INEVITABILITY, OR: WHERE IDEAS COME FROM, AND HOW TO MAKE THEM LOOK EASY

Tuesday, September 15th, 2009

what sounds simple / never comes across as dense with effort / but try it and see

MODERN ART = I COULD DO THAT + YEAH, BUT YOU DIDN’T—“Modern Art” from More New Math by Craig Damrauer

It’s said in different sentences.

“An idea so simple I can’t believe nobody thought of it before.”

“I could’ve done that.”

“Any idiot could do that.”

“I’m sure you’re not the first person to put Sharpie to newspaper.”

(That last one came from a trollish e-mail I got last week.)

If you have a good idea and it’s well-executed, it looks effortless. It looks like it’s been around forever.

But I don’t want it to look effortless! you say. I want it to look as hard as I worked on it.

No, you don’t. You want it to look easy.

Bob Gill says it best, in Graphic Design As A Second Language:

There’s nothing more embarrassing than a juggler who always looks as if he’s about to drop whatever he’s juggling.

By my standards, however difficult it is to make art, it should always look easy, never labored. That’s what I mean by inevitable.

After the curtain came down on a Paddy Chayefsky play, the person sitting next to me got up and complained to his wife, “what’s the big deal? I cudda written that.”

I assumed that what he meant, was that he was not aware of anything the playwright actually did. It was as if the playwright simply pressed the on button of a tape recorder, so that the characters in the play were so convincing, was its strength.

This is what I try for. I like the idea that if I’m successful, the guy who sat next to me that night, would have the same reaction to my work, as he did with Chayefsky’s.

But perhaps the reason ideas seem “inevitable” is because they are:

Every idea is a juxtaposition. That’s it. A juxtaposition of existing concepts. Steven Grant

The idea maker is a collage artist. You put two ideas together, and you get a third new one.

The trick, as Grant writes, is to fill your head with many ideas (reading is the best way to do this), and keep the ones that appeal to you.

Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic.Jim Jarmusch

The next step is to put them up against each other—to find patterns. The third and final step is to do create your collage, to fuse the ideas so seemlessly that it seems effortless.

Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.— T.S. Eliot, 1920, The Sacred Wood

Of course, sometimes you don’t need a good idea. Sometimes the only thing you have to do is give an existing idea a good name (“an idea is gold / only if you name it“):

It was an idea that was already out there, but I shined a spotlight on it, named it, and everybody got it right away.Sam Martin

It’s all very much like making a blackout poem, actually: you sift through words, pick the ones you like, find the pattern of words that work good together, and blackout the rest into one coherent piece.

If you did it well, it looks easy.




12 Comments on “INEVITABILITY, OR: WHERE IDEAS COME FROM, AND HOW TO MAKE THEM LOOK EASY”

  1. j Says:

    this really rings true for songwriting too. you’ll hear great songwriters talk about discovering songs, hearing great songs, receiving them effortlessly (especially the really timeless ones) more often than hearing about how long and hard it took to craft them. how many times have i heard the story behind a great song be about how it ‘wrote itself’ in ten minutes?!

    this of course is a total conceit for those that are always listening, always crafting, always capturing, whereby they fool even themselves into believing in the effortlessness of it. write a thousand songs, take a thousand pictures, write a thousand poems and I promise you you’ll eventually, “effortlessly find” a great one.

  2. Austin Kleon Says:

    YES. The truth is, my best poems take me about 15 minutes in one sitting. The others take hours…days…weeks. The trick is, like you said, showing up to do the work! And throwing out the junk. It all looks easy when you only show them the pearls.

  3. Matt Thomas Says:

    “A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side. Else to-morrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.”
    —Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance”

  4. Matt Thomas Says:

    “Art is by nature about hiding the struggle: the wrestle with words for the writer, with time and sound for the composer and performer, with the stubborn materials in the hands of the visual artist. Art is about emerging from that struggle victorious and showing not the least sign of strain, which is to say grit, for having done so. The artist in effect says, Look, Ma — you, too, World, look! — No hands! Art is about making things seem effortless, or so at the least is the art I most enjoy.” —Joseph Epstein

  5. Austin Kleon Says:

    GREAT QUOTES.

  6. Rupert Says:

    I enjoy visiting your blog as it reminds me of the British Artist, Tom Philips, who used the same technique in the 1970s. Take a look at his ‘The Quest for Irma’ (1973) and at his music work. Lovely work which I hope will inspire you. http://www.tomphillips.co.uk

  7. Austin Kleon Says:

    I’m well aware of Tom Phillips! I also write about him in my upcoming book. Thanks for the note, though.

  8. Tim Says:

    What did you say to the troll? Anything?

  9. Austin Kleon Says:

    Nope. You can’t argue with a troll — doing so would acknowledge their existence.

  10. Laura klink Says:

    What wonderful insights you and yours have shared!
    I do believe this has been one of my favorite postings of yours. Thank you, again, and again!

  11. Steve Hullfish Says:

    I heard an interview with the guy who invented the Lithium Ion battery (when he worked at Exxon!) and the interviewer asked him what the world would look like if he hadn’t invented it. (The Li-Ion battery enables all small technology, like cell phones, laptop computers and iPods) he modestly said, “All inventions have their time. If I hadn’t invented it, someone else would have done it soon after.”

  12. phillipmarlow Says:

    ^THIS

    Jung’s collective unconscious has become hyperreal.

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