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What I’ve learned from other creatives

All creatives have much to learn from each other. Here's what people from other fields have taught me, as a writer.

By Sheryl GarrattPublished 2 years ago 9 min read

Over the years, I’ve worked with or interviewed thousands of creatives from many different fields – many of them at the very top of their game. As a journalist and as a magazine editor. As a collaborator. And of course as a coach. Here’s what I’ve learned from other creatives. Which of these might improve your creative life?

From photographers: organisation

Photographers have lots of gear that they often need to access quickly. They also don’t want to leave expensive equipment behind, on location.

So most of the photographers I’ve worked with pack their bags in the same way, every time. They know exactly which pocket contains a certain lens, a power pack, a flash. They can access what they need in the dark, when they’re jet-lagged, or in stressful situations. And if they see an empty pocket, they know exactly what is missing from it as they pack up to leave.

I’ve known photographers who are completely chaotic, in the rest of their life. But they can access exactly what they need on a shoot, instantly.

The lesson: Have a place for everything you might need quickly, and always put it back after using it. I now take the same bag whenever I travel, with my passport and travel documents in the same pocket, money, pens, notebook, recorder all in their regular places. My desk at home is similar: everything I use regularly is within easy reach.

I always thought that my creativity thrived on chaos. But scrabbling about in my bag to find my digital recorder before a quick interview or spending 20 minutes looking round my study for a hole punch, stapler or scissors actually kills spontaneity. Get organised!

From artists: play and explore

I’ve never met a successful artist who isn’t playful and curious, willing to explore, to try new things – and fail spectacularly, at times.

In interviews, I never ask creatives where they get their ideas from. It’s one of the most irritating and difficult questions to answer. But I do sometimes ask if they remember where they were when the idea first came to them.

Artists tend to tell me about inspiration that came during an aimless stroll through the British Museum, on a bike ride or an early morning swim, while watching a film or flicking through random books.

Quality play is as important as hard work if you want a good supply of ideas. You make something new by being open and interested in a wide variety of things, then connecting some of those things together in ways that haven’t been seen before. It won’t always work. But failure is just part of the process, so make it playful!

From writers: start messy

This is a lesson I learned from other writers. I always thought I was doing something wrong, with my endless drafting and redrafting, that ‘real’ writers simply moved their fingers across a keyboard and the words were there, fully formed and in the right order.

But there is nothing more disempowering than staring a blank screen or page and expecting your first sentence on it to be extraordinary. Striving for perfection right away – without rewrites, editing, polishing – is a recipe for getting blocked. This is why so many writers call their first attempt something like Draft Zero, Vomit Draft or Shitty First Draft. It’s getting out of your own way, giving yourself full permission to be awful.

Just dive in and get your ideas down. Start in the middle, at the end, or with the one bit you know how to write or make. Or just write anything that comes into your head – even if it’s nonsense – until the work starts to flow.

Fear is an issue for all creatives. But resistance is especially strong for writers, who usually work solo and don’t need a lot of preparation to begin. Which makes it ridiculously easy to keep procrastinating. The answer is almost always to start now, and start messy. You can improve it later!

From designers: always keep the user in mind

As a journalist and magazine editor, I’ve been lucky to work with and interview some brilliant designers. What they taught me is to always keep the end user in mind. ⁠A good fashion designer thinks about a garment will make the wearer feel. How it will hang on the body, how the fabric will feel against the skin.

A graphic designer isn’t just using whatever colours, fonts and logos look cool: they’re thinking what the brand, magazine, client is trying to communicate, what will attract or connect with their audience.

A product designer will consider how the item will eventually be used, and they will try to make that as easy and intuitive as possible.

All creatives can benefit from giving some thought to their intended audience. Who are you making this for? How will they use it/enjoy it/interact with it? How do you want them to feel as they do that?

From actors (and dancers): it’s all in the preparation

No play is exactly the same, two nights running. I’ve been on film and TV sets countless times, and seen how each take of a scene is slightly different – and how the best ones often involve improvisation, or happy accidents.

But these ‘accidents’ and improvisations only work if the actor responds completely in character. If whatever she does is consistent with what we already know about that character – and what will be revealed later. ⁠

This takes thorough preparation. Not just knowing your lines, memorising the movements, but knowing everything there is to know about that character.

As for dancers, it takes years of consistent work and training to make those movements seem so fluid, natural and effortless.

It’s a fine line to tread. We all can get lost in too much prep, and use that as a way of delaying. There comes a point when we have to commit, to take action. But it helps if you’re ready.

As a journalist, I learned that if I researched thoroughly for a big interview, then it could turn into a much more spontaneous conversation on the day.Thorough preparation gives you the freedom to go with the flow, to respond in the moment. It looks easy. But only if you’ve put the work in beforehand!

From architects: it’s the space that matters

Architecture is all about the detail. The way the window meets the wall. The window fittings. The direction the floor ties run in. The light and shadows. Everything has to be considered.

But what surprised me, interviewing some of the world’s top architects, is how many of them talk more about the empty bits, the voids. Not about the building, or the materials, but about the spaces they’re creating, and how people might use those spaces.

So a cut-off corner of a new public building creates a new public square to give the local community a sense of ownership and belonging. A huge window pulls people through a series of galleries in a museum towards the view. An atrium in a factory gives common space for workers and managers to mix, eat and drink together.

It seems to me that pause, silence, white space is just as important in other creative fields. The spaces you create, the things you deliberately miss out, the distractions and clutter you cut away, the gaps you leave for the imagination to fill, the pauses in the music: they’re as important as the details you include.

From musicians: surrender

I've always loved the alchemy of music, its power to transcend and transform. The way a perfectly ordinary person with all the normal fears and anxieties can walk onstage and become something other, something bigger, perhaps even something possessed.

You write, record, rehearse. You do all the work. But there’s a point, on stage, in performance, when you just have to let go and let the music move through you. Let it take control. James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, used to call these moments ‘getting out of your skin’.

For all creatives, these moments of flow are crucial. When the paint tells you where it needs to go. Or the characters in your novel start saying and doing things you didn’t plot out or expect. When you have an idea and just act on it, without over-thinking. This is when the magic happens.

From comedians: accept feedback

Comedy has always seemed to me the most lonely and courageous form of performance. It’s just you out there, performing – and laughter can’t be faked. The feedback is instant, and it’s brutal. Yet the only way to learn is to keep doing your routine, in front of an audience, and refining it until it works.

I’ve met comedians who, after exhaustive research in front of live audiences, have decided they’re funnier when they wear brown cords, a plaid shirt, or a floral dress. They’ve learned that a Curly-Wurly is somehow intrinsically more funny than a Mars bar. Or that a mildly amusing line suddenly becomes hilarious with a pause at a key moment and a subtle lift of an eyebrow. Most of all, they’ve learned how to read the room, to adjust their material to the energy of the audience for maximum impact.

Feedback is tough. Our instant reaction is get defensive, or to hide. But if we can face it, and learn from it, it’s invaluable. It’s how we move from good to great.

From directors: leadership

Everyone on the team is important. But only one person can hold the vision for the whole production. You take advice and listen closely, respecting the skills and knowledge of your crew. But then you make a decision and go with it – taking responsibility and changing course quickly if you turn out to be wrong.

I’ve been on set with directors who were dictators, insisting that their way was the only way and demoralising their cast, their crew, their backers. It rarely ended well. I’ve also seen directors who are so worried about keeping everyone happy, or deferring to their stars or key technicians that the project never really hangs together as a satisfying whole.

It’s a hard balance to strike, especially when you’re collaborating with a creative team who are all talented, all have their own expertise.

It helps to accept that there is never going to be a point when everyone on a team is happy, when everyone gets to try it their way. But exactly who is unhappy will vary, from day to day. If you’re leading any kind of creative collaboration, your job is to be consistent, to hold the vision and communicate it clearly. If you do, the rest of the team will engage with that vision, and use their skills to serve it.

We’re better together

So that’s what I’ve learned from other creatives. Your lessons might be different. But we can all learn from each other. And we have more in common than we think.

We are all afraid, and feel like imposters. We get in our own way, listening too closely to the chorus of harsh inner critics in our head. And we procrastinate, we get caught up in perfectionism. We worry too much about what others think. We push so hard we lose our inspiration, and the ideas dry up. Or we struggle to get motivated. especially when we’re not sure that there’s ever going to be an audience for our work. And almost all of us struggle to sell our work, communicate our vision, get it out to an audience and price it properly.

Whatever your creative field, I think it helps to try other disciplines sometimes. And it’s invaluable to have friends, colleagues and mentors from other fields. People who might see your challenge from a new and interesting angle. Or might have a technique or idea you could try.

It’s one of the things I’ve found exciting about coaching small groups of creatives together: we all learn from each other, and grow. My next groups start at 10am and 7.30pm on 27 September, 2022, each for a small group of up to 10 creators. It’s a more affordable way of working with me as a coach – but it’s also about supporting and being inspired by each other.

Ready to grow your creative business? More details here.

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About the Creator

Sheryl Garratt

Sheryl Garratt is a former editor of The Face and Observer magazines, and has written professionally for more than 30 years. She is also a coach working with creatives of all kinds. Find her at thecreativelife.net

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    Sheryl GarrattWritten by Sheryl Garratt

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