides (Cape Poetry, 2014). All rights reserved by the authors. The drawings are by Eleanor Vere Boyle (1825-1916) and Walter Crane (1845-19150.