Often when I’m feeling a bit uninspired or find myself staring at a blank page, I find myself turning to this letter from Austin Madison, a Pixar animator who took part in the animator letters project, an ongoing challenge asking for handwritten letters from professional animators to help inspire others. Madison’s letter encourages everyone to Persist! He writes:
“To Whom it May Inspire,
I, like many of you artists out there, constantly shift between two states. The first (and far more preferable of the two) is white-hot, “in the zone” seat-of-the-pants, firing on all cylinders creative mode. This is when you lay your pen down and the ideas pour out like wine from a royal chalice! This happens about 3% of the time. The other 97% of the time I am in the frustrated, struggling, office-corner-full-of-crumpled-up-paper mode. The important thing is to slog diligently through this quagmire of discouragement and despair. Put on some audio commentary and listen to the stories of professionals who have been making films for decades going through the same slings and arrows of outrageous production problems. In a word: PERSIST.” The rest of the letter in his original handwritten form is below.
When I first enrolled on the MA course several years ago we were told that grit would be an essential personal value during our creative studies and now that I am almost at the end of the course I can testify that this has been the case! The idea of grit, tenacity, persistence, not giving up and pushing through any blocks is a recurring theme in any creative endeavour and much writing about creativity. Even creative giants like one of my heroes, West Wing writer Aaron Sorkin, say of his creative process: “The hardest thing for me is getting started. If I’m writing a script, really 90 per cent of it would be just walking around, climbing the walls, just trying to put the idea together. Then the final 10 per cent would be writing it.”
Isn’t that part of the fun of creativity? The not knowing the answer, the musing, pursuing the enquiry, waiting for the answer to present itself? One of the exercises we did as part of the MA was to draw our creative process – what we do when we have a problem to tackle – and it’s a really quick, worthwhile thing to do. One of the things to notice is how long you are prepared to tolerate ambiguity for, whether you can do it for an hour, a day, a week, how long can you not have the answer? This is why the call to persist is so accurate because in order to have real creative breakthroughs sometimes you have to push past the obvious, and the 1st, 2nd, 3rd even 30th idea before you hit upon the right answer.
I absolutely love what legendary singer songwriter Carole King has to say about her creative process:“Once the inspiration comes, that directs where the perspiration goes, where the work goes. I don’t mean to sound like it’s some hippie philosophy of [in a high, fairy-like voice] you just sit down and it’s all flowing through you. Because there’s a lot of hard work involved in songwriting. The inspiration part is where it comes through you, but once it comes through you, the shaping of it, the craft of it, is something that I pride myself in knowing how to do it.” This is from the brilliant book Songwriters on Songwriting.
So if you’re struggling creatively, know that you’re not alone. It happens to the great and the good and is an integral part of the creative process. Aaron Koblin, head of the Data Arts Team in Google’s Creative Lab has this to say on the subject: “They say an elephant never forgets. Well, you are not an elephant. Take notes, constantly. Save interesting thoughts, quotations, films, technologies…the medium doesn’t matter, so long as it inspires you. When you’re stumped, go to your notes like a wizard to his spellbook. Mash those thoughts together. Extend them in every direction until they meet.” So take a walk, have a break, get some sleep, get some stimulus or talk to someone about it – but Persist!
Read more about Pixar’s creative processes here.