When a discussion begins in the public domain about the process of creative work, it usually revolves around groundbreaking technological and scientific discoveries that change the world. Or it refers to significant works of art that command high prices produced by artists of notable acclaim. Seldom if ever does the creative work of ordinary everyday artists tucked away in studios down back alleys and up bóithríns instruct our understanding of the creative process. Nevertheless, this manifesto asserts that the creative process is a dynamic, ultimately indefinable thing lying at the foundation of all creativity regardless of the artist’s popularity or critical acclaim. This chapter takes a look at the often mystical process of creative work and offers a means by which we may understand it and apply it at an everyday working level.
The Artist’s Manifesto
- Short Form Version
- Chapter 1: What Is An Artist?
- Chapter 2: The Creative Work
- Chapter 3: Purposeful Accident
- Chapter 4: Embracing Solitude
- Chapter 5: Why Create
- Chapter 6: Time
- Chapter 7: The Creative Self
- Chapter 8: Mastery
- Chapter 9: Happiness
- Chapter 10: The Exchange
- Reader Bonuses
- Go to the Home Page
The Creative Work
We are the same, yet incredibly different. Beliefs, ideas, experiences and thoughts, all weigh heavy on the nature of who we are and how we interact. At a biological level, we are almost identical yet on the surface we differ remarkably in appearance and behaviour. So too it is in the work we do and how we conduct it. Such is the complex and dynamic nature of human creativity. There is an infinite number of creative levels at which we operate, some of which result in beautiful things, and others result in destruction and human suffering. But in all of our creative experience, there appears to be an underlying pattern and process that we can observe.
The underlying pattern of creative work appears not to be linear. It is not a step by step process that we can read from a book, learn in a course or consciously adopted by following other people’s success. It is a multifaceted and multidimensional thing, with all aspects arising together and separately, interrelating and mutually causative, coalescing beyond the attention of the conscious mind. In other words, although a master can instruct specific tasks to an apprentice, and the apprentice can develop the skill to execute the job adequately, using that skill creatively requires something else, something perhaps ultimately unknowable. It is this almost unknowable process that we shall attempt to explore.
The 4 Stages of Creative Work
One of the primary messages this book wishes to convey is that in the living of life there is no greater imperative for human beings than to engage in work that
A change of mind about what it means to be a valuable member of society. We must realise that life does not start and end with science, technology, engineering and maths. Nor should our children be compelled to study medicine, languages, or any other domain of study that does not draw their natural curiosity. Because you see, real success in life starts with intense interest and wonder. Continued success comes about as a result of that initial curiosity being given the space to develop and mature into lifelong dedicated work. Basic communication skills are of course necessary, but there must be the arts, humanities and alternative fields of endeavour offered early, not as a by-the-way, but as a serious and sincere intention to meet the needs and interests of the child.
Once a developing child finds a subject that lights their fire and can practice their interests in an open environment, they will develop naturally, often pursuing their curiosity to mastery. This journey to mastering a craft is long, often lonely and is filled with peaks and troughs, challenging the artist and building complexity in ways nothing else can. On this journey, within the artist’s field of study, craftsmanship or art, we can say there is a process containing aspects that seem present in all areas of creative work. Much of the process is unknown, said to be held in the secret black box of the unconscious mind. But once we engage in the initial curiosity, the apprenticeship can begin.
Taking into account our initial seed of interest has been planted, the first and perhaps essential aspect to all creative work is the apprenticeship. It is the lengthy initial period where the young person must learn the basic craft. They must know intently the tools and the materials and the means by which to use them to a satisfying end. They must know the space in which they work. They must understand the background and the history because without this they have no context. And most of all they must know the rules of the game. Having mastered these elements they may, with continued attention to detail and dedication to the craft, arrive at an opportunity to break those same rules and create something remarkable
The level of skill acquired by the young apprentice is mostly dependant on the personality and expertise of the master under whom the apprentice serves. Rarely will someone apprenticed to an inferior teacher excel in their work. Not because the skill is poorly instructed necessarily, but more so because mental attitudes can, and usually are, adopted unconsciously. Behaviours and attitudes come as part of the learning package and are transmitted invisibly from teacher to student. It may not always be the case, but certainly, that first teacher encountered is critical in the process. As a young person, I had plenty of poor teachers, and each of them taught me something important, but it was those early teachers who had the most effect.
The period of incubation occurs at a time when the artist has progressed successfully through their initial period of learning. Sparks of ideas may arise during their apprenticeship, but usually, the skill to execute is not yet well established. Often it requires several additional years of work for the novice to create something unique and significant. The incubation period is where thoughts and ideas begin to build and coalesce beyond the reach of surface level attention. In his work titled; The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance, Anders Ericsson suggests that at least ten years elapse between a scientist’s or artist’s earliest independent work and their first work of real note. Given an initial period gathering basic skills takes between 3 to 5 years, at least 15 years of dedicated work and experience are required before we can make something worthwhile.
15 years of dedicated work is a long hard road of ups and downs, and digesting it as such all at once, deters most from even trying. It seems hardly worth the effort. This is because most people, regardless of ability, want instant gratification. We’ve been trained in this way of thinking by marketers and advertisers in the modern economy. “You can have it all, and you can have it today!”,
For those willing to embark on the journey, they will find that during incubation, the regular work of the artist continues to develop and grow in complexity. However, as Ericsson also found, and on an anecdotal basis, I would agree, improvement is not necessarily predetermined merely by continuing the regular creative work. To develop and grow, we must be sufficiently motivated to improve through continued deliberate effort and the adoption of new challenges. We, of course, don’t do this in complete isolation. The interaction with other people and their sometimes opposition and criticism is an essential factor in pushing us to higher levels of creativity.
From sustained periods of dedicated attention to the work over many years, the artist may experience moments of pure inspiration. As if downloaded in an instant from the lap of the gods, there appears in mind a realisation of something almost magical. These moments can appear in clusters close together or singularly, many years apart. The frequency and degree ultimately depend on the individual and may or may not result in success or popular acclaim for their work. But that shouldn’t matter. Because if applause and recognition become our driver, then our focus is off the work and outside ourselves, dependant now on the response of others.
This split in psychic energy between what arises as a natural consequence of immersion in the work, and the need to follow the rules results in a dilution of our creativity. We virtually kill the potential of that first idea to become something great by our focus on doubt and reservation. The results we produce will always appear less than had been promised in that first inspired thought. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We’ve got to learn to trust the inspiration when it arrives. If we can cultivate in ourselves the courage to follow that good idea and ignore the dissuasive voices in our heads, then we may allow the idea a valid expression.
It has been one of my most significant personal challenges to overcome the voices in my head of friends and family who knew me as this when I now am that. My existence is entirely subjective and when good ideas land they are for me, nobody else. There’s nobody else involved; it’s just me. It has always only ever been me. Everyone else is a bit player, to varying degrees, in my game of getting to know myself, and it’s the same for you too. The challenge for us is in recognising that we are fluctuations, processes in constant flux, not static and unchanging. Some creative people have a smoother ride, others have a harder ride, but it doesn’t matter because the challenge is personal. As Marina Abramovic said;
BMarina Abramovic | Performance Artist
ecausein the end, you are really alone, whatever you do.
Execution is the daily practice of returning to the studio, the yoga mat, the easel, the potter’s wheel or the page, sometimes without even knowing why. To me, it feels like a compulsion, a draw towards the work, almost like I have no choice. I started writing ten years ago on a blog built with WordPress. I knew nothing about writing, and anything I have learned has been the product of research, trial and error, albeit with some lengthy breaks. M
There is little in practical terms to explain why sometimes we should continue in our work. The truth is that the reason doesn’t lie in practicality, we can only find it through engagement in the work for the sake of it. We must have a more meaningful basis for work other than shallow utility. Commitment to its execution comes from that very first seed of curiosity laid down early on. Nurturing that seed ensures continued interest, and builds commitment and dedication. In that commitment we find ideas move through many iterations, take on many insights, and progress or decline to varying degrees for many reasons. Then one day something clicks and all the years of dedication to the craft appear innocuously in the thing you’ve made. To your surprise and delight, you have arrived.
One thing holds in creative work; there are no shortcuts to success. As we will discuss in Chapter 3, success comes about as a result of Purposeful Accident, the dedication to the craft and sustained execution of daily practice primarily for the inherent enjoyment we gain from it. Any other reason for working will eventually breed contempt in us and afford no meaning or purpose in what may become a pointless existence. In doing work we despise, we can insist that we must fulfil our obligations, satisfy the demands of outside forces such as bosses, banks or family. But in the end, it doesn’t matter; extrinsic motivation to perform will never bring out our best work or make us happy.
Be prolific. Keep making every day even if to you it seems like you could never publish the crap you just made because it is the daily practice that brings about mastery. You’re not supposed to create masterpieces every day, that’s not how it works. Masterpieces surprise you; they come up behind you when you least expect it. One day you’re in your studio, and you’re doing your thing and et voila! You make something great. You might not even recognise it as such at first, but another will. However, in this, you need to watch out because there is a trap. The moment you take your eye off your practice and place it on arbitrary measures of success is the moment you risk losing heart and momentum. This is where you begin to question everything and doubt burrows a hole in your heart. So stay focused on the daily execution of the work.
The Non Linear Process
Although the above principles seem separate, laid out one after the other in a linear fashion, they are not independent of one another in all practical senses. They arise to varying degrees of amplitude and at different times during the life and work of the artist. They overlap and are often seen to manifest in parallel depending on the individual and their particular stage of evolution, and indeed, in the development of the artist’s idea or field of work. Other artists and the broader field also influence these four aspects of creative work. Other domains affect the process too with artists often finding unexpected inspiration for projects or breakthrough moments in baron periods in the experience of ordinary everyday life.
The ever-expanding process of our work is like the surface of a still pond on a rainy day, with raindrops creating ever-expanding circles that combine and overlap, becoming something new in every moment. We might also imagine this in three dimensions like pulsating magnetic fields, overlapping, interacting, coupling, amplifying and cancelling each other. It’s like a fractal array of infinite creative interaction which we cannot avoid, but we may direct with focus. The process will never be truly understood, and that’s how it should be because the nature of the self can never be fully known. We can recognise it only in a single moment, and as soon as we do, it’s gone. It is fleeting and always a step ahead. It is akin to the collapse of all matter, energy and light to a single point of density within the centre of a black hole; at the very moment it collapses into the singularity it bounces back out, and the universe starts all over again. The creative work of people is the microcosm of the macrocosm.
The Brahman is unknown to those who know it, and known to those who know it notAlan Watts | Philosopher
The 10,000 Hour Myth
I’ve got a bone to pick with Malcolm Gladwell even though I’m very late to the party. In his 2008 book, Outliers, Gladwell stated; “ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness”. He was mistaken and mislead thousand in his assertion. Typical of journalists looking for a quick hook easily absorbed by overeager minds, his interpretation was cheap and unsubstantial. Gladwell took his 10,000-hour rule from the general discussion section of K. Anders Ericsson’s 1993 work mentioned earlier. Ericsson subsequently rebutted Gladwell’s rule in his 2016 book, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, where he stated;
“Unfortunately, this [10,000-hour] rule — which is the only thing that many people today know about the effects of practice — is wrong in several ways”.
Ericsson went on to say;
“Becoming accomplished in any field in which there is a well-established history of people working to become experts requires a tremendous amount of effort exerted over many years. It may not require exactly ten thousand hours, but it will take a lot.”
Expertise can often take much more than 10,000 hours to establish, but then that’s merely my anecdotal opinion. When I first heard Gladwell’s “rule” being spoken of a few years back, I thought; no way, this is rubbish. I figured, for a full-time artist or craftsperson working their craft 48 weeks per year, five days per week, and 8 hours per day, 10,000 hours equates to 5 years. Starting straight out of the packet, this just about gets you through an apprenticeship. If you are passionate and intensely focused on your work, you may complete the initial period of training in say four years. But by my simple reckoning, at this point, you are merely on the start line, and it will take you another five years of intense work, at least, to reach an expert level of proficiency. Mastery is another ten years down the road perhaps.
The thing to remember here is that attention to this rule for success or any other rule takes our focus off the work and on exterior subjective metrics. Rules and laws only cover the mean and rarely if ever account for everyone. If you are a creative type, it’s likely you already fall outside the bell curve of normal distribution of the general population so take with a pinch of salt these generalisations. There are always exceptions to the norm it seems; therefore, we must understand that what applies to others does not necessarily apply to us. The inaccuracy of Gladwell’s “10,000-hour rule” is a stark reminder of how information calculated for the mean can become distorted by popular culture and by people seeking to sell you on distorted ideas.
The Artist’s Challenge
Considering Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule, we can see how there is often a great compulsion upon us to fit in with mainstream society and adopt their rules as our own. The momentum of the world is very strong and it draws us in, tempting us with the security that normality and sameness promises. Like the carnivorous pitcher plant to an insect, society seduces us with its vibrant colour, scent and sound. Many of us unwittingly fall for its empty promises of happiness only to realise later in life we were duped. The artist’s challenge, therefore, is to remain centred regardless of how broader society says we should work and perform.
I remember talking a couple of years ago, to the author Derek Landy about his success. I was at that time, running an audio installation company and had just completed a cinema room for him. He had finally achieved financial success, but it wasn’t always this way. He told how since he was a teenager, people told him he was lazy and pretty much useless. He’d work on his father’s small farm holding in North County Dublin for a few quid while attending his studies in Ballyfermot. He told me how he couldn’t complete his studies and subsequently went further down in the estimation of others as a result. He wrote a couple of scripts and managed to get by somehow but other people’s opinion of him didn’t improve.
Derek’s challenging situation went on for many years without much change, until that is, he sent a draft manuscript of a title he had been working on to a UK agent. Long story short, he was out for a meal with family when received a call from the guy. “Are you sitting down?” his agent asked. “Harper Collins is offering you a £1m book deal for Skulduggery Pleasant Derek,” he said. Landy was vindicated. Landy remarked to me how pointed it was that now as invites to speak and present around the world come in, the very people who said he was useless, that he should get a real job, were the ones cheering loudest. Derek Landy might tell that story different, but that’s how I remember it.
The world of people is like that; we can never ultimately rely on their support. Society is like a whirlpool, always trying to suck us into the apparent safety of it centre where normality and sameness live. But it is not safe; it kills the creative spirit in millions of people, therefore, perhaps our greatest challenge is to remain focused on our work and disregard the opinions of others. They mean well, and only want the best for you. However, their motivation is fear based. Fear-based action never brings positive results and leaves us exposed to the constant barrage of events and circumstances in our environment. Instead, following the call of the creative spirit is the only voice we need to heed.
The world can be a very depressing place, but paradoxically, it can also inspire us to create the most beautiful things. Just as we can never overcome the polarity and duality of the self, we can not overcome the duality of circumstances, people and events in the world. Therefore we have little choice if we are to remain centred and at balance in our work than to accept that the conditions of our surroundings will change in due course. Which they always do. Our only role in this dynamic exchange is to produce creative work that reflects a better version of the world.
The days you work are the best daysGeorgia O’Keeffe | Artist
The Dissenting Voice
When I was a boy in school about 13 or 14 years old, I had a yellow canvas school bag. All the cool kids had these bags. We’d buy them from Army Bargains on Little Mary Street in Dublin and use different colour pens, markers and Tipex to write slogans and logos of bands all over them. I wrote, Fuck The System! down the side in big black letters. That didn’t go down too well with my parents. “He’s a rebel without a cause”, I heard my mother say to a neighbour one Saturday afternoon. In school, I’d hear The Wall play over and over in my head as I dreamed of a schoolboy revolution in the St. Vincent’s field. I would see myself play electric guitar, calling all the kids to revolt against the adults and their oppressive school system. Teachers would be rounded up and made pay for their cruel oppression of the kids, for pinning us against the wall by the scruff of our collars for minor indiscretions. The revolution never happened though.
In our youth, we are full of enthusiasm. We are brimming with fresh ideas and unbounded dreams of doing the impossible. That is, until the school system and adult notions of what it means to be a worthy member of society take hold. Traditionally, although the school has provided vital primary education, it has also been a means of indoctrination of the young into pre-established systems of thought and rule. Through traditional education, we become pawns for the machine, workers for the economy, numbers on the State’s balance sheet. Is it no wonder, therefore, that the wonderfully creative ideas of the youth are lost mainly to what could have been. Is it no wonder that so many forty-year-olds face an existential crisis as they realise that they are nothing more than a cog in the wheel of someone else’s banal commercial instrument.
Here lies the reason most people are afraid to challenge authority. We have been conditioned. However, challenging figures of power and their often dogmatic ideologies is vital in building a stable and healthy society. For creative people, there are few greater imperatives. In systems of education, national and local government, in work environments, sports clubs and organisations, wherever there are those who would assume authority over other people there must be those who are willing to challenge them no matter what the consequences. There must be in the creative, a dissenting voice, a non-conformist. Someone who is willing to stand up against authority despite the weight of its opposition and often indifference of the general public.
Women and men must be prepared to highlight social injustices through their work, no matter how much negative sentiment they may invite on themselves. For where authority is allowed to exercise its power with impunity, people will suffer just like generations of people did in my country under the immoral and insidious gaze of the Catholic Church. In our sleepy false sense of security, we have become cooperative components in control wielded over us. Creative people are born non-conformists. We are catalysts for change, and we must exercise our moral and artistic obligation to break the rules of static and often oppressive circumstances at every opportunity. The rightful evolution of humanity by the disintegration of manipulative and duplicitous regimes no matter where we find them is critical. That is our job.
Breaking The Rules
I don’t know about you, but when I find myself in a situation where apparent problems exist, where someone is taking unfair advantage, and people are being exploited or mistreated, I’m compelled to open my mouth. Now, that can be disturbing for others around me including those who are negatively affected because you see we’re not supposed to rock the boat. The unwritten rules say we’re all supposed to keep our mouths shut, say nothing, keep our heads down because, despite the circumstances, the situation is tolerable. Listen, get what you have to do done and don’t bring attention to yourself because if you do you’re risking everything. Don’t stand out, blend in. That’s the unspoken rule.
These informal, standard behaviours come from a need to have approval and acceptance from the group. To oppose them is to bring unwanted attention to ourselves and risk isolation, and to be isolated is to be alone, and to be alone is to not exist. In our overreliance on the acceptance of others, we can never really be free and we can never create something of real integrity because our compulsion is to measure its value against popular opinion.
Why are we so willing to conform to authority? Why do we give up our individuality for the sake of group identity? What is it about uniforms and other symbols of authority that makes people go placid and accepting of ordinarily unacceptable behaviour? Psychologist Stanley Milgram asked this question in the wake of the atrocities carried out by the Nazi regime during WW2 on the ethnic minorities of Europe. Milgram wanted to understand why seemingly ordinarily compassionate, stable people blindly adhered to authority, often carrying out horrendous acts of brutality against their otherwise better judgement.
Milgram conducted an experiment where he falsely told participants they were taking part in a study the effects of punishment on learning ability. The study included Instructors (experimenters), Teachers (participants), and Students (actors). All participants were assigned the role of teacher. The students stayed in an adjoining room out of sight but within earshot of the teacher and instructor. The instructor ordered the teacher to ask preset questions of the student, and upon receiving a wrong answer, they were to administer a (fake) electric shock to the student. The (fake) electric shock ranged from 15v to 450v and was to be increased by the teacher every time the student gave a wrong answer.
As the shock level increased, the student (actor) made audible their fake discomfort and pain. Despite the teachers believing this pain was real, 65% of them continued delivering what they thought were real electric shocks to the students. Some participants questioned whether they should continue out of concern for the student, but upon being pressed further by the authority figure to continue, they did so.
Popular expert opinion at the time held that only 1% of the population were capable of such obscenity and brutality witnessed in Europe during the Nazi regime. But the results of the study found this assumption to be grossly inaccurate. The study participants, ordinary American people, put aside their better judgement and concern for their fellow human being in favour of obedience to the authority figure. This was despite their obvious realisation that they were inflicting potentially life-threatening shock levels. Milgram found that people would suspend personal and societal values, core principles and proper judgement for fear of reprisal or desire to remain cooperative to authority.
A Final Word
The is no more significant means of expressing who are than to immerse ourselves in work we love to do solely for its implicit enjoyment. However, the noise of the modern world is loud and will always seek to convince us that our left of center, non-commercially advantageous activities are an inviable waste of time. But you and I know we’ve got to have another reason to do what we do, because utility on its own is sterile and soulless. We might as well be machines as we do machine-like work. Is this not what the captains of industry want of people? Their bureaucracy, rules and regulations are means of control by the few over the many. They fool us into thinking that abstract inorganic ideas can be applied successfully to the lives of humans. And in that context, what other choice do we have than to nurture the creative spirit?
There will, of course, be other things we engage in, some will be enjoyable, and some will not, but isn’t that the divine dichotomy of life; to weigh up experiences, discover what we like best and to make more of that? The compulsion to have our voice be heard and to speak our truth is difficult to ignore. When we do, we repress creative integrity and deny ourselves the opportunity to develop in new ways. In the creative work, we can make this world a better place and assign meaning and purpose to life and there lies.