Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Aiming at Good

Dear James

Dear James: let­ters to a young illus­tra­tor

I wish I were half as smart as my uncon­scious mind.

When I’m work­ing on a tricky design or try­ing to intu­it a way to visu­al­ly rep­re­sent a per­son or writ­ing a col­umn, I’ve learned that it’s best if I don’t force myself to sit down and do it. Of course, that’s not always pos­si­ble. I have dead­lines. There are days when I hope that I’ve done my best design and I move on to the skilled parts of exe­cut­ing the con­cept.

This isn’t far afield from what we’re ask­ing chil­dren and young adults to do with their own writ­ing, their read­ing, their com­pre­hen­sion … every­thing they’re learn­ing about life.

What works well is let­ting our uncon­scious tack­le the job. How does that hap­pen? Doing some­thing else.

After we’ve fig­ured out what the assign­ment is and we’re ready to devel­op a con­cept or a plan or a the­sis or a pro­gram … it’s time to go play. Absorb sights, sounds, smells. Eaves­drop. Notice fonts and col­or com­bi­na­tions. Talk about some­thing else. It’s time to be cre­ative and let the uncon­scious work with us … part of the famous­ly large por­tion of our brains about which we don’t under­stand access.

I’m read­ing Dear James: let­ters to a young illus­tra­tor by R.O. Blech­man (Simon & Schus­ter, 2009). It’s a slim vol­ume, but there’s some­thing quote-wor­thy or pon­der­able on every page. I high­ly rec­om­mend it for those of you pon­der­ing how cre­ativ­i­ty and learn­ing works. Illus­tra­tors will find spe­cial con­nec­tions but it’s a book edu­ca­tors and librar­i­ans should read as well. You may know Blechman’s “shaky line” draw­ings from The New York­er, Rolling Stone, or The Huff­in­g­ton Post. His ani­ma­tion stu­dio, The Ink Tank, cre­at­ed ani­mat­ed films for 27 years. This guy has thought a lot about cre­ativ­i­ty.

Begin­ning on page 17, “Cyril Con­nol­ly, in his love­ly and just­ly admired book The Unqui­et Grave, dropped anoth­er block­buster on aspir­ing artists. ‘The true func­tion of a writer,’ he declared, ‘is to pro­duce a mas­ter­piece.’ A mas­ter­piece?! Since when isn’t bril­liant good enough? Since when isn’t plain good accept­able? With a stan­dard set that high, the world would have few­er artists and more clerks. His stan­dard is one that few writ­ers would accept, and one that Con­nol­ly him­self, by the way, nev­er man­aged to ful­fill. One does not set out to cre­ate a mas­ter­piece. One just sets out, that’s all. And the land­fall, be it bar­ren desert or Cloud Cuck­oo Land, is beyond one’s knowl­edge.”

While illus­trat­ing a month­ly col­umn for The­atre Arts, he talked with Rod MacArthur, a young edi­tor who felt his illus­tra­tions were “just won­der­ful!”

Many year lat­er I learned that he was not just any old MacArthur, but J. Rod­er­ick MacArthur of the genius grants fam­i­ly. Which made me won­der, Why didn’t he give this ‘won­der­ful’ artist a grant? Not a Genius Grant (I know my lim­i­ta­tions), but some­thing on the order of a Bril­liant Grant, or even a plain old Tal­ent­ed Grant. That would not have brought in the usu­al big bucks, I real­ize. I might have got­ten maybe a hun­dred thou­sand dol­lars. But I could man­age.” How many of us, upon hear­ing this year’s Genius­es announced, won­dered about our own tal­ents?

Blech­man con­cludes that essay by say­ing “But good, that’s okay by me.”

Do we stymie our cre­ativ­i­ty by search­ing for “the best”? Do we ham­per our­selves by insist­ing that we have an end­less list of things to accom­plish and must there­fore sit at our desks until we have them done?

What if we aim for Good and let our brains do most of the work while we’re at play? Take a walk. Go to a muse­um. Watch actors nav­i­gate the stage. Lis­ten to a con­cert. Watch boats tra­verse the riv­er or a tur­tle crawl­ing toward a safe haven for its eggs. Who knows what will hap­pen?

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