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Note: The following are excerpts from The Creative Act: A Way of Being by Rick Rubin.
A rule is any guiding principle or creative criterion. It might exist within the artist, the genre, or the culture. Rules, by their nature, are limitations. The laws of math and science are different from the rules we are looking at here. Those laws describe precise relationships in the physical world, which we know to be true by testing them against the world itself. The rules artists learn are different. They are assumptions, not absolutes. They describe a goal or method for short-term or long-term results. They are there to be tested. And they are only of value as long as they are helpful. They are not laws of nature. All kinds of assumptions masquerade as laws: a suggestion from a self-help book, something heard in an interview, your favorite artist’s best tip, an expression in the culture, or something a teacher once told you. Rules direct us to average behaviors. If we’re aiming to create works that are exceptional, most rules don’t apply. Average is nothing to aspire to. The goal is not to fit in. If anything, it’s to amplify the differences, what doesn’t fit, the special characteristics unique to how you see the world. Instead of sounding like others, value your own voice. Develop it. Cherish it.
As soon as a convention is established, the most interesting work would likely be the one that doesn’t follow it. The reason to make art is to innovate and self-express, show something new, share what’s inside, and communicate your singular perspective. Pressures and expectations come from different directions. Society’s mores dictate what’s right and wrong, what’s accepted and frowned upon, what’s celebrated and reviled. The artists who define each generation are generally the ones who live outside of these boundaries. Not the artists who embody the beliefs and conventions of their time, but the ones who transcend them. Art is confrontation. It widens the audience’s reality, allowing them to glimpse life through a different window. One with the potential for a glorious new view. In the beginning, we approach our craft with a template of what’s come before. If you’re writing a song, you might think it should be three to five minutes long and have a certain amount of repetition. To a bird, a song is a very different thing. The bird doesn’t prefer a three-to-five-minute format or accept the chorus as the hook, yet the song for the bird is just as sonorous. And even more intrinsic to the bird’s being. It’s an invitation, a warning, a way to connect, a means of survival.
It’s a healthy practice to approach our work with as few accepted rules, starting points, and limitations as possible. Often the standards in our chosen medium are so ubiquitous, we take them for granted. They are invisible and unquestioned. This makes it nearly impossible to think outside the standard paradigm. Visit an art museum. Most of the paintings you’ll see are canvas stretched over a rectangular frame made of wood, whether it’s Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Socrates or the Altarpiece paintings of Hilma af Klint. The content may vary yet the materials are consistent. There’s a generally accepted standard. If you want to paint, you’re likely to begin by stretching canvas over a rectangular wooden frame and propping it up on an easel. Based solely on the tools selected, you’ve already exponentially narrowed what’s possible, before a single drop of paint has made contact with the canvas.
We assume the equipment and format are part of the art form itself. Yet painting can be anything that involves the use of color on a surface for an aesthetic or communicative purpose. All other decisions are up to the artist. Similar conventions are woven into most art forms: a book is a certain number of pages and is divided into chapters. A feature film is 90 to 120 minutes and often has three acts. Embedded in each medium, there are sets of norms that restrain our work before we’ve even begun. Genres, in particular, come with distinct variations on rules. A horror film, a ballet, or a country album—each come with specific expectations. As soon as you use a label to describe what you’re working on, there’s a temptation to conform to its rules. The templates of the past can be an inspiration in the beginning phases, but it’s helpful to think beyond what’s been done before. The world isn’t waiting for more of the same.
Often, the most innovative ideas come from those who master the rules to such a degree that they can see past them or from those who never learned them at all. The most deceptive rules are not the ones we can see, but the ones we can’t. These can be found hiding deeper in the mind, often unnoticed, just beyond our awareness. Rules that entered our thinking through childhood programming, lessons we’ve forgotten, osmosis from the culture, and emulating the artists who inspired us to try it for ourselves. These rules can serve or limit us. Be aware of any assumptions based on conventional wisdom. Rules obeyed unconsciously are far stronger than the ones set on purpose. And they are more likely to undermine the work. Every innovation risks becoming a rule. And innovation risks becoming an end in itself.
When we make a discovery that serves our work, it’s not unusual to concretize this into a formula. On occasion, we decide this formula is who we are as an artist. What our voice is and isn’t. While this may benefit certain makers, it can be a limitation for others. Sometimes a formula has diminishing returns. Other times, we don’t recognize that the formula is only a small aspect of what gives the work its charge. It’s helpful to continually challenge your own process. If you had a good result using a specific style, method, or working condition, don’t assume that is the best way. Or your way. Or the only way. Avoid getting religious about it. There may be other strategies that work just as well and allow new possibilities, directions, and opportunities. This is not always true, but it’s something to consider. Holding every rule as breakable is a healthy way to live as an artist. It loosens constraints that promote a predictable sameness in our working methods.
As you get further along in your career, a consistency may develop that’s of less interest over time. Your work can start to feel like a job or a responsibility. So it’s helpful to notice if you’ve been working with the same palette of colors all along. Start the next project by scrapping that palette. The uncertainty that results can be a thrilling and scary proposition. Once you have a new framework, some elements of your older process may find their way back into the work, and that’s okay. It’s helpful to remember that when you throw away an old playbook, you still get to keep the skills you learned along the way. These hard-earned abilities transcend rules. They’re yours to keep. Imagine what can arise when you overlay an entirely new set of materials and instructions over your accumulated expertise. As you move away from familiar rules, you may bump up against more hidden rules that have been guiding you all along, without your knowledge. Once recognized, these rules may be released or used with more intention. Any rule is worth testing, be it conscious or unconscious. Challenge your assumptions and methods. You might find a better way. And even if it’s not better, you’ll learn from the experience. All of these experiments are like free throws. You have nothing to lose.
The first thing I would show players at our initial day of training was how to take a little extra time putting on their shoes and socks properly. The most important part of your equipment is your shoes and socks. You play on a hard floor. So you must have shoes that fit right. And you must not permit your socks to have wrinkles around the little toe—where you generally get blisters—or around the heels. I showed my players how I wanted them to do it. Hold up the sock, work it around the little toe area and the heel area so that there are no wrinkles. Smooth it out good. Then hold the sock up while you put the shoe on. And the shoe must be spread apart—not just pulled on the top laces. You tighten it up snugly by each eyelet. Then you tie it. And then you double-tie it so it won’t come undone—because I don’t want shoes coming untied during practice, or during the game. I don’t want that to happen. That’s just a little detail that coaches must take advantage of, because it’s the little details that make the big things come about. The sentiments above are John Wooden’s, the most successful coach in the history of college basketball. His teams won more consecutive games and championships than any others in history. It must have been frustrating for these elite athletes, who wanted to get on the court and show what they could do, to arrive at practice for the first time with this legendary coach only to hear him say, Today we will learn to tie our shoes.
The point Wooden was making was that creating effective habits, down to the smallest detail, is what makes the difference between winning and losing games. Each habit might seem small, but added together, they have an exponential effect on performance. Just one habit, at the top of any field, can be enough to give an edge over the competition. Wooden considered every aspect of the game where an issue might arise, and trained his players for each one. Repeatedly. Until they became habits. The goal was immaculate performance. Wooden often said the only person you’re ever competing against is yourself. The rest is out of your control. This way of thinking applies to the creative life just as well. For both the artist and the athlete, the details matter, whether the players recognize their importance or not. Good habits create good art. The way we do anything is the way we do everything. Treat each choice you make, each action you take, each word you speak with skillful care. The goal is to live your life in the service of art. Consider establishing a consistent framework around your creative process. It is often the case that the more set in your personal regimen, the more freedom you have within that structure to express yourself.
Discipline and freedom seem like opposites. In reality, they are partners. Discipline is not a lack of freedom, it is a harmonious relationship with time. Managing your schedule and daily habits well is a necessary component to free up the practical and creative capacity to make great art. It could even be said that a focused efficiency in life is more important than one in work. Approaching the practical aspects of your day with military precision allows the artistic windows to be opened in childlike freedom. Creativity-supporting habits can begin the moment you arise each day. These might include looking at sunlight before screenlight, meditating (outdoors if possible), exercising, and showering in cold water before beginning creative time in a suitable space. These habits look different for everyone, and perhaps different for the same artist from day to day. You might sit in the forest, pay attention to your thoughts, and make notes. Or drive in a car for an hour, with no destination in mind, listening to classical music and seeing if any sparks arise. It’s helpful to set scheduled office hours, or uninterrupted periods of joyful play that allow your imagination to soar. For one person, that window of time might be three hours, for another thirty minutes. Some prefer to work from dusk ’til dawn, while others create in twenty-minute sessions, with five-minute breaks between each.
Find the sustainable rituals that best support your work. If you set a routine that is oppressive, you’ll likely find excuses not to show up. It’s in the interest of your art to create an easily achievable schedule to start with. If you commit to working for half an hour a day, something good can happen that generates momentum. You may then look at the clock and realize you’ve been working for two hours. The option is always open to extend your creative hours once the habit is formed. Feel free to experiment. The goal is to commit to a structure that can take on a life of its own, instead of creating only when the mood strikes. Or to start each day with the question of how and when you’re going to work on your art. Put the decision making into the work, not into when to work. The more you reduce your daily life-maintenance tasks, the greater the bandwidth available for creative decisions. Albert Einstein wore the same thing daily: a gray suit. Erik Satie had seven identical outfits, one for each day of the week. Limit your practical choices to free your creative imagination. We all yearn to establish new healthy, productive habits, such as exercising, eating more local, natural foods, or practicing our craft more regularly.
But how often do we consider examining and removing the habits that currently drive our days? How often do we regard behaviors accepted as “the way people are” or “the way we are” merely as habits? Each of us has automatic habits. We have habits in movement. Habits in speech, thought, and perception. Habits in being ourselves. Some of them have been practiced every day since we were children. A pathway gets carved into the brain and becomes difficult to change. Most of these habits control us, beyond our decisions, to the point they function autonomously and automatically, like the regulation of our body temperature. I recently learned a different way of swimming. It felt awkward and counterintuitive, because I learned to swim when I was very young. My previous method was so ingrained, I didn’t ever have to think about it. I effortlessly knew how to do it. It had worked well enough to get me from one side of the pool to the other, even though there were other ways that could take me farther and faster with more ease.
Carl Jung was obsessed with building a round tower to live, think, and create in. The shape was important because he saw “life in the round as something forever coming into being and passing on.” We are part of a constant, interconnected cycle of birth, death, and regeneration. Our bodies decay into the earth to bring forth new life, our energetic mind is returned to the universe to be repurposed. Art exists in this same cycle of death and rebirth. We participate in this by completing one project so that we can start anew. As in life, each ending invites a fresh beginning. When consumed with a single work to the degree that we believe it’s our life’s mission, there’s no room for the next one to develop. While the artist’s goal is greatness, it’s also to move forward. In service to the next project, we finish the current one. In service to the current project, we finish it so it can be set free into the world. Sharing art is the price of making it. Exposing your vulnerability is the fee. Out of this experience comes regeneration, finding freshness within yourself for the next project. And all the ones to follow. Every artist creates a dynamic history. A living museum of finished objects. One work after another. Begun, completed, released. Begun, completed, released. Over and over again. Each a time stamp commemorating a moment of passage. A moment filled with energy, now forever embodied in a work of art.
Learn more about The Creative Act on Amazon.
Buy The Creative Act: Print | Kindle | Audiobook
If you enjoyed this summary, please consider buying me a coffee to caffeinate my reading sessions.