Resisting Autopilot


The other day, I heard an interview on NPR with David Esterly, a master woodcarver who just came out with a book, The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making. He talked about what he believes are the two halves of creativity: one half consists of coming up with ideas and planning things out; the other half exists within the making itself. This second half (his favorite), is a spontaneous, intuitive relationship with the process—responding to the materials and adapting mistakes into solutions. I had the radio on while I worked on a cut-out for an animation I am making. I usually have something on for background noise, except when I’m drawing, because I always think of drawing as the hard part. Once the drawing is done, the pressure is off and the radio (or podcast) comes on.

I draw on yellow tracing paper, which I flip over and transfer onto a piece of medium-weight black paper. I used to draw directly onto the back of the black paper (and occasionally still do), but the cut-outs always come out messier that way, and when I’m using multiple colors, it becomes hard to line them up correctly without a master drawing. The trade-off is that the immediacy of the line is lost with all the tracing that goes on. As I sat, cutting out along my prescribed, traced lines, listening to Esterly talk, I wondered, am I really doing anything creative right now?

The weird thing about getting good at something and developing a neat little personalized system is that it makes it easy to go on autopilot.

As part of me listened to the radio, another part of me started thinking more about what I was doing. Though the drawing is there as a guide, there are numerous subtle decisions to make as I cut. Most of the time, I don’t really make these decisions, but let them happen automatically. The cut-outs come out just fine. But this time, I really thought about what I was doing—How thick should this line be? Should this small gap be left black or cut away? Shouldn’t these lines be more parallel?

I think that the sum of all these tiny nuanced decisions shows in the finished product. There is a tension in the lines that makes it feel more alive. And focusing my attention that way made me feel more alive, too.

In her book Long Quiet Highway, Natalie Goldberg talks about how creative acts can be a form of meditation. Sometimes when I am making a cut-out I am impatient, just wanting to get it done and see what it looks like. But sometimes, like this time, I go deep into it. Time passes differently, the way it does when I play with an animal, or really listen to music. I really experience what I am doing; I experience the uncertainty of being alive.

To listen to the David Esterly interview, go here:

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