I’ve been reading Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine, a book about the science of creativity. Researchers have found that when someone is trying to solve a problem or puzzle she searches for logical answers in her left brain, but just as she is about to give up an insight will appear from the right brain. This giving up forces the brain to come up with a more creative solution.
We artists love big ideas and insights. They are grandiose, dreamy, and inspiring. Lehrer mentions that one of the ways poets force more insights is by limiting themselves to using a fixed form, like a sonnet or haiku. Structural limitations force the poet to find creative, innovative solutions, because it pushes the thinking into the right brain where one finds unexpected answers.
Visual artists also do this—they choose a medium or a theme on which to investigate and focus. They draw the same thing over and over or look at the same topic from many viewpoints. By delving deeply into one area, insights just might appear. I personally can’t finish a project or stay on topic without a strong structure. Most recently I chose to create a drawing for each day of the school year, which formed the project 180 Days. With the goal of one drawing a day, I was forced to search through my daily experiences, reflect, and create a drawing. So often I recalled a quiet moment or discovered an important insight about my practice or a student that became content for a drawing. Without this structure I wouldn’t have done any drawing at all; instead, I might have sat around with my sketchbook wondering what to doodle!
As a new mom this structure still eludes me, which is why I’m focusing on crafting and working with my hands rather than being original and making artworks. But I will get there again one day!
Listen to Lehrer talk about his book on NPR.