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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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