Many artists talk about the creative process. It’s one of those illusive ideas that fascinates non-artists and weighs heavily on the minds of artists because creativity is so untamed and chaotic at times that it seems like the only way to have some grasp of it is to develop some kind of process.
A while back, an acquaintance of mine from grad school, a poet, posted this video link to a short documentary made in 1971 of Dutch artist M. C. Escher. I am not a particular fan of Escher’s work but the documentary interested me. It almost sounds at first as if Escher’s creative process is anti-creative. Much of his work is based on logical puzzles and geometric shapes which he admitted had always fascinated him. In a rather ironic confession, Escher is quoted in the video as having said that he is afraid of the word “artist” as he has always been suspicious of it. By the same token, he proclaims he is a scientist and knows about science on an intuitive level but, at the same time, he is not a scientist. And so, his art bridges the gap between art and science, straddling both fences.
What intrigued me was how Escher’s art becomes something that is not scientific even as it is based on science. Escher admits in the video that science is cold and impersonal. However, Escher’s works are a sort of non-techy version of interactive art. The documentary is called “Adventures in Perception” and I think this is a very apt title because the way we view Escher’s works depend entirely upon just that — an adventurous perception. There is constant movement in his work. Images are not static but reach into other images and it’s really in the eye of the beholder as to what he or she sees. Images also transform into other images. In one of his more famous woodcuttings below, the picture begins with ducks in flight at the top and as the eye moves toward the bottom, the ducks merge and transform into fish. Or, alternatively, the eye goes from bottom to top and therefore the fish transform into ducks.
It may be no wonder, then, that Escher considered himself more of a craftsman than an artist and his creative process involved approaching his work in this way.
As I’ve mentioned here on my website, my fiction is going through some significant transitions right now and with it, my creative process is transforming as well. I began with one genre, psychological literary fiction, and I am now expanding into historical fiction and more puzzle-oriented mystery fiction. What I’ve discovered is that these two quite different genres require different approaches to the creative process, at least for me.
In fact, because my fictional world is splitting into two, something I discuss here, my creative process is splitting as well. My psychological literary fiction is very heavily involved in emotional experience and psychological reality and as such, requires me to explore the depths of my own psychological and emotional reality and experiences as well as that of my characters’ to build their stories. I talk about this a little more in my blog post about revising writing what you know. In another blog post I referred to a few examples of this. In my free short story, “A Birthday Gift”, a birthday celebration dinner becomes symbolic of the ambivalent relationship between an aging couple (and, incidentally, was inspired by a true story). Another example was of a couple I observed in a cafe one day that intrigued me so much I had to journal about them, creating their relationship based on how they treated one another and adding details that I later realized came from my observation and knowledge of the complex and ambivalent relationship between my grand mother and grandfather. This couple will play a role in my Waxwood series.
The creative process regarding my mystery fiction, however, takes a surprisingly similar path as Escher’s. There, I am more of a craftswoman, looking at the story as a puzzle with many pieces that must fit together for the story to be one cohesive puzzle that creates a pictures without any missing parts or disruptive lines. In my blog post about puzzles referenced above, I explain how I map out the mystery story scene-by-scene before I write it so that I can be sure I am integrating the elements that make mysteries so enthralling and complex, like clues, suspects, red herrings, and everything hangs together so the reader will walk away satisfied that law and order has been restored even as he or she enters the more chaotic and undisciplined modern world.
Bear in mind this does not mean there isn’t room for inspiration. A project I am I’m working on right now that belongs to my mystery series, A Wordless Death, involves many pleasant surprises and twists and turns that I did not anticipate when I wrote the detailed outline. For example, a member of a boarding house, Miss Iona Hoddle, began as a minor character who had only one small item to contribute to the investigation of the death of a fellow boarding house inhabitant. But as the story progresses, the character becomes one of the few sympathetic voices for the murder victim and in fact is the driving force behind a turn in the investigation spearheaded the protagonist, Adele Gossling, an amateur sleuth and a turn-of-the-century New Woman.
I think most artist in any medium would admit they are both the artist and the craftsperson in their creative process. Creativity, although a seemingly illusive, butterfly-like thing, cannot be shaped into a form that is enjoyable and understandable unless there is some appreciate for craft involved.