In 1967, Carol King and her husband, Gerry Goffin, were the hottest songwriting team in the business. As King told David Remnick of the New Yorker, they were walking down Broadway one afternoon when a limousine pulled alongside them. The window rolled down and Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records stuck his head out. “I’m looking for a really big hit for Aretha,” he said. “How about writing a song called ‘A Natural Woman?’” The window rolled up and the limo pulled away. That night after putting the kids to bed they sat at the piano and banged out one of Aretha Franklin’s most enduring masterpieces.
In the creation of art, what’s more important, inspiration or perspiration?
When I was finishing up my BA in religious studies at UCSB I had completed all of my required courses and just needed a few elective units. I took a songwriting class in the music department. The instructor was a commercial jingle writer and producer from LA with recording credits in pop, rock, and film. He gave us a simple assignment. Every week we were to write, arrange, record, mix, and present a finished song. We were forbidden from recording any existing material—everything had to be written and recorded from scratch that week. We scoffed. “What if the muse doesn’t strike?” we asked. He sighed. “Look,” he said, “when your client comes to you and asks you for a soundtrack, or a jingle, or a cut for the new album by so and so, you don’t say okay, I’ll send you something if and when the inspiration strikes. You just sit down and do it.” As artist Chuck Close said, “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.”
As the semester progressed, it dawned on us. Making art is not a mysterious process. Making art is like making anything else—building a house, cooking a meal, planting a garden—most of the battle is just showing up, getting serious, and demanding results. Of course, not everything turns out great. It never does. But if you don’t suit up, show up, and do the work, how and when is the inspiration supposed to strike?
In an interview, great American writer John McPhee revealed that in his writing process, he takes a belt from a terry cloth robe and ties himself in his desk chair with a big double knot, then spins the belt around so the knot is behind him. He stays there until he’s put in his shift. If you only write when you feel like it, you’re not a writer. If you only make art when you feel like it, you’re not an artist. You’re a dilettante. In a word, you’re pretending. It’s time to get real.
If you are really serious about creating something of value, you will fight for it, even if the forces you’re fighting against are your own distractedness, self-doubt, sloth, or adolescent mood swings. Oh, you don’t feel like it? Nobody cares. Do it anyway. Does your heart surgeon walk out of the room mid-surgery because he just isn’t feeling it? Does a farmer plant only half her field because she’s not in the mood? Does an architect leave out the bathrooms because, well, they’re not that fun to design, and he’d rather design high-ceilinged foyers, split-level decks, and grey water reclamation systems?
I spoke with prominent artist Douglas Schneider about his process. He was in his Oakland studio preparing another series of paintings for an upcoming gallery show in San Francisco. Schneider is one of those rare artists who has managed to blend commercial success with autonomy and authenticity. His paintings are mesmerizing dreamscapes anchored by everyday objects bathed in an atmosphere of bottomless longing. It is the beauty of the ordinary world that Schneider paints, thereby returning us to the infinite significance of our own lives, a place where mirage-like waves of memory and perception distort as much as they reveal.
When a gallery show comes along, he starts to paint. He knows people are counting on him—his agents, his curators, his patrons, his fans—and he simply gets to work. He often works on several pieces at once, never knowing exactly where the ideas come from or where they’re going. He just begins. All of the technique is there from years of formal education and arduous training, but it’s the imminence of the deadline that impels him, sparking a workman like sense of humility, obligation, and gratitude—gratitude that he even gets to do this for a living. The shock of that fact alone frequently stops him in his tracks. He knows that all work is service, and that these paintings need to be made, for someone. As the deadline approaches, he paints at an increasingly furious pace with a sacred sense of urgency—get out of the way, get out of the way—sometimes even shipping his large canvases wet, knowing they’ll dry by the time they’re installed. As the paintings are birthing it’s terrifying. And blissful. Schneider, like any real artist, knows that inspiration matters and bliss happens, but only after you find the discipline to pick up the brush.
As you reflect on your own artistic and creative process, no matter your medium, bear these ten truths in mind.
1. Your work is not your own – it belongs to the audience. Put them first. What do they need?
2. Your work is an act of service, not a private indulgence. Art is communal—it only exists in the space between us, not in the secret heart of its creator.
3. Inspiration is overrated. Work is underrated.
4. Be true to your own aesthetic. Don’t chase trends. Don’t pander to your audience – draw them toward you in communion.
5. Pay attention to what works and what doesn’t work. Cut, edit, alter, and delete with brutal decisiveness. Art is no place for self-indulgent sentimentality.
6. The one rule: authenticity.
7. Beautiful and pretty are two different things. One’s abiding, the other fades; one’s deep, the other’s shallow; one’s challenging, the other’s facile. Go for beauty every time.
8. You don’t have forever. Do it now. Finish it.
9. Perfection is the enemy of the good. As many have said, art is never finished, only abandoned.
10. Nurture your love of art like a garden—feed it, water it, sunlight it. Care-take your body, your mind, your heart, and your soul. Drink in the beauty of the world. Read. Listen. Travel. Love. Take risks. Timidity has no place in art. Be bold. But be kind, because kindness extended to others strengthens the heart, the instrument of our creating. Let your art come from your loving.
All of us are artists, and our lives are our greatest work. A well-lived life is a masterpiece. The ten rules apply to the creation of any art project, including the most important project of all – becoming fully human.
Peter Bolland is a writer, speaker, spiritual teacher, singer-songwriter, and philosophy professor. Find him on Twitter, Facebook, or at www.peterbolland.com