Knowing What You're Doing is Overrated
Chance, timing and patience in the process of creating
I’ve had a subject in mind to talk about this week that I’ve been mulling over for a while. I wanted to explore how artists have interpreted power and authority in the sound of the voice, in accent, tone and rhythm of speech. And to think about what the voice means for social mobility and its impact on a person’s life chances. I thought I had the right ingredients for an interesting little essay, but for some reason I just couldn’t make it work. For days I’ve been skirting around it, feeling frustrated, trying to fit the different elements into a coherent flow. But they just wouldn’t connect up nicely, and eventually I allowed myself to park that piece of writing. For now.
Instead, what I want to reflect on very briefly today is this question that I just bumped up against: why couldn’t I get it finished? It’s something that I often hear from visual artists too — the frustration when an artwork doesn’t feel quite right and it’s not clear how to move it on. Last week, by chance, I was watching the American artist Pope L. talk about this very issue. His advice to artists who get stuck on an artwork is this:
Be patient. Enter into the ignorance of what you think you know. And if you don’t get the answer that you’re expecting then maybe that’s a good thing. Knowing what you’re doing is overrated.
This advice to be patient makes total sense to me. In every writing struggle I have now I try to remember that the best thing to do is to take a step back. You can suffocate your work through overfamiliarity. The knots will eventually untangle, but you can’t rush it. I’ll definitely come back to that essay on the authority of the voice at some point, but in the meantime I’m just going to wait patiently for the right moment.
That knowledge has come for me from the habit and experience of writing over time. I can now see the parameters, the structure, and the repeated patterns in my writing, and I know I can rely on it. I fall back on this knowledge as a safety net. I have a system of research, a process of gathering and clocking thoughts about the things I am looking at, the stuff I’m listening to and reading. I note down phrases that strike me, words that resonate, ideas that I have a feeling will be useful to me at some point. Even my subject matter has parameters: although the topics change every week, I broadly write about the dynamics of power in our world. I always seem to come back to the same ideas, but from different directions. The great American conceptual artist John Baldessari (1931-2020) nailed it for me when he described the parameters within which he worked as,
not so much structure that it’s inhibiting, not so loose that it could be anything. You can move, but not too much. It’s that limited movement that promotes creativity.
I have some control in the process of writing which I know I can trust. But there’s something else that happens, which I can’t control. It’s some kind of timely alchemy. A sort of magical process of transformation of elements that combine through chance. This is something I’ve written about before: how the library in my mind hands out unexpected connections and surprising associations that knit together stuff happening in the present with things I’ve absorbed in the past.
Recently I’ve really started to notice how crucial contingent observations in the present are for my writing. I mean the ephemeral details of everyday life that go by in the moment without me consciously noting them down — things like song lyrics, a fleeting conversation, an image I’ve seen for just one second as I’ve scrolled past it on instagram. I’m unlikely to remember these things even next week, but they inform what I’m writing today and help me make sense of it. It’s intention colliding with chance elements.
The importance of timing and the contingent is something that the American artist Josephine Halvorson describes as ‘the right language at the right time for the right person.’ Her painting of a clock face from 2013 came from a chance encounter with a mural that she happened to notice in her local town of Thomaston in Conneticut, a place that has a long history with clockmaking. She had driven past the mural several times before, but on that day she caught sight of it. And at that moment the idea for her next painting started to take shape.
What I find really interesting about this painting is that it speaks so clearly of Halvorson’s concern with time in her practice. As an artist she hasn’t found a way to paint on the same surface on successive days in a way that doesn’t feel for her like she’s concealing something. In other words, she needs to complete her paintings in one day otherwise she has to start all over again. For this particular artwork she was quite literally up against the clock to finish her painting of a clock. It took her four separate attempts.
So many of the things Halvorson says in this video about her experience of painting resonate with me. She describes it as a ‘complete mental struggle’ to make a painting exciting to her within the timeframe she imposes on herself. When I am writing I hope it will be of interest to my reader, but primarily I’m resolving a set of questions for myself and finding a way to express that in words I’m happy with. I might have a plan about what I’m going to say at the start, but it invariably moves into a shape and goes in a direction I don’t expect. It’s always a mind-bending ride. And if I can’t resolve it in time, I have to press the eject button and start from scratch with something else. Luckily I’ve learnt to press it early enough now, and I’m reasonably happy to give you this essay today instead.
As always I’d love to know your thoughts on any of these artists and ideas so please click on the comment button below to leave a message.
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