Trust the Process: An Artist's Guide to Letting Go

Trust the Process: An Artist's Guide to Letting Go

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by Shaun McNiff

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in painting, poetry, performance, music, dance, or life, there is an
intelligence working in every situation. This force is the primary carrier of

we trust it and follow its natural movement, it will astound us with its
ability to find a way through problems—and even make creative use of our
mistakes and

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in painting, poetry, performance, music, dance, or life, there is an
intelligence working in every situation. This force is the primary carrier of

we trust it and follow its natural movement, it will astound us with its
ability to find a way through problems—and even make creative use of our
mistakes and failures.

is a magic to this process that cannot be controlled by the ego. Somehow it
always finds the way to the place where you need to be, and a destination you
never could have known in advance.

everything seems as if it is hopeless and going nowhere . . .
the process.

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Chapter 1: Unpredictable Magic

Wellspring of Movement

have grown so accustomed to the idea of the solitary and willful creator that
we find
to see the deeper ecology of creation.

creators understand that a person's mental outlook has as much to do with the
quality of expression as technical skill. The way we view situations is the
basis for their creative transformation.

asked to define what is a work of art, Pablo Picasso was reported to have
replied, "What is not?"

is a tradition within the arts that perceives every aspect of experience as an
element of the creative process. Although many of history's greatest artists
have identified with this vision, it

been opposed by those who advocate "art for art's sake" and others
who favor strict or "pure" specialization. While aligning myself with
the integration of art and life, I have never seen an opposition between this
idea and restricted practice. Art has room for both perspectives and many more.

classical pianist who spends hours practicing every day in order to deliver a
perfect performance is engaged with an "aspect" of the art
experience. There are many more aspects of creation, as suggested by James
Joyce in
he writes: "Any object, intensely regarded, may be a gate of access to the
incorruptible eon of the gods." Joyce affirms that creation is limited
only by our consciousness.

embracing the creative expressions of world-class musicians and dancers, we can
also celebrate the creative spirit as manifested in the most ordinary aspects
of daily life.

creation and art are "ideas," let's take these concepts to their
limits and see what magic they can bring into our lives. I appreciate the
wonders of the concert hall and the museum, but I'm equally interested in how
the creative spirit manifests itself in the office, on the bus, or in the
kitchen, as it expands our sense of aesthetic practice.

looking more imaginatively at what you do every day, you will see that you are
already a creator.

society puts us into boxes, and we do the same to ourselves. We tell ourselves,
for example, "I'm a business person, so I'll leave art to the
artists." But it doesn't have to be this way. There are other ways of
looking at the creative process that are more in sync with how it actually works.

narrow labeling is encouraged whenever I ask someone, "What do you
do?" There is an assumption that we do one thing alone and not many
different things that affect one another. I should consider saying to a person
that I meet for the first time, "What are the different things that you

might ask ourselves, "Where is the creative spirit most active in my life?
Where is it most inactive? What do I do every day that can become a basis for
creative expression?"

will suggest many methods of creation that build subtly on what already exists
and what you already do. Rather than starting you off in completely foreign
environments with novel exercises, I want to help you creatively engage what
you presently have. The essential technique is a commitment to perceiving and
acting in new ways.

will encourage you to look and re-look, sift and probe, upend and reverse,
twist and turn, because ultimately, as the classical adage advises, the process
of creation is "in the eye of the beholder."

as useful as these and other techniques can be, I have found that there is an
absolutely fundamental principle of operation for both beginning and
experienced creators. It is such a commonplace saying within the creative arts
that until recently I have been reluctant to utter the three words for fear of
being trite: "Trust the process." Whenever I find myself in a
difficult situation, the principle is reaffirmed. Actually, the more hopeless
my problem seems, the more I learn to trust the process.

have been so many times when I have given up, only to go at it again the next
day, or the next year, and over the full course of a life all of the moments
appear so purposeful or even necessary. The difficulties are always the most
important ingredients in the total picture of a creative experience.

is one of the basic principles of process-oriented creation. Working for the
first time in any art medium, we tend to think that the result has to be known
before we start. I remember my early experiments with art when I assumed that
the finished composition was first conceived in the mind and then executed in
paint. The same misconceptions apply to creative expressions in other media
such as words, movement, and sound. We don't realize that the experienced
dancer or painter might begin by simply moving and making gestures with art
materials. One movement leads to another. We are apt to be more familiar with
this improvisational dynamic in group movement and music. Creative sparks fly
from person to person. The same thing applies to the interplay among the
different elements of an individual's expression in painting, drawing, and
creative writing.

I look back at my experiences with lecturing, it has always been the unexpected
happenings that have produced the most gratifying results. I prepare by
establishing a simple framework of what I want to do, but I always leave room
for what is generated by the event. The creative process blends structure with

do the same thing when I am painting. After establishing a rough and overall
form, I let the unique qualities of unplanned gestures and color combinations
emerge through the process of painting.

seems that whenever I really want to do well, I am more likely to contradict
these basic principles of creation. If it is an especially important event, I
am apt to plan too much. As I deliver the performance, I realize that I am
following a script. There is no magic unless unplanned expressions arrive to
infuse the performance with a spontaneous vitality that can never be
preconceived. After many of my best performances, the notes I made in advance
may have little relation to what took place. In a curious way I have to plan
and make notes before I begin, but these preparations have to be let go as the
performance begins. The ritual of preparation gets the creative process moving
and it supplies ingredients that feed the event.

do not want to belittle the importance of ideas as guiding forces within the
creative process. I asked an eleven-year-old how she begins to make a picture.
She replied, "I always get an idea. First I look around at my surroundings
and then I think of my favorite things. I think of colors and I look at other
people's drawings to get ideas. I start with the main subject in the center and
I spread out."

asked, "When you make designs, how do you begin?"

replied, "I start with one shape and I go on from there with other shapes
and borders."

asked, "When the design is finished, what does it look like?'

replied, "Most of the time, it doesn't look like what I had in mind."


I had other thoughts while I was making it," she answered. Then I asked,
"What about the pictures you make of your favorite things?"

said, "I always mess up and it doesn't come out the way I wanted it. Then
I add new details and it becomes something like what I originally thought

the mistakes important?" I asked.

but at other times they ruin the picture."

are the seeds of creative imagination. They are mental images that stimulate us
to bring them into the physical world. But in order to take material form, the
idea must go through a process that produces an amalgamation between the purely
mental image and the physical action of creation. Sometimes the end result
closely approximates the original idea, and often the final outcome bears
little resemblance to the starting point. As suggested by this young girl, we
discover things along the way, even when we are trying to render a preconceived
idea. The things that we do in service of an idea generate new ideas, and the
process goes on and on. And sometimes we fail and have to start again. The act
of creating is a partnership between ideas and the physical qualities of art
making. One thing leads to another.

we create from mental images, there must be flexibility and an openness to the
new influences delivered through the process of creation.

are many creative artists and scientists whose work is an execution of ideas
that are first shaped in the imagination. Musicians describe how they hear
compositions in their dreams or reverie and transcribe them afterward. Writers
often engage characters and scenes in their imaginations before expressing them
in print. There are endless methods and personal styles of creating. But even
the most exact representation of a mental image by an artist with consummate
technical skills will inevitably involve new contributions to the work through
the process of creation.

frequently encounter people who quickly grow frustrated and angry because their
expressions do not look like their ideas. Creative problem solving is a process
of give and take. I have an idea that I want to execute, and I must adapt to
what the materials of expression are capable of doing and what I can do with

we call an "idea" may be a mental image or shadowy sense of something
that we want to do in an artwork. The original stimulus incites the creative
act, which I experience as a building process. I was recently working with a
seven-year-old girl in a creative writing exercise. She had drawn a picture of
an Egyptian mummy that we used as the source for creative writing. In her first
piece of writing the girl offered an explanatory account of what mummies are,
why they were created, and so forth.

encouraged her to write another piece, focused on how the mummy itself felt and
how the people in its life felt about it. The mummy became a one-year-old
infant who had died. In writing her story, I observed how the girl began with
the image of her drawing, which generated the image of the infant, which
generated image after image within her ensuing story. Images birth one another.
Moving from literal explanation to personifying the image opened the doors to
the imagination. The girl stayed within the creative process and its ways of
moving. Explanation, something we all do, takes us away from the wellspring.

the process and accessing the energies of creative movement is a discipline. I
liken it to the practice of sitting meditation. It is not simply a matter of
surrendering to circumstances and external forces. The creative process
requires the active participation of the artist over a period of time. People
beginning to commit themselves to creativity have to realize that important
results are not always immediate. Just as the meditator practices staying with
the object of meditation no matter what thoughts, sensations, or other
distractions arise, the artist learns how to stay connected to the image being
constructed and the process of creation, assimilating whatever occurs into the
creative act.

my studio workshops on the creative process I tell people that if they simply
begin to paint and continue moving from one picture to the next, a series of
pictures will emerge. The images emanate from the personal cooking that each of
us does throughout the process of creation. It is difficult for the beginner to
believe that an inexperienced painter is capable of making a body of work
through which each picture builds subtly on the ones made before it. But when
we look at a sequence of pictures, it is remarkable how what might have first
looked like an insignificant and unsuccessful composition was the substructure
for what was to follow. A simple squiggle or series of lines can be the start
of pleasing patterns and personal symbols that unfold from humble beginnings.
Because of these thematic connections among pictures, I discourage throwing
artworks away when working on a series. What first seemed irrelevant reveals
the germination of future paintings.

at a series of pictures enables us to view the emergence of imagery over time.
We are given an alternative to judging a stand-alone picture. This perspective
is just as useful in looking at our lives over an extended period of time. The
bad performance or painful event might in the long run play a pivotal role in
the overall effort. Hindsight is the primary viewpoint on process.

repeatedly see people in my studios who make wonderfully expressive gestures in
their first paintings and even though I encourage them to keep working with
them in subsequent pictures, they revert to stiff and controlled compositions
with little artistic imagination. As they grow frustrated and dissatisfied with
these rigid images, the participants reconsider my suggestion to continue with
the original gesture that occurred naturally and outside the scope of their
mental controls.

I see fresh and spontaneous expressions emerging from beginners' paintings, I
draw it to their attention and encourage them to stay with the gestures in
subsequent pictures. I suggest the repetition of a gesture and I describe how
we can never do the same picture twice. Repetition encourages reverie and
letting go. As I paint the same gesture over and over, it changes as I use new
colors and experiment with different sizes. I amplify and diminish, all the
while striving to keep the gestures alive.

first-grade teacher told me that she and her colleagues can never really
explain how an individual child learns to read. The teachers work
systematically through carefully considered instructional methods, but when the
child begins to read, it is always experienced as a magical moment, a time when
all of the elements contributing to the process are somehow integrated. This is
yet another description of how the creative process works. Whether it involves
learning how to read, playing the piano, riding a bike, or writing a graduate
school thesis, there is usually a decisive moment or turning point within an
overall process which can only be described as magical. It is an instant when
all of the frustration, seemingly futile efforts, and tedious drills play their
respective parts in a collective creation. This is what I describe as the
"complex" of creativity, a condition that feels as though the
individual person acts together with many other forces. A varied series of
events and motions carry us over a new threshold, and we can never exactly
describe how it happened.

same thing applies to the repetition of an original series of gestures. As the
artist makes them over and over, new qualities emerge from the familiar basis
of expression. What might appear to some to be a monotonous drill becomes the
springboard for new levels of expressive integration. Repetition provides the
basis for new combinations of gestures and flights of imagination. After
extended periods of playing with familiar gestures, complete compositions will
emerge spontaneously. It is like a child learning to read: the process cannot
be explained according to a linear sequence of acts. It occurs magically but
upon the foundation of focused exercise and preparation. All of the pieces, the
good and the bad, play vital roles in the creative act. However, when we
reflect back upon these enchanted moments of creation, we are apt to look more
upon the specific turning points and less upon the all-encompassing collection
of movements that generate a cumulative effect.

of us finds our personal basis for exercising creative expression. What works
for me may not apply to you, and discoveries made in oil painting may not
translate to wood sculpture. The magic of expression emerges from the
individual crucibles of personal experimentation. Hours, days, weeks, and
sometimes months and years of frustrating work may be generating a realignment
of elements, which gather together at a decisive moment, or in a fertile
period, to generate a succession of new creations. Creativity is fed by the
difficult course of events as well as by the instants of epiphany that we
commonly associate with successful expression.

experienced art teacher observed, "The biggest problem for adults and
children is that everyone wants quick results. They don't realize that you have
to work at it. They have to spend time at it and be patient. It's a

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