On the blog, we’ve had the chance to exchange ideas with dozens of Massachusetts artists, exploring their work and the way they make it.
A number of these artists, along with creating their own work, also teach. What do they try to instill in emerging artists? Here, we share some of their insights into the creative life.
Melinda Lopez, playwright
Break your characters. Don’t protect them. That’s the number one thing I see – a playwright has everything lined up, beautiful words, great characters, and killer story, and then they can’t follow through because they love their characters too much. You have to break their little spines, and leave them in the dirt and see if they can get up. If they can, then it’s a comedy.
Daphne Kalotay, writer
Of course it’s possible to over-revise, but most people don’t revise enough. I know it sounds schoolmarm-ish, but it’s true. The ability to revise is probably the most underrated and necessary skill, even more important than imagination. Because your imagination will only get you so far; then you need to fix everything up – develop it fully, make sure it flows and is well-formed, that it isn’t under-baked or overly wordy or unnecessarily confusing. From what I’ve seen as a writing teacher, in most cases what stops aspiring writers from reaching their goal is an unwillingness to revise as much as is truly necessary.
Holly Lynton, photographer
A teacher of mine once told me that it was not talent but persistence that carries you through as an artist. I firmly believe she is right. There are many aspects that go into a creative practice. Determination, critical evaluation, perseverance, challenging oneself, and staying true to a vision. I was taught to work to find my own point of view and perspective, to have as a goal the ability to create photographs that would immediately be recognized as mine. If I showed you a slide show of images by truly great photographers (assuming you had a good photo history background), I bet you’d be able to name most of them. That is a lofty goal of course, so I also try to encourage artists to find balance. Happiness. Happiness for me is key, as it’s an attribute that so often seems highly unattainable. At least among several people I’ve known. I try to encourage emerging artists to find a way of living and working as an artist that gives them a happy, balanced life, because I also believe that self-esteem can be fragile when developing an art career. For me, having a family enabled me to stay grounded, that and moving to the country. It took me a while to learn an important lesson, again taught to me by a great teacher, that being an artist is a way of life, a way of seeing the world, a way of thinking, and that you are that no matter what. Having an art career is something separate.
Steven Bogart, playwright and director
Be patient and give yourself permission, lots of permission, to explore anything that stirs your heart and imagination. We hear the word “no” way too much in our lives and it puts a vice grip on our creative impulses. I see this all the time in schools. As a director and theater teacher, my mantra to them is to be invested in the success of every other person in the room with you. I don’t believe the art of theater can be achieved without this kind of commitment.
Allan Reeder, director of Writing and Publishing Program at Walnut Hill School for the Arts
I like what novelist Zadie Smith wrote in an essay a few years ago – that “[r]eading, done properly, is every bit as tough as writing.” I agree with her that good reading is not only a skill but an art, a talent. I try to cultivate this through my teaching, in part because the possibilities for development of a literary piece depend so much on a writer’s being able to see what’s already there in a draft, or potentially there, if she can read it and re-read it with imagination, with vision – to see it on the screen in the mind. Go back and look again, see again. I strive to help our writers to get better and better at finding the possibilities that are inside that scene, that moment, that line, that gesture they put there in a draft originally for no clear purpose. Once a detail on the page is picked up again for its promise or potential, then it’s time to pick up the pen again and get to work on the language, making it more specific, more precise. The possibilities open in achieving precision.
Lois Roach, playwright and director
Life is messy. I tell my students that all the time. And that’s where your scripts and your stories come from. They don’t just come from four friends sitting in a coffee shop.
Jamie Cat Callan, writer
Follow your muse. Don’t worry about where you’re going or where you’ll end up. Write from the heart and believe that there is a place in this world for your voice, your story, your style. No one else can be you. You are completely unique and amazing in your own way. And as long as you stay true to yourself, your contribution to the world will be completely true and unique. Oh, and one other thing. Be kind to your writing. It lives and breathes outside of you. It’s a gift to you from your muse, so if you are kind to your own creations, your muse will make a habit of visiting you often. I don’t believe in tough love when it comes to teaching writing. I believe in love. Kindness. Gentleness. And of course a whole lot of joie de vivre.
Rosanna Yamagiwa Alfaro, playwright
Keep a journal, write two hours a day, read hundreds of plays, go to a play a week, get to know your local playwrights and rush to see their plays, when you have writer’s block distract yourself with a 10-minute play and submit it to the innumerable festivals in your favorite cities all over the country, have close friends (other than yourself) that you study and know inside out. Never give up, never despair – after three decades of doing what you love most, the Huntington might give you a call. (Ed. note: Alfaro will premiere her play Before I Leave You at the Huntington Theatre Company in October 2011. The above is quoted from Adam Szymkowicz’s blog.)
Justin Casinghino, composer
As a teacher, I have two primary concerns. I want my students to stay open minded about everything they hear and everything they create, keeping them unafraid to go out on a limb and try something they are unfamiliar with. At the same time, I am particularly concerned with teaching composition as a craft. In other words, it is important to me that my students be aware of and study what and how the past masters of the craft have done. I think that allowing students to explore their own path, while also keeping them in touch with the lineage of composition, is the most beneficial method of study for the young composer.
Adam Schwartz, writer
Keep writing because it brings meaning to (your) life and not because (you) have visions of fame and success.
Image: East Somerville Community School mural project led by artist David Fichter, part of Mass Cultural Council’s STARS Residencies.