Reading some of composer Robert Schumann’s Advice to Young Musicians, I came across this piece of advice for composing, which I thought was spectacularly bad: “If you are starting out on a composition, begin by working everything out in your head. Do not try out a piece on your instrument until you have fully conceived it in your mind.”
This might be good advice for a musical genius, like Beethoven, Mozart, or Robert Schumann, but it runs counter to my own personal experience with art. Very few of my decent pieces have come from me thinking in my head, as in, thinking through a piece and then sitting down and executing it. In fact, I don’t know if that’s ever happened. Most of my good ideas have come from an exploration of specific materials, a kind of back and forth between eye and hand and head. These collages are good examples: I did not set out with any kind of purpose or ideas before I made them, merely some time, space, and materials.
I know some writers who claim to work out all their writing in their heads before hitting the paper, but 1) I suspect they’re liars 2) even if they do have it worked out, it’s in getting the words on paper and then editing those words that the ideas take on any kind of real form. As a young artist, I thought the ideas had to come first before you wrote, and now I think the opposite: You start working with your hands and the ideas come.
Better advice than Schumann’s might be from a newspaper clipping I saved called “How To Draw Blood” (you could cross out the last word), in which a worker at a free clinic started out by saying, “Develop intelligence in your fingers.” Her point was that every vein in every arm is different, and you not only have to think, you have to feel your way through a lot of medical procedures. The feeling is as important as the thinking.
Best not to overestimate the intelligence in your head: your fingers have a lot to teach it.
See also: Don’t Ask.