The Designing of Creative Buckets
I've seen my favorite creators and artists talk about collecting as a creative habit.
How do I give form to my collections?
What do the creative buckets I gather into look like, act like?
Over the years of being someone who reads mostly nonfiction and then uses it to do self-improvement-type experiments, I've discovered a lot of advice that never actually got any use in my day-to-day life. Since the initial Covid lockdown, I've taken steps towards being more serious about creative work and practicing it, starting with poetry and moving on to longer form stuff for this blog, and now some of this underutilized material from my past is starting to take actual hold on me. I'm seeing and acting on the usefulness of advice from years past.
From Austin Kleon's Steal Like an Artist:
The artist is a collector... Your job is to collect good ideas. The more good ideas you collect, the more you can choose from to be influenced by.
Carry a notebook and a pen wherever you go. Get used to pulling it out and jotting down your thoughts and observations. Copy your favorite passages out of books. Record overheard conversations. Doodle when you're on the phone...
Keep a swipe file. It's just what it sounds like–a file to keep track of the stuff you've swiped from others. It can be digital or analog–it doesn't matter what form it takes, as long as it works... See something worth stealing? Put it in the swipe file. Need some inspiration? Open up the swipe file.
It's such a simple suggestion, one that's also reflected by Anne Lamott in her classic book on fiction writing, Bird By Bird. She says to carry around 3x5 notecards and a pen and scribble notes when something interesting happens to or around you. These are to be referenced and explored later on in your writing practice.
It's so simple, yet I've not actually begun to do anything like it until relatively recently. This all feels akin to the refusal of the call in the hero's journey. People would describe me as a creative kind of person, but it's been far too scary to take that creativity and turn myself seriously to the craft of it, to spend months and years working at it.
I don't intend on ruminating about how much time I've lost not being more courageous or responsible by acting on this previously encountered creative wisdom, but I am going to reflect on this idea of Artist as Collector because I see a lot of value in it for me to start there, to start seeing myself as a collector.
So Austin has his swipe file, and Anne captures the moments of her life through blank notecards. David Sedaris also does something similar with a small notebook he keeps in his pocket for stumbled upon witticisms and comedic situations he finds himself in. Lynda Barry cuts out pictures from magazines while she sits and watches television at night and then uses them later on for collages. They all speak and write about their different habits of collecting with such love and endearment, as if–and likely because–it's been so critical for them and their ability to coax meaningful artistic works out of themselves, over and over, throughout their careers and their lives.
Back in fourth grade I had two friends who I played the video game Pokemon with. We each would return to our respective homes and search the Internet for pictures of Pokemon, and then we'd each physically print them off, bring them together at school, and put them in a three-ring binder shared between the three of us. This was our collection, our shared bucket, and we designed it to our liking.
What about my own buckets right now?
What do they look like and how do they function?
Austin has a popular framework for this type of creative sharing (currently resurfacing in my own practice) detailed in his book Show Your Work. Without going into detail, he advises young creatives to document themselves and post what they find while also keeping a mindset of curiosity and exploration about what's interesting. It's taken a long time for me to get here, in the present, to the point where I'm actually taking creative action, practicing the writing skills I want to develop, being happy to adopt this framework as a first leg of the unknown road of artistry ahead.
Which buckets should be public?
What platforms are going to be best to do this showy documenting of my work?
Annie Dillard, in a chapter in Pilgrim At Tinker Creek entitled Seeing, talks about the rarity of witnessing nature as it actively unfolds:
Unfortunately, nature is very much a now-you-see-it, now-you-don't affair. A fish flashes, then dissolves in the water before my eyes like so much salt. Deer apparently ascend bodily into heaven; the brightest oriole fades into leaves. These disappearances stun me into stillness and concentration; they say of nature that it conceals with a grand nonchalance, and they say of vision that it is a deliberate gift, the revelation of a dancer who for my eyes only flings away her seven veils.
If I can't see these minutiae, I still try to keep my eyes open. I'm always on the lookout for antlion traps in sandy soil, monarch pupae near milkweed, skipper larvae in locust leaves. These things are utterly common, and I've not seen one... In flat country I watch every sunset in hopes of seeing the green ray. The green ray is a seldom-seen streak of light that rises from the sun like a spurting fountain at the moment of sunset; it throbs into the sky for two seconds and disappears. One more reason to keep my eyes open
The mere act of paying attention for those tiny, almost invisible moments is itself an ethereal way to collect the natural world around us without hesitation or disruption. Those moments, when attended and witnessed, are gathered up and kept in the buckets of our memories.
I am committing to my collections, to gathering the materials, tending them in some kind of artsy garden, and showing them off, first to myself and then to others willing to look and read.
So à la Kleon, I'm giving public access to a few of these buckets–in my own opinion, the most interesting ones. As with each of the various ways I organize and categorize my life (lists, notebooks, platforms, apps, etc...), I'm expecting lots of iterative change, slowly sharpening the knife edge of my technique until it becomes mostly effortless to use in the preparation and cooking of whatever content I decide to write, document, or otherwise share.
This is a way for me to be present for the writing and creative work I signed myself up for. Like Annie Dillard, I want my attention to be in the right place at the right time, but also I want to earn that nonchalance and deliberateness of nature through the show of collecting, and maybe someday being collected, like an artist.