Skip to content

Tag: art

Ethan Hawke on Creativity

One of the most down-to-earth talks on finding time for creativity that I’ve ever seen. Just short of ten minutes but he covers a lot of territory, from his life in the arts to the deeper meaning of creative pursuits for society and personal growth.

Creative Hiatus for Rest

Bill Hayes put out an article at LitHub in January: The Rest Principle: On the Necessity of Recovery, in Fitness and Writing. Taking a course for personal trainers while researching a book on exercise, the critical value of rest in making gains really hit him.

He talks about a gap in his writing career:

In some cases, it’s not just the writing that needs a breather but the writer, too. After completing my book The Anatomist, I wrote virtually nothing for almost three years. I hadn’t given up writing deliberately, and I cannot pinpoint a particular day when my not-writing period started, any more than one can say the moment when one is overtaken by sleep. It’s only after you wake that you realize how long you were out.

My own experience with writing is similar. Some months, I’ll write four blog posts and fragments of three short stories, and a novel chapter, in a weekend. Other times, I’ll go whole months and barely write a thing.

I spend a lot of time researching how to do less, so that I can accomplish more of what really matters to me. Lately it’s led me to Greg McKeown’s Essentialism, Oliver Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks, Tom Hodgkinson’s Being Idle, Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, Cal Newport’s model of Slow Productivity, and Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals. (Full credit and appreciation to Austin Kleon, Matt Bell and Ezra Klein for making me aware of these.)

But, like almost everyone, I’m terrible at putting these ideas into practice. What I really want is time to write. Not to become a successful writer (though that sounds great), but to have the time to actually do the act of writing. There’s probably nothing special in that — it’s just flow state. Everyone has something that gives them that timeless sense of being fully engrossed.

But things get in the way. I wrote and edited four short stories I the first three months of this year. But for the last two months I’ve barely touched a writing project. It’s a brittle practice, sensitive to being crowded out by other things that, at the time, seem more pressing.

The ideal would be to have a robust practice, to organise my life so that the stable equilibrium would be a day with inviolable time and energy with which to focus on my writing projects. A disturbance inevitably arises that knocks me from equilibrium, but I relax back to that stable state.

The question is how to build such a life.

That brings me, long-windedly, to rest. Hayes writes:

Don’t work through the pain; it will only hurt. Give yourself sufficient time to refresh.

I suspect a lot of the stops and starts with my writing ultimately stem from chronic burnout, a lack of patience, and not being connected enough with my body to recognise when to stop and recharge.

Our life has been hectic the last few months, to say the least. Supporting my family through some hard times, working at a tech startup (which inevitably leads to working some nights and weekends), buying a house, my partner changing jobs, and ongoing health issues, have all taken a toll.

Whenever I get a spare few hours, a lull in the storm, I dive for the keyboard. For maybe an hour, I manage to convince myself that I can write an entire novel draft in a week, before life crashes over me again. I can do it, if I just arse-to-chair and force it.

But I’m not sure who wants to read something written by a mind that’s letting off the smell of burnt toast. Sleep deprivation can produce similar symptoms to being drunk, and impair attention, arithmetic ability, episodic memory, and working memory. Long-term burnout is even more insidious, lowering your baseline cognitive performance, so that you’re not only underperforming, but your ability to think about how to fix the problem is also shot.

Having read, Hayes’ article, I’m wondering whether it’s better to make the decision to not create anything for a while. There’s advice everywhere from creators about the discipline of grinding out your work, even if you’re not in the space (see Mason Curey’s Daily Rituals for plenty of examples). It’s about forming the habit, it’s about discipline.

But what’s the advantage of discipline if you’re barely present in the moment, existing on fumes?

This isn’t an announcement of abandoning creative pursuits, but it’s important to note this counterargument on what to do when times are tough. I have a note above my monitor that says “Stop. Breathe.” Hayes is arguing for us to listen to that more often:

My rule of thumb in fitness training is two-to-one: for every two days of intense workouts, a day off. However, “in cases of sustained high-level output,” according to my manual, full recovery may take longer. This is what had happened with me creatively. I needed a really, really long rest.

H is for Hawk: when words fly

I recently finished H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald. It’s a stunner.

I’ve read a lot of non-fiction books lately where you initially wonder how a publisher ended up green-lighting the book. Somebody’s dad dies to they buy a hawk and try to train it?

I mean, okay, sounds a bit off-the-wall, but I’ll give it a shot. It starts off smooth enough, and I thought it would be a bit avant-garde, a book about hawks that might be tenuously linked to some aspect of modern life. I was happy enough.

Then it span around and kneed me in the delicates.

The book rapidly becomes a beautiful account of a woman struggling with spiralling depression after her dad dies, as her regression into a childhood obsession with hawks. There are a lot of parallels drawn between her experiences and those of the writer T.H. White, author of The Sword in the Stone and The Once and Future King.

The style is strange, with autobiographical elements mixed with fictionalised snippets of White’s life. But this recipe makes the whole thing come alive. The prose could cut glass.

Some favourite snippets:

We carry the lives we’ve imagined as we carry the lives we have, and sometimes a reckoning comes of all the lives we have lost.

Like a good academic, I thought books were for answers.

The hawk had filled the house with wildness as a bowl of lilies fills a house with scent.

We are very bad at scale. The things that live in the soil are too small to care about; climate change too large to imagine. We are bad at time, too. We cannot remember what lived here before we did; we cannot love what is not. Nor can we imagine what will be different when we are dead. We live out our three score and ten, and tie our knots and lines only to ourselves. We take solace in pictures, and we wipe the hills of history.

Everything about the hawk is tuned and turned to hunt and kill. Yesterday I discovered that when I suck air through my teeth and make a squeaking noise like an injured rabbit, all the tendons in her toes instantaneously contract, driving her talons into the glove with terrible, crushing force. This killing grip is an old, deep pattern in her brain, an innate response that hasn’t yet found the stimulus meant to release it. Because other sounds provoke it: door hinges, squealing breaks, bicycles with unoiled wheels – and on the second afternoon, Joan Sutherland singing an aria on the radio. Ow. I laughed out loud at that. Stimulus: opera. Response: kill.

Lots of Love for B-Movies

I have a special love for certain kinds of films. Not because of how technically great they are, but rather because of how they manage to be unself-consciously outrageous.

They tend to be action-packed and feature monsters. Like the recent Monsterverse films, e.g. Godzilla or Kong: Skull Island — or, even better, this year’s Godzilla vs. Kong. Another example is Pacific Rim.

There’s a recent film about a Megalodon (giant prehistoric shark) called The Meg. It’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about.

Early in the film, the giant shark destroys a nuclear submarine by smashing into it with its face. At the end of the film, Jason Statham kills the shark by stabbing it in the neck with a knife. The disregard for physics or even consistency of the viewer’s expected suspension of disbelief is just… *Chef’s kiss*.

Image caption: IMDB

It might not be fair or accurate to call these films B-movies, because some of them have big budgets, well-known casts and have a lot of commercial success. I’m using that label because of how they are perceived by critics and the public.

These films are usually sneered or laughed at, and are generally considered to be lacking in quality or artistic merit, on a tier lower than the standard action flick.

They’re essentially films that people love to laugh at.

I love them. I love them because, in my opinion, they are about as close as you can find to untainted acts of creation in cinema. I don’t accept the premise that “artsy” films are intrinsically more creative or “worthy”, because I think there’s a certain amount of self-awareness and pretension that creep into those circles, which pollutes the end product.

These action-based B-movies are made by people who know that they’re going to be laughed at for what they create, and they absolutely do not care. They go ahead and create with genuine passion and often end up with over-the-top and raw results. There’s freedom and beauty in that. An echo of the child who plays with abandon in the corner of the room, ignoring everything else around them. That’s creation, and it goes back to the old Bradbury quote I’ve thrown out before:

“I have never listened to anyone who criticized my taste in space travel, sideshows or gorillas. When this occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room.”

But let’s also acknowledge that I often just want to watch a giant lizard fight a giant monkey, and that’s okay too.

Formative Artistic Influences

I’ve been thinking about influences. We are the sum of our experiences, and the media we consume and interact with are a part of that. It also matters when we do the consuming: in our formative years, things become more deeply ingrained, set us on rails that inform our adult interests and reference points.

As a child, my favourite film was Jurassic Park. I was the typical dinosaur-obsessed little boy, who collected fossils and wanted to be a paleontologist. At one point I ran a fan-site and made trailers and videos on YouTube. It was the first thing I really cared about, enough to teach myself video editing, web and graphic design.

Source: Pocket Lint

In high school, I watched a handful of films over and over. Die Hard, especially. I once watched the first three Die Hard films every day for an entire summer holiday. I like having background noise, usually something that I recognise. I learned early on that I’m easily distracted by sound, and that controlling my the sound in my environment is critical for me to focus.

I came to books relatively late. We didn’t have books in the house, and I didn’t have any friends who read. I liked the library and I did read a fair amount, but it took me time to discover the kinds of books I really enjoyed. I was about 15 when I started to come across things that stayed with me: Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov‘s science fiction, John Steinbeck, Ursula Le Guin, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman.

Source: Goodreads

When I was nearing the end of high school, Lost was airing its final seasons. Lost is packed full of references, often hidden in the background. Films, books, philosophy, religion. I spent years exploring as many of these references as I could, enamoured with the mystery of the series. The themes, such as destiny and deep mystery, fuelled my reading appetite for years.

My tastes have wandered many times since then, as my reading log shows. I’ve gone through phases of classic fiction, some pretty dry non-fiction, and many other things. However, those initial influences are still there, underneath it all, subtely informing how I process everything.

I came to my first passion through a film. My drive to write came through reading, which I in turn came to partly by following references in TV and other books.

I’m sure that I’d have come to books and writing at some point; my parents say I was born bookish. But it’s interesting to wonder at how slightly different formative experiences might have changed my trajectory, delaying and accelerating my development – or even setting me on a different set of favourite themes entirely.

The Death of Art and Other False Bollocks

How many times have you heard somebody say that X is dead? Cinema, books, a sane taste in music. People love prophesizing the end times of art forms. It’s the doomsayer’s crack.

Some people say the MCU is destroying cinema, by crowding out opportunities for other films. Funding from film studios is finite, and they are likely to choose guaranteed profits over experimental films every time.

The same can be said for books. After the UK Net Books Agreement collapsed in the 1990s and books were routinely discounted by juggernaut retailers, profits in publishing collapsed. (A topic covered among many other book-related tidbits in The Diary of a Bookseller.)

The same story can be found almost everywhere, including music. Streaming services like Spotify are magic to consumers, but result in a cut-throat existence for many artists.

New art seems to be living on slim pickings. Established names are being commissioned over and over with huge budgets, and new names skulk in the shadows, judged as too risky for investment. This seems to be the way of things in the rent-it-don’t-own-it, endlessly-remake-the-classic-hits culture.

Art is dead, some say.

What a load of old shit.

Art forms cannot be destroyed, only changed.

They are defined by constant flux. There were no departures from normality, because ‘normal’ is not a benchmark but a brief window of time between metaphorphoses. A change for the better or worse depends on perspective, how willing you are to embrace it.

The printing press was originally seen as a disruptive technology that would make people lazy. The same cry came when the Kindle was invented, only to see print books sales spring back after the initial craze — with another bump during the pandemic. It’s true that independent bookshops are seeing dire times, and retail giants loom large over publishing, but that’s more a failure of regulation of our economy than a decline of the book.

And the monopolies of the film industry aren’t totally at the expense of creativity and ambition. The MCU is a landmark success because it was so experimental, launched in large part by Jon Favreau while making Iron Man.

From the beginning, the MCU films have had big budgets, but the whole universe of extended films could have crashed and burned at any point, with many others films half-finished and millions in investment lost.

I’m not immune to a feeling of doom. I will admit that I despaired while watching Jurassic World. I watched Jurassic Park so many times as a child that even now I could quote it to you word for word (unfortunately not an exaggeration). Jurassic World was an entertaining film that I enjoyed, but a part of me flinched away from a plot so incongruous with the mentally stimulating source material, and CGI that was simply not as good as in the original film — despite over twenty years of technological progress and the fact that the original came out in 1993.

This isn’t an isolated incident. After promising so much and almost reaching the heights of greatness, Prometheus quietly assassinated the genius mythos of the Space Jockeys in Alien. I was less than pleased.

Perhaps I’m being timid. Let me rephrase: I was more than upset by these things than if somebody had squatted down in full view and shat all over my garden.

But it was worth the risk to try something new. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Lots of people worked incredibly hard on these films, and I’m sure that millions of people really did love them, and don’t care much for ‘old films’ from the 70s or even (the pain) the 90s.

We went to see No Time to Die the other day. I thoroughly enjoyed it, top marks.

Looking at the reviews on IMDB, however, you’d think the film had been a two-hour shot of the entire cast giving the audience the finger. Die-hard fans are genuinely upset to have had their drug-addled misygenist stolen away from them.

The film’s crime is innovation. Taking old material that has been milked dry for decades, and giving it a little spin and a twist. Taking characters in new directions. Even growth — if you can imagine such a thing, in a Bond film.

I don’t want to pick on Bond fans who are upset, because we could have the same conversation about any fandom when something that dissapoints it comes along. This particular occurrence happens to have me fired up. Fans of old-school Bond: I hope you never feel that anyone is trying to screw with something you love.

Nonetheless we need to stay limber and ready for the new, even if we’re still in love with the old. Changes to the industries around art will always happen, have always happened. But they’re not the real drivers of change. A lack of interest in experimentation and new material from fans is the real danger: if there is no demand for anything new from consumers, creators will lose any leverage to actually create. If we’re going to stave off a time of rebooted remakes of reimaginings, we need to be excited by being turned on our heads.