Scrambling for a solid hold recently I turned to three authors the same way I do my morning coffees – with absolute hope, reckless desire, and an unreasonable belief that they will save me from myself, every day.
We don’t know where we get our ideas from. What we do know is that we do not get them from our laptops.
– John Cleese
Caffeine might not live up to such dramatic expectations but what is becoming known in my household as The Holy Book Trinity are proving otherwise – on my desk sits Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way alongside Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly, and Austin Kleon’s twinset.
One of the first leaves I’ve taken out from Austin’s first book Steal Like An Artist comes from his list, 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative.
4. — USE YOUR HANDS has changed my writing life.
The computer is really good for editing your ideas, and it’s really good for getting your ideas ready for publishing out into the world, but it’s not really good for generating ideas. There are too many opportunities to hit the delete key. The computer brings out the uptight perfectionist in us – we start editing our ideas before we have them.
– Austin Kleon, Steal Like An Artist p
Discovering Austin Kleon’s points on physically engaging with your work collided with my beginning The Artist’s Way, which asks you to write three morning pages, longhand, every day. Between the two I was compelled to use my hands.
For my first four days of morning pages I wrote using a medium-tip black biro. It felt foreign and familiar, a memory nearly lost (I have been typing since I was 11, when I was test-scored at 111 words per minute). During my morning pages I noticed that writing longhand slows my mind down to keep up with my hand. I take more time to sit with ideas as they occur, stay with an image, labour over a detail, see something in my mind’s eye clearly enough to articulate it – unlike the process of writing first draft at the computer, where my inner editor, critic, and censor all rush in between the wildfire speed of typing. When the day of my first artist date approached, I felt stumped for what to do. Then, a particular hunger, a specific curiosity struck me, and I knew where I was headed.
The morning came. I caught the bus into the city centre and strolled in the pale, northern sunlight straight to the one pen shop I knew of in Manchester. Inside was a woman who could have come straight from The Shire, and to my mind was without doubt the world’s expert on fountain pens. We got talking. She urged me to try out different models. She showed me the difference between ink cartridges and an ink cartridge converter. As she helped me make a selection she talked as though we were discussing the future of my mortal wellbeing. I had to stop myself from leaping over the counter and crushing her bones in a bear hug. I walked out swinging a bag of treasure from my wrist. Inside was my first fountain pen, a pot of ink, a cartridge convertor, and five cartridges – “oh, absolutely essential for when you’re writing on the go, dear.”
Writing my three pages the next morning was an experience akin to being a kid and staking a room of your own out of sheets and kitchen chairs: unexplainable freedom and safety. The feeling of my creamy notebook paper under my fingertips, the freshness of the blank, lined pages. The flow of actual black ink as I wrote, the smell of it, the stain of it on my skin, and the sound of my fountain pen nib scoring my words into being on paper.
The connection between brain, hand, and line is vital. Anything that gets in the way of that connection, like a machine, creates a different line.
– David Manderson
It’s been six weeks since I started using my hands, writing longhand. I’m not too proud to admit that before then I’d nearly forgotten what my handwriting looked like. Imagining, writing, and creating this way doesn’t feel like work. It feels like a long forgotten magic, a luxurious, extravagant gift that’s freely available. Now that I’ve remembered it, I can’t go back.
The next big change to my creativity came when I returned to Steal Like An Artist and learned about how Austin Kleon uses his hands in his creative process and his workspace.
I have two desks in my office – one is “analog” and one is “digital”. The analog desk has nothing but markers, pens, pencils, paper, index cards, and newspaper. Nothing electronic is allowed on that desk. This is where most of my work is born, and all over the desk are physical traces, scraps, and residue from my process. The digital desk has my laptop, my monitor, my scanner, and my drawing tablet. This where where I edit and publish my work. Try it.
– Austin Kleon, Steal Like An Artist p. 60
I accepted his challenge.
Over the last six weeks I’ve shuffled about, thrown out, cleared out, rearranged, and reorganised. I’ve salvaged, repurposed, and reclaimed. In my newly created workspace I’m creating more productively than I have in years.
I sit at the desk on the left when it’s generative, thinking, daydreaming time. At this space, I only handwrite. No technology.
At the desk on the right, it’s lightning-fingertips time, when my words are ready for electronic life. The only handwriting I do here is the make lists. Creating these work spaces have created the biggest shift in the freedom of my imagination. It feels like my thoughts have room to breathe, and aren’t cowering in a corner to afraid to come out.
So, I’m with Austin Kleon: try it. Give your creativity a hand. No gimmicks, no one trick pony. Just you and your imagination. Giddy up.