Monday, August 20, 2018

Side Note: The Creative Process


I offer this note not just for writers but for all creative souls – I think it applies across the board.

Today, my father would’ve turned 84. I guess he technically still turns 84 regardless, but he hasn’t been alive to make a fuss about it for ten years. Anyway, I always give myself a moment on this day to remember something about him, so this time I will discuss his creative process.

My father in 2007, carrying around my head for good luck.
My father was an artist by trade – a job he did not recommend to others. For him, however, it was a natural talent, so he made a living off of it. Most of his work was commercial art. He was an illustrator on retainer who contracted out work on the side to pay the bills. I would look at the fruits of his assignments and be amazed at the talent, but he would offer little more than a shrug. If he was proud of his contract work, he hid it well (though he kept every single piece.)

Where his process truly came to life was with his paintings. These were his personal works, ideas he needed to translate from concept to canvas. Sometimes he would not touch paint for months, but then the inspiration would hit and he would start sketching ideas on sheets of tracing paper or in notepads.

As a child, I never really understood why he would spend so much time doing little charcoal sketches when he wanted to make a painting. If it was supposed to be a painting, shouldn’t he start by painting it? This is the simple logic of a simple child. What I did not understand was his process.

In his mind, the idea was already complete, just like how an author already knows the story before they write it. But Dad needed to understand the details – the shapes, the poses, how the different figures related to each other. He would go through countless sketches of someone sitting at a desk just so he could envision just how that person should look, how the image best portrayed what he wanted it to say. Before he would paint, he would imagine, just as a writer thinks before they put down the words.

In some ways, I believe that the painting part of his creative process was the third act of a very long story, the conclusion of understanding everything. However, that does not do it justice. While a third act is supposed to be a conclusion, my father would go through an entirely separate set of frustrations in the painting stage that sketches and drawings could never reveal. Did the visual balance work? What parts drew the eye? Was the lighting appropriate? Did the shadows fall right? These parts were just as much an obsession with him as any component of a story would be for an author.

And if his paintings were novels, I know many that went through severe editing and rewrites. No matter what the creative medium may be, when something doesn’t work, it is the prime responsibility to either fix it or admit defeat. With my father this was no different. Many of his finished products had layers of secrets buried under the oil – characters that got painted over, cows replaced with horses, bushes overwritten with trees, entire landscapes changed with the stroke of a brush. One painting, now hanging in my brother’s house, went through at least four complete revisions without achieving the ideal in his mind. If my father became a ghost, I am sure his first task would be to go back to work on that painting.

The patience he put into his paintings is something I have carried through life, and it shows all the more in my writing process. I know that before a manuscript can come to life, I first have to go through the work of understanding what I am trying to say. For shorter stories, this process can be condensed just like my father’s contract work. However, the more invested I am in something, the more I need to develop my understanding of it before I can create the final product. And of course, I should be fearless in my willingness to edit, revise, and rewrite something until I am satisfied with it, even if that means the manuscript is still around after I am gone. It’s a scary proposal, but it’s what we do if the art matters.

Happy Birthday, Dad.

4 comments:

  1. This post directly relates to why you haven't received my final draft for this year's anthology- and why you may never.

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    1. I have a space in the upcoming book waiting for you if it happens

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  2. Nice way to remember and celebrate how your dad influenced you

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