I have two college degrees. One in Professional Writing & Rhetoric (I read A LOT of Aristotle and Plato) and one in Digital Art. (Yeah, yeah, I’m an overachiever, tease me all about it later.)
But ironically, my digital art degree helps me far more in my creative writing endeavors. No really, it does. That experience ended up being invaluable to me. Why? I’ll map it out.
- Thinking in Images
I was taught to see the bigger picture – literally. I would sketch things, shred things, color things, photograph things, explore every possibility until I saw the project I wanted to create in my head. And when I say that, I mean, I could see the project from every angle in my mind’s eye. I could see myself working on, creating it. I could see the materials I wanted to use – the point I wanted to make. It would become so vivid that it was almost tangible. Once I could see the project in my mind, I would translate that into media. I printed books, designed websites, sculpted with decoupage, painted – whatever it took to make what I saw come to life, that’s what I did.
The funny thing is, artists get writer’s block too (though I’m sure we don’t refer to it as “writer’s block”), where we lose our train of thought and suddenly the images stop flowing. And let me tell you, that’s both annoying and discouraging. No matter, I was taught how to push past that too – how to brainstorm and come up with (crazy) ideas. Which leads to…
- Creating on Demand
I was taught how to design on demand – not just whenever I felt “inspired” (had that happened, I may have only turned in 3 projects the entire semester). I was taught to be disciplined in my creativity. I was pushed and stretched and challenged and there were times when I hated it. I mean, sometimes nothing I tried seemed to be working. There were times when I was so annoyed I had to design something when I didn’t have a “vision” that I was certain whatever project I was working on would be a bust.
Instead I found, training your brain to think creatively all the time means you don’t have to “wait for inspiration” instead you see it in everything. You are able to see the possibilities in the simplest things – in music, in conversation, in a news clipping – wherever! You learn to always be thinking quick on your feet. If you’re an artist you will always create, just like if you’re a writer you will always be writing. All you really need is the drive and motivation to make it happen.
- Collaborating with Others
But forget the initial process of creating. You know what’s really horrifying? Final critiques.
What is that, you ask?
It’s sort of like Project Runway. You put your artwork on display in a room and everyone gets to “judge” it. The difference? Your judges are your peers AND professors. My first semester of art, I ignored the “In Progress Critique” part – that’s when classmates/professors can comment on your work during the creative process before it’s up for a grade. I remember thinking, “If they could see my work completed, they wouldn’t ask me to explore those other things, they would just get it. This is my project, all the input should come from me, I know exactly what I’m doing.”
Wrong. So wrong. (My 18-year-old self was a little dumber than my 24-year-old self.)
I got lucky on the first couple of assignments. I just happened to have the right idea at the right time and took to the technique we were using. But after that it all went down hill. Most of my initial final critiques nearly ate my nerves alive. Because my work got picked apart. I mean, really, someone should’ve just hacked it with a machete. And yes, I took it personally. I’m a person who takes everything personally (though I work very hard these days not to). But there I was, exposing my thoughts, my design, my talent and it had gotten torn to bits for the better half of an hour. In the words of Brian Regan, “Just give me an F and let me go home!”
But you live, you learn and the next semester, I listened to my peers. If someone said, “I don’t understand what you’re trying to say.” I asked, “Why?” and explored that. If someone said, “I think it’d be stronger if you added [THIS].” I added it, just to see. If others felt it was stronger with the addition and I agreed, I kept it. If not, I threw it back on the drawing board. As it turned out, everyone had GREAT things to say and GREAT things to suggest!
And soon, final critiques were not a witch hunt, they were a discussion. I would throw my work up there and we would discuss the ways that it worked and the ways that it didn’t. No one was there to hurt my feelings or tear my work apart – they were there to make me a better artist, to challenge my creative thinking. We were all there to sharpen each other’s skills. As a result, I grew significantly as an artist and had a blast doing so.
- Learning from Others
Some people are, like, really talented. LEARN FROM THEM. It sounds so simple, but I majorly overlooked it at first. If someone does something better than you, look into it! Ask them about their work, pick their brain, watch how they do things. Don’t just brush them off and think well, “They’re just naturally talented. They’re so good they just get to skip that whole messy ‘process’ part and magically end up with a final result.”
No. I know it’s tempting to think that, but that’s not how it works. Everyone has a process.
Senior year, all senior art majors came together and put on our own gallery show. In the process of doing so, we got pretty hands on with each other’s work. Sometimes we just sat around a room talking about ideas. Sometimes we talked technique. Sometimes we had work to show off to each other. But in taking the time to listen to everyone, I learned a heck of a lot. Did I apply everything to my own work? No. I wasn’t trying to create a circus act. But I learned a lot that I could bring to the table when executing future work and I learned a lot about the different ways you could approach a project.
That being said, after fours years of art classes, I have come to approach my novels in the same way I approached my art degree. I envision the book in my head first – each scene plays out like a movie there. I make voice memos, look at photographs, listen to music until I see those images so strongly that those characters have flesh and blood. Then I can translate that into words and sentences and full paragraphs. Next, I write ALL THE TIME. Not when I feel like it. Not just when I get a “good” idea. I make myself write. Every day. Even if I think it’s crap (and most likely it is the first go ‘round). I can come back and edit it later.
After I have things written, I listen to other people. Other people have really awesome things to say, they have great input, impressive thoughts – they will think of things missing in my story that never even crossed my mind, because they are approaching it from a new, fresh perspective: their own. I’ve had people say things as detailed as, “Your character opens a book in this scene but where exactly did they grab the book from? Is it on a table? A bookshelf? Are they holding it in their lap – in front of them – I can’t see what’s happening here.” And I’ve had feedback as broad as, “This particular character isn’t motivated. Show me why he’s behaving this way.” And every time that I’ve listened to that kind of feedback (from friends, writers, agents, etc), my work has improved.
And lastly, I read and listen to other authors. I read their work. I read their biographies. I read their advice. I even watch their YouTube clips. If they have something to say, you better believe I want to be listening. I think to myself, “Why do these characters work in this novel?”, “How is this plot pieced together?”, “What about this scene really grabs my attention?”, “Why am I so in love with this fictional boy character?! He’s not even real!” If they’re doing something right, I want to take the initiative and learn from it.
I used to think writing and art were two different things in terms of classes. One is shelved under English, the other under cameras and paint brushes and phrases like “The medium is the message.” They’re classified that way in school anyway. I was never able to take a creative writing class in college, because I couldn’t work it in around my art schedule and for a time, I regretted that. But a couple years later, I realized, I may have not needed one after all. I was already being taught to think creatively and tell stories through images. For me, writing really is an art form. It’s is the art of taking what you see in your head and using your words to sculpt those images for someone else. I was a writer before I ever took an art class, but I can tell you, those art classes made me a better one and I didn’t even know that was happening.
Originally posted on Caitlin’s Tumblr