Being an Artist

I’ve been reading Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention. It’s a good book, not particularly scientific if we start to take it apart, but suggestive and interesting. And I care more about suggestive and interesting than I do about scientifically accurate, particularly when we’re talking about something as difficult to understand as creativity — and the creative impulse. The books I find most useful are those that offer an interpretation of the world that allows me to see parts of it in a new way. And this book does.

I’m only about a third of the way through, but I was struck by Csikszentmihalyi’s description of the three steps needed for creativity — I would say they are needed for creating good art in general. They are the three things every artist must do.

1. Internalize the system.

“A person who wants to make a creative contribution not only must work within a creative system but must also reproduce that system within his or her mind.”

In other words, as a writer, I work within a “system” that is literature. To work well, I need to know literature, know it thoroughly and deeply. I need to have read a lot of books, studied them, thought about them. If I don’t know the field I’m working in, it’s very difficult to be creative within it — to even create good art within in. I think this is why, when I decided to go back to school, I instinctively chose a PhD over an MFA. I wanted a thorough grounding in English literature, and I’d had bad experiences with poetry workshops. They had given me no grounding in poetry itself, the history of poetry or even poetic technique. (Now I teach in an MFA program, and I can tell you that we give students plenty of grounding, both in history and technique. But this was what I thought at the time.)

To create art in a field, you need to both learn it and then internalize it, to have it within you. Know it so deeply that it becomes part of your makeup. When I have trouble writing a sentence, I reach for Jane Austen or Virginia Woolf or Isaak Dinesen, as though they were tools in my internal cabinet. When I see waves, white and black, I hear Prufrock (which may be some sort of mental disease, actually).

2. Be motivated to work within the system.

That’s an accurate title, but really what I mean, and what Csikszentmihalyi means, is that you must be the sort of person who likes to play within the field you’ve chosen: who will write poetry even if no one reads it, who will write novels whether or not they’re published. You have to generate ideas and work for their own sake. In other words, your motivation must be internal, and out of it you must produce, and produce.

I see this with my friends who are artists and writers — they are constantly writing, constantly making art. They never stop. I’m not sure they could. I am sitting here on a Saturday morning writing a blog post, after staying up until 2 a.m. last night revising a chapter of my novel, because this is what I love to do. I love words the way Cleopatra loved jewels. A life of dealing with words, of teaching writing and of writing myself — I can’t think of any way I would rather spend my time.

Why is this important? Well, because it’s only out of that motivation, that enjoyment and sense of play, that you actually produce enough to (a) get better and (b) throw away what isn’t good enough.

3. Apply the critical apparatus of the system to discard inferior work.

Some art isn’t good, or isn’t good enough. You must know enough about what is and isn’t good to discard what, in your own work, is inferior. In other words, you must develop taste.

This can be a bit of a problem, because criteria of taste change over time, and you must have enough taste, be bold and innovative enough, to see what is good even before other people, often respected people within the system, recognize it. You must be able to say, “Yes, that Monet, he’s got something.” But I think the basic idea is sound: you need to be your own editor. What has helped me with this, more than anything else, is editing the work of other people — in other words, teaching writing. I can see when writing is trite, flat. I can diagnose what’s wrong with it, how it needs to change. And hopefully, I can see when those things are true of my own work, although I often cringe as I tell myself that what I’ve written isn’t good enough. It takes courage to be your own editor, but if you want to be good, you have to be. It’s a fundamental requirement.

Those are the three steps, and I think I’ve gotten better at each of them with time. That’s something else Csikszentmihalyi talks about, which is that it takes a lot of time. There are shortcuts in life, but not in art. There are efficiencies, meaning that if you study writing in a good program, it will teach you a lot about writing that you won’t get, or will get more slowly, by just writing on your own. But there are no shortcuts: you still need to put in the work. “Butt in Chair” is still the motto of all writers.

If I think of how long it’s taken me, simply to get where I am? I was writing regularly in high school — my first publication was in the high school literary magazine. So I’ve been writing for at least two decades. And there are days when I feel as though I’m just starting to get it . . . (But then, in an interview he did at ninety, Jorge Luis Borges said that some day he hoped to write the work that would justify him. I don’t think artists are ever satisfied.)

I think these three steps are important, or at least important to me personally, because I see people who are missing one or two of them, and they aren’t working the way I want to. Outsider artists don’t necessarily internalize the system, and they produce genuinely interesting work — being outside the system can be freeing. But it is often limiting because the artist remains outside the conversation going on within the system, in which works of art speak to each other, or  lacks the craft, the technique, to be flexible, to produce a body of work that changes over time rather than replicating ideas and forms. Picasso immersed himself in the system before he did his own creative work — that man imitated everyone. Lacking critical faculty can be a real problem, because our culture does not necessarily reward good writing. You write a best-seller, and you think you’ve done good work because a lot of people are reading it. But the book will be gone within ten years because it doesn’t have the depth and complexity of great literature. I could go on, but won’t, because this post is already long enough and I have other things to do. After all, someday I hope to write the work that may justify me . . .


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6 Responses to Being an Artist

  1. Dana says:

    Mr. C’s first book, on FLOW and the Optimal Life, was based on his research and in my opinion was statistically valid. Like lots of successful researchers, he’s been elaborating on those findings ever since! I have found that if I’m in a creative desert, going back to the seven components of Flow, I can discover what’s missing, add it, and recognize a lush oasis nearby.

  2. zm says:

    Quote: “When I see waves, white and black, I hear Prufrock (which may be some sort of mental disease, actually).”

    wadr, would you, could you, please elaborate? Waves? Hearing Prufrock? And surely, some lab coat out there is not now suggesting that if you can recap, by way of imagination, the sound of someone’s voice (or laugh, or singing) in your mind, that you have some sort of disorder? (Disclosure: I heard rumblings of the same meme elsewhere a few weeks back, I why I ask). Oh lawdy and yikes. Do tell. I really hope you meant something else. Diagnosticians of a certain stripe do so love to put diminishing labels on others, especially for capacities of which they, themselves are lacking. Please tell me one is not bending your ear in the hopes that you will only hear their voice.

    Vive art.

  3. Am hoping that Csikszentmihalyi gets into Artistic Failure as well. Sometimes seen as when critical faculty simply “doesn’t” and the result is a failure. But sometimes they can be more beautiful than any crafted work. I can’t think of anyone but Seattle’s own Rebecca Brown summing it up better than in this essay: And yes, it’s mostly about Moby Dick.

    • I don’t know since I haven’t read the whole book yet? But I think that in terms of his definition of creativity, what is creative is what changes a particular field, so whether or not it’s a failure by a particular set of aesthetic standards doesn’t much matter. What is truly creative changes the aesthetic standards anyway. Van Gogh is a “failure” as an academic artist, but his legacy makes us look at academic art as the failure . . .

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