Writer’s Block

April 23, 2009

Design is a curious animal. It is part ape and part peacock. Made up of disparate elements like the griffin or the minotaur. A dash of beast, a dash of human. Part inspiration, part intellect. It looks for the muse and yet feeds off history. It requires fresh thinking and needs the compost of experience to thrive.

So much of what we do as designers revolves around this paradox. I think perhaps the paradox is the cause of the writers block or the blank canvas. How in the world do I create something new when all I can think of is all I’ve seen or heard or read before? I am the culmination of my experiences and therefore must by definition spit out something old, something borrowed. And how can I do this and put my name upon it and call it my own? I think the block comes from a sense of shame that not an original thought has ever emerged from one’s head. It silences one.

This blockage comes as well from a sense that A) Sister Mary Aloysius was the seed of all my thoughts about literature or was it B) James Joyce and his buddies thus making it doubly difficult to say to the world: look at what I have wrought. It is almost impossible to do this without at least a smirk of recognition or a sigh of resign. And yet, and yet it’s the best of the artists among us who do this with no sense of impropriety but with the bravado of the narcissist. They truly believe they are original and act without a sense of self-consciousness. This is freedom.

This notion of freedom then is one that we think is so important for creation. A creative mind needs freedom to express itself. Freedom to do whatever it wants and call it one’s own creation. But consider a contrary notion: that creation actually thrives better under constraints. That a fecund mind works better when given limits, boundaries, difficulties, obstacles to overcome, than when given unlimited freedom.

For with freedom comes a certain terror. It is the mockery of the sketch book, limitless with its whiteness. The steppes at least have oceans to bound them. A blank page, the white canvas, is a rebuke, a taunt, a gauntlet thrown down before an unworthy adversary. How do you fill up something this potent with your meager thoughts?

I know I have trembled before the thought: do whatever you like. Don’t say this! Don’t give me freedom! Point me somewhere, tell me not to step off the ledge, give me some purpose to this meandering. Set me straight, tell me to fix on that tree in the distance, keep the river on your left, or make it fit that space but give me three drawers.

Creation needs boundaries sometimes, restraint. Only in this way does it find its pace, its willingness to play. Coltrane needed The Sound of Music to riff off. A bass line to lay down a pattern to stand on and a melody to take off from. “Play anything” and you push from shore and you drift. Oh you may make something that has merit to it, but often it’s aimless, it’s formless.

Give the designer limits and now these boundaries free up the mind. In discussion with one of my Mastery students, I posited that in designing a piece of furniture you had more of a sense of freedom if you were given some restrictions. Some limits to the canvas rather than saying: do whatever you want. Evocative prohibitions is how a writer I know put it. Try a design with nine legs this time or a pedestal base. Does it work better? Does it make you work harder? This is good. Does it perhaps give you other ideas? This is it then. This is the purpose of constraint. It forces us into a canyon. It pushes us, volume and pressure working together, it pushes us one way and while we’re doing that, we see the other side of the wall. Somehow we can imagine the greener grass better by virtue of the fence. It pushes us in strange ways, these restrictions. They push us to work in one manner, one fashion and by doing so, allow us the freedom to imagine what if.

Gary Rogowski is the Director of The Northwest Woodworking Studio. Visit us at www.northwestwoodworking.com.

Published in: on April 23, 2009 at 12:48 pm  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. You could write about design every time you sit down at the keyboard, and your readers would lap it up. You would probably get bored out of your head. It’s a rocky road for many of us, striving for balance, rhythm, proportion, texture…and then it still has to get built…

    Much of the time my brain feels like that white piece of paper in the sketchbook.

    Does it ever get easier?

  2. Ah, one should look at the white piece of paper with endless opportunity, not an intimidating empty canvas with an angry Mother Superior hovering with a wooden ruler demanding “Use your head, put something down quickly, NOW!”
    Sometimes I find solitude in starring at that blankness and then the creative flow begins. No, I’m not smoking something. Isn’t one individuals creation another’s opportunity to continually expand on it? Rebar comes to mind……

  3. Gary,
    I think there is one more important component to creativity – mistakes (especially in my case). What to do now that the last piece of matched ipe was just cut 1 inch too short? How do I “redesign” the chair to recover? Cut the other three legs short and market it to shorter people (aha! children!). Some creative inlay perhaps to hide the scarf joint? Ah, a three-legged Chippendale chair! How creative.

    It is probably worth pointing out that this post comes from a person to whom you once suggested: “Measure twice…well, measure thrice”

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