On Rigor and Creative Block
Inspiration is for amateurs—the rest of us just show up and get to work.
A few weeks ago, everyone at Tronvig Group was asked to watch episode 1 of the Netflix original, Abstract: The Art of Design, a documentary on Berlin-based illustrator Christoph Niemann. It struck a chord with me in two respects. First, I enjoyed the discussion of art based on culture and shared human experiences—presenting the familiar in inventive new ways. Second, I strongly identified with Niemann’s argument that if you have the discipline to practice creative skills daily, you won’t have to wait for inspiration to suddenly strike.
I’d like to talk about the latter, about overcoming creative blocks.
As a creative—a person for whom creativity on demand is an essential part of your job—what do you do when a client asks you to recreate the success of something you created in the past? Can you count on coming up with something equally brilliant on deadline?
Should you ignore the pressure, take it easy, and go with the flow? That’s not Niemann’s answer. He addresses this issue by insisting simply that one should practice daily. In the midst of his busy schedule and high-pressure deadlines, Niemann carves out time for free creation with projects like Sunday Sketches, and in doing so, he practices coming up with solutions to design challenges.
“Inspiration is for amateurs—the rest of us just show up and get to work.”
Niemann cites the Chuck Close quote above saying it’s about showing up and “enabling the chance for something to happen.” In other words, us professionals don’t need to count on dumb luck.
What a relief.
What Niemann is talking about is rigor, one of our Core Values alongside honesty and learning. It is also a core value for me personally. We define rigor as a combination of thoroughness, quality, effectiveness, and passion. To live this value requires that we relentlessly think through the details as much as the big picture. It means we must have the discipline to practice our craft, maintaining steadfast devotion even when inspiration comes up short. Instead of leaving creative challenges up to chance, rigor allows you to be as ready as you can be for the serendipitous, confident that your thousands of hours of preparation and the tools you have developed over time can deliver. It’s a combination of practicing technical skills and leaving room for free play to explore new ideas.
In recent weeks, I was convinced that I was suffering from writer’s block. It’s daunting to open up a blank page and generate an original blog post presenting insight on a topic that I may not be feeling at that moment. I now recognize that the main issue was a lack of rigor on my part.
Rigor: a combination of thoroughness, quality, effectiveness, and passion; relentlessly thinking through the details as much as the big picture
I am a trained musician. I’m disciplined in my practice routine and I do not doubt my ability to come up with new material because it isn’t contingent on chance. It’s work that I set aside time for. It’s part of my job as a musician to experiment—to write good songs and not-so-good songs—and to be okay not ending up with a masterpiece each time. The strong pieces can go on a record later and the rest? They can stay with me in my practice shed.
As Christoph Niemann says, “Every athlete, every musician practices every day—why should it be different for artists?” Or writers? As a writer, I need to take the diligence I maintain as a musician and apply it. Niemann also points out the need to experience art in addition to creating your own. I would definitely benefit from reading things more substantial than the news and blog posts from my Twitter feed.
I have recently started writing something, even if it’s only a sentence or two, every single day. I forgot a couple of times and had to start over but now that I’m on day 30, I’m intent on not breaking the chain and am hopeful that I’ll get to day 100 and day 1000. On some of the earlier days, I felt I didn’t have much to write about but now I’m accruing a backlog of topics because I’ve more ideas than days. This exercise flexes my creative muscles, making them stronger. So do frivolous images I create for my own amusement like this one.
As a graphic designer friend said about this photo montage, you may be thinking “… but why? How is this silly image useful in any way?”
“You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.”
I just felt like making it. The photo has no practical value, but in retrospect, I believe it actually is useful, having the effect of getting my brain juices flowing; creativity is not bound to any particular medium and it informs my work both in and out of Tronvig Group. Maya Angelou said it elegantly: “You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.”
So here’s to rigor: to making a committed and conscientious effort at practicing and experimenting, and ultimately, to making my creative block extinct. Not every piece of work will be genius—but I’ll be practicing, so that when it counts, I’ll be ready.