Inviting the Muse: Conditions for finding your best "ideas":
Currently studying Children's Book Illustration at Cambridge School of Art, I recently wrote an reflection, trying to learn from my experience as a lover of poetry and apply this to the picturebook craft. One thing I looked at was conditions for creativity. Here is an extract. (Although what conditions work for any of us are personal, I hope it might spark something off for someone else reading this):
I know from my experience in poetry, putting myself in the right conditions makes a difference to the quality of ideas that arise. I have identified three such conditions:
‘turning up’; ‘being conscious about sensory input’; ‘embodiment’.
Turning Up: If we want to encounter ‘the muse’, we need to communicate our willingness to meet him or her by turning up at our desk. As Quentin Blake explains ‘I am not, in fact, quite sure what inspiration is, but I’m sure that…my having started work is the precondition for its arrival ‘(2000, p.100). And the poet Gertrude Stein makes the point that it is in the very act of writing, that imagination can come to life, despite us: ‘Think of the writing in terms of discovery, which is to say that creation must take place between the pen and the paper, not before in thought or afterwards in a recasting’ Gertrude Stein (quoted in Hirshfield, 1997, p37) A regular rendezvous at our desk or sketchbook therefore, is obviously a major condition for inviting inspiration.
Sense Input: ‘When I am …completely myself, entirely alone, and of good cheer…it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly. Whence or how they come, I know not’ - Mozart (quoted in Hirshfield, 1997, p36) I have also found reducing or being selective about input (such as television or radio) – including having periods of solitude – indispensable to ‘digging deeper’ creatively. It is as if art or inspiration is an oblique voice that is hard to hear underneath the louder demands of the world. Uri Shulivitz likens a good picturebook to an island – the unknown part that gives all the magic to the work is the part under water that we can’t see (Eric Carle Museum, 2015). I do find that more creative thoughts begin to arise once the ‘chatter’ dies down. And in terms of introducing positive input, looking at the work of illustrators that I admire can be inspiring. There can be a sense of synapses being set off, and connections being made. Nigel Cross discusses this in the field of design saying, ‘The novice designer also needs exposure to many good examples of expert work …like learning a new language’ (2011, p. 147).
Embodiment ‘but all successful fantasy, must be rooted in living fact’ (Sendak, cited in Lane, 1980, p. 85) One thing I remember clearly from a time when I was writing poetry regularly, was that it seemed to come directly from a sense of being grounded in my body, and open to the senses. It can seem as though ‘imagination’ refers to something out of this world but I have realised that its roots are very much in a direct apprehension of sense impressions. The emphasis on working from direct observation in my present training for example, has been supportive.
Many effective picturebooks, and poems begin by establishing a world that is rooted in direct perception, which then allows for leaps of imagination (Seamus Heaney for example is a genius at this - rooting us in the here and now through sense impressions, before surprising us sideways, as in his poem "postscript"). As poet Robert Bly observes ‘In many ancient works of art we notice a long floating leap in the centre of the work. That leap can be described as a leap from the conscious to the latent intelligence and back again’ (1990, p. 42). The illustrations of Tenniel for the Alice books work in a similar way, as do Angela Barratt’s illustrations
In addition, Sendak (1990) and Q. Blake (2000). both emphasise the physicality of evolving picturebook narratives: the fact that they often involve exaggerated gesture, mime, and movement. An embodied stance, as a maker, can feel closer to a place of ‘participation’, something both Sendak and Stafford (1978, p.7) touch on as important. As Hirshfield writes: Our bodies as well as our minds enter the rhythms present at (the work’s) conception…some echo of the writer’s physical experience comes into us (1997, p. 8).
Blake, Q., 2013. Words and Pictures. London: Tate Publishing. Bly R., 1990. American Poetry, Wildness and Domesticity. NY: Harper Perennial Cross, N., 2011. Design thinking: Understanding how designers think and work. Oxford: Berg. Hirshfield, J., 1997. Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry. New York: Harper Perennial Sendak M., 1980. In: Lanes, S.G., 1993 ed. The Art of Maurice Sendak. New York: Harry N Abrams Incorporated Shulivitz, J., 2015. Tall Tales and Short Tales: The Art of Uri Shulevitz" at The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art [Video online} available https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wEMc_z45n5w Stafford, W.,1978. Writing the Australian Crawl, USA: University of Michigan Press