Do you make these mistakes in your preparation?
Preparation is the time during the creative process where curiosity is piqued and is then moulded and coaxed until it results in an idea with strength and force (or doesn’t, which is for another article entirely). Psychologist and expert on creativity Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes:
…usually insights tend to come to prepared minds, that is, to those who have thought long and hard about problematic issues.”
In other words, preparation is the vital foundation on which all creative constructions are built.
In 1926, social psychologist Graham Wallas wrote a now iconic book on creativity called The Art of Thought. In it, he names preparation as the first stage in the creative process. Preparation is such a pivotal aspect of the process because it is where ideas are collected, research conducted and resources are gathered. Wallas and other theorists mention a few other stages too, like incubation, illumination and verification.
But of all the stages, preparation is probably the one I’ve observed creatives do least well.
So, what are the two most common problems exhibited during the preparation phase?
Problem One: Inadequate Preparation
The writer and mystic Thomas Merton is famously quoted as saying, “Hurry ruins saints as well as artists.”
This rings so true for me because I believe that most good work is slow-cooked. Personally, I am as much in love with the process of the making as the made. But this was all good and well for Merton to say, being a monk and all and with no pressure to support anyone but himself. All that.
There are bound to be times when pragmatism overrides the need for perfection and our work is undercooked. The feeling is not satisfying at all, is it? It’s as though there’s a massive hole in what you’ve made. Some creatives work in this space perpetually. The result is their work simply adds to the pile of ephemera and noise, without ever causing rifts or shifts or challenging the way things are.
Problem Two: Too Much Preparation
This is where perfectionism wins in the tussle with pragmatism. I know a lot of really creative and clever people who get stuck in this phase. And all they ever seem to produce is a bunch of potential and unclaimed visions. They gather information until it reaches a saturation point and then collapse in a pool of moist, drippy overwhelm. And so the movement stops (if you don’t feel my metaphor, imagine trying to run in wet jeans). They never take off. In fact, they never make it to the runway. Despite talent. Despite good intentions.
What are the tools for preparation?
So if you haven’t got your preparation phase honed, what are some things you can do to make it better?
1. Make everything you observe a part of your preparation.
Choreographer Twyla Tharp recommends an exercise in her book, The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It For Life, of observing and noting details about interactions between strangers in public spaces. In one exercise, you note every movement and gesture. In another; only the gestures and movements that are interesting. In both iterations of the exercise, the most important element is the habit of observation. The mere act of existing and doing your daily task can provide preparation for creative tasks. It’s simply the case that you must acquire the habit of being conscious of what you see. Some creatives keep scrapbooks of fascinating stories from newspapers and magazines. Others keep notebooks with observations and ideas in them. By taking note and engaging the world, you develop a preparation process that gives insight into problems and conflicts and helps you clear some space for the unfolding of them in your work.
2. Ditch the telly
Once I had a student who took umbrage at my quip about turning off the TV because it will rot your brain. He said he learnt how to tell stories by watching television. It was a fair point. Good television production gives insight into aesthetics, design and especially narrative. Problem is, most people don’t develop discernment about what telly they watch. And so they end up devoting hours to productions that reinforce myths and stereotypes, anaesthetise any sensibility for the aesthetic and generally corrode inspiration, wonder and curiosity. Replace the telly with the aspects of life that will feed your creativity: discussions with friends and family, reading, watching great films, watching people, observing nature – just to name a few.
3. See other points of view
This is such a vital part of the preparation process, but one that a lot of people skip because it can be…uncomfortable. Why? Well, you’re pumped about a new project or you’ve finally nailed your approach to an ongoing one, and then someone acts as gadfly and offers a position you hadn’t considered. Instead of seeing this as a pain, see it as an opportunity to revise the work. Or better still, incorporate this new perspective into your work so that what you offer has more depth and complexity.
4. Work Iteratively
For those of you who get bogged down in preparation and for whom project completion is always a promise too far into the future to even contemplate, working iteratively is helpful. What this means is that you may have several rounds of preparation to completion, rather than one big process. Do some prep and move quickly into rolling your sleeves up for the work, knowing that your first completion will only be a draft that you’ll work on refining in the next iteration. This is also a great opportunity to get feedback from clients and the audience mid-way through the process rather than when the project is complete.
5. Sort out your fears
The thought of a blank page, an empty theatre, a proposal yet written, is anxiety provoking for most people. And I think anxiety makes people either want to skip the vital formative steps in creativity so they can cut to the chase of the dust flying or stay in the preparation phase so they never have to expose their inadequacies. Do you know yourself well enough to interrogate that fear? You know – to figure out what you’re scared of? One of my biggest fears is of being exposed as an imposter. I never feel quite as though I am worthy of being in any space, and maybe that is due to my contrariness: when I’m in the scholarly space, I feel I should be blogging; when I’m blogging, I should be writing academically; when I’m mothering, I’m not cut out for domesticity; when I have a big project for work, all I want to do is clean. And so it goes. Eventually, if I let enough of those fears take up enough mental space, I’ll be nervous and hasty or I’ll procrastinate to the point of futility.
So I don’t. I figure out what I’m scared of and I deal with it.
What would be possible if you did the same?
The best thing about being a creative is you can get your material from everywhere. Be in a constant state of finding out and being curious so that you are always actively preparing. This makes for a natural and organic habit, rather than a forced and manipulated one. Once you have a good preparation habit, you’ll find that your work benefits in terms of its breadth and sophistication.