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Posts Tagged ‘The Artist’s Way’

 

“Live each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influences of each.”
 
                                                          Henry David Thoreau

“I lost passion. I felt a little unfulfilled and empty.”
                                                           Jim Brandenburg

                                                           Photographer & cameraman
                                                           (Reflecting on his 90-day journey)                       

We normally associate renewal with springtime but I think fall is a wonderful time to undergo creative renewal and would like to talk to you about a great story of an artist who used the 90 days of fall to undergo a creative transformation.

Today marks the first day of fall. Before I moved to Iowa a few years ago fall had little impact on my life. That third week of September was usually just another summer day in Florida and California. But here in the Midwest the change is amazing to watch. Just this week I was riding my bike and couldn’t help but notice the fallen leaves on the Cedar Valley Nature Trail.  Soon there will be an explosion of color in the trees and coolness in the air.

Several hundred miles north in Ely, Minnesota near the Canadian border I’m sure fall is well on the way. That is where photographer Jim Brandenburg calls home. Several years ago when Brandenburg was on contract with National Geographic he found himself in a place that many dream of. Traveling the world in search of great images that people would admire and appreciate.

Yet the schedule was grueling as he traveled away from his family 50 to 70% of the year. After 20 years he decided that he need a time of creative renewal. I have read that National Geographic photo assignments average 550 rolls of film and that a 1,000 is not unheard of.  (A thousand rolls of 36-exposure film is 36,000 shots.)

It’s been said that every assignment for National Geographic is like getting up to bat expecting to hit a grand slam home run. 

Brandenburg said of the schedule “the day is never done. You start early and don’t stop until you are exhausted or you are absolutely sure you got that photograph. And I had been through that cycle for 20 years and I was getting weary.”

So he began to look for way to find creative renewal knowing that he’d either find a breakthrough or do something different with his life. 

So Brandenburg’s idea for creative renewal was to take the fall of 1994 and only shoot one shot a day. If he stayed the course he would shoot less than three rolls of film. He explains it as sort of a Zen experiment in ascetic discipline. To search everyday for the one photograph that needed to be taken.

Brandenburg said, “I was looking for something elusive, an idea or a process, or a spiritual direction of some kind.”

“If your mind isn’t clouded by unnecessary things. This is the best season of your life.”
                                                                    Wu-Men                  

It’s reminiscent of the stories of photographer Ansel Adams who in the 1930s would take his 8X10 camera deep into Yosemite. Because he was limited on how much film he could take he would often camp out and just watch the sun one day as preparation for shooting the next day. There is a reason we still admire Adams work today.

And there is a reason I’m bringing up Brandenburg. His special project that was meant for just himself eventually became a National Geographic spread that showed every single shot making it the largest single photo essay in National Geographic history. 

(Side note: You can view all of Brandenburg photo from his journey on his website www.jimbrandenburg.com. Because of copyright issues I did not use a photo of his at the top of this post. But that photo was inspired by Brandenburg as I took my camera on an early morning bike ride yesterday after reviewing Brandenburg’s photos for this blog. Creative renewal is contagious.)

Brandenburg’s photo eventually became his best selling book and a DVD followed in which Brandenburg recounts the creative process and the struggles he had along the way. Chased by the Light; A Photographic Journey with Jim Brandenburg is a wonderful documentary full of insights into the creative process. Rarely do you find such an elegant exposition of the creative process and I think there is something here that all writers and artists can gleam from.

 

On the DVD Brandenburg talks about some of the experiences of his self-assigned experiment that was never intended to be seen by others. Some times he would set out before dark and walk many miles. At day 23 he thought about abandoning the project because he thought he had failed. But he remembered the old saying, “There are no rewards without risks.”

Day after day he waited for the right moment to that that one picture of an eagle, wolves, deer, ravens, loons, trees or whatever else captured his imagination. 

His last photograph was December 31, 1994 at 1:40 AM. The photos then sat in a drawer for two years until National Geographic Senior Editor John Echave saw them and then published them in November 1997 as a 90 photo feature. 

Brandenburg continues to shoot. He has also taken steps to protect the land “that nurtured and renewed” his creative spirit  Brandenburg and his wife Judy have set aside with The Trust for Public Land 640 arces of Ravenwood forest to be preserved in perpetuity. 

The Brandenburg’s are also involved with preserving the tallgrass prairies of Jim’s youth at Touch the Sky Prairie Preserve in Rock Country, Minnesota.

If you’re ever in the Lavern or Ely, Minnesota be sure to check out the Brandenburg Gallery or see more of his work online at www.jimbrandenburg.com.

There are other ways to seek creative renewal. Tom Peters says that some times you need to move another country or climate to rejuvenate yourself. No one said creative renewal would be easy or practical. (Heck, how do you think I ended up living in Iowa?) Let me tell you another story of renewal.  

When I was in film school back in Los Angeles in the 80s I sometimes assisted fashion photographer Art Pasquali.  Art not only had the coolest last name but lived in his studio in downtown LA with two doberman pinschers and flew gliders in his downtime from shooting beautiful people. 

After shooting for 20 years Pasquali bought a sailboat and sailed away from LA-LA land, down to Mexico, through the Panama Canal and eventually found his way to the Cayman Islands where he stopped for a Corona and has called it home ever since.  

Brandenburg and Pasquali’s stories are exceptional which is why I bring them up. Deep down change and renewal is going to take more than turning off the TV for a week. If you’re a writer it may be taking up photography or writing in a genre or style that you’ve never tried. If you’ve never written a screenplay maybe that’s what you do in the next 90 days. (All you have to do is average a page a day.) 

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings didn’t hit her stride as a writer (or publish a novel) until she moved to rural Florida which would provide her inspiration for her novel The Yearling for which she won a Pulitzer Prize and was made into a movie staring Gregory Peck. Martin Ritt directed the excellent Cross Creek that tells the unusual life story of Rawlings.

Perhaps you just need to take a small step in your creative renewal. Here is Julia Cameron’s suggestion in her book The Artist’s Way:

“Spending time in solitude with your artist child is essential to self-nurturing. A long country walk, a solitary expedition to the beach for a sunset or a sunrise, a sortie out to a strange church to hear gospel music, to an ethnic neighborhood to taste foreign sights and sounds–your artist might enjoy any of these. Or your artist might like to go bowling.”

I hope these stories and ideas provide some inspiration for you as fall starts. When is the best time to start your creative renewal? I’ll defer to Karen Lamb; “A year from now you may wish you had started today.”

 

Photo & Text Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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“When you drink from the well, remember the well-digger.”
Chinese proverb

©2008 Scott W. Smith

Last Sunday one of my partners at River Run Productions had 15 seconds to make it into his basement with his wife and dog before an EF 5 rated tornado ripped through his Parkersburg, Iowa home.

In less than a minute his house was gone and both cars totaled. But he, his wife and dog were safe. A total of seven people were killed in the storm and over 200 homes were destroyed and another 400 damaged.

Iowa is no stranger to tornadoes, but this one was the most powerful to hit the state in over 30 years. It’s one more reminder that things can change in a New York minute—or even an Iowa minute.

Friday I went to Parkersburg to shoot footage of the destruction and interviews for an insurance company.  I have been through a hurricane in Florida and a major earthquake in California and I have never personally seen the devastation that I saw as the result of that tornado.

From where I took the above photo, every direction I looked basically looked the same. It’s amazing that more people weren’t killed. Human beings tend to have short memories so this is one more thing to help remind us how fragile life is.

I’ve written a lot about writing on this blog but not much about keeping life in perspective with a creative career. The fact is most of us have difficulty balancing our lives.

I’ve collected some of my favorite quotes over the years that are a little random, but I hope there’s something in here that you can hang your hat on—or at least cause you to smile or reflect on your life and dreams. But mainly I want you to understand that whatever creative dreams you have there’s more to life than chasing that rainbow.

“My biggest disappointment so far is that having a career has not made me happy.”
                                                                        Shane Black
Was paid $1.7m for The Last Boy Scout 

“It’s an accepted fact that all writers are crazy, even the normal ones are weird.
William Goldman
                                                                         Adventures in the Screen Trade                                                                  

 “I don’t dress until 5 p.m. I have a bathrobe that can stand…Yes, I am divorced. One writes because one literally couldn’t get another job or has no choice.”
Akiva Goldsman
 A Beautiful Mind
 

“I got into screenwriting for the best of all reasons: I got into it for self-therapy.”
                                                                                      Paul Schrader
                                                                                      Taxi Driver

“For the first couple of years that I wrote screenplays, I was so nervous about what I was doing that I threw up before I began writing each morning. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s much better than reading what you’ve written at the end of the day and throwing up.”
Joe Eszterhas

“I’m not very good at writing. If I succeed, it’s by fluke.”
Shane Black
Lethal Weapon

“If you get rejected, you have to persist. Don’t give up. It was the best advice I ever got.”
Anna Hamilton Phelan
                                                                                      Mask

“The myth about me is that I sold my first screenplay and it’s true. But I had also worked very hard as a fiction writer for ten years and that’s how I learned the craft of telling stories.”
Akiva Goldman
                                                                                       A Beautiful Mind
                                                                                       (He also has a masters
in fiction from NYU)

“I spent 18 years doing stand up comedy. Ten years learning, four years refining, and four years of wild success.” (It’s worth noting that Martin was on top when he walked away from stand up comedy and never performed as a comedian again.)
Steve Martin
                                                                                         Born Standing Up
           

“Starting in 2002, I knew for a fact that I had to get out of this business. It was too hard. It wasn’t that I wasn’t good enough, it was that it was too hard. What kept me in it was laziness and fear. It would be nice to say it was passion and I’m a struggling artist who didn’t give up on his craft. All of that sounds good, but the truth is it was laziness and fear.”
Alan Loeb
Things We Lost in the Fire

“Like the career of any athlete, an artist’s life will have its injuries. These go with the game. The trick is to survive them, to learn how to let yourself heal.”
                                                                                        Julia Cameron
The Artist’s Way
Dee: “Jane, do you ever feel like you’re just this far from being completely hysterical 24 hours a day?”
Jane: “Half the people I know feel that way. The lucky ones feel that way. The rest of the people are hysterical 24 hours a day.”

                                                                                       from Lawrence Kasden’s
                                                                                       Grand Canyon


“We’re constantly buying crap we don’t need and devoting ourselves to endeavors which, perhaps on reflection, with a little bit of distance, would reveal themselves to be contrary to our own best interest.”
                                                               David Mamet      

Everything in this town (L.A.) plays into the easy buttons that get pushed and take people off their path; greed, power, glamour, sex, fame.”
                                                                                       Ed Solomon
  Men in Black

“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who read your work, and enriching your own life, as well.
Stephen King

So life in general is hard, and being a writer or in the creative arts is a double helping of difficulty.

Several years ago Stephen King was hit by a van when he was on a walk. One leg was broken in nine places and his knee was reduced to “so many marbles in a sock,” his spine was chipped in eight places, four ribs were broken, and a laceration to his scalp required 30 stitches. It was as if his characters Annie Wilkes (Misery) and Cujo had ganged up on him.

But he had learned a thing or two about adversity after an earlier bout with drugs and alcohol that he eventually won. One of thing things he learned was to not to get a massive desk and put it in the center of the room like he did early in his career. That is, writing shouldn’t be the most important thing in your life.

“Put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room.  Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.”
Stephen King

Two years ago I produced a DVD based on the book Don’t Waste Your Life by John Piper. The concept was to shoot a Koyaanisqatsi-style video that that showed the arc of life from birth to death. I shot footage from New York City to Denver. I shot footage of a one day old baby in a hospital, people walking into an office building in Cleveland, snow failing in a cemetery and the like.  One of the shots for that video was in Parkersburg, Iowa.

It was a traditional Friday night high school football game at Aplington-Parkersburg High School. (What makes this school unique is though the town only has a population of 2,000 it currently has 4 active graduates playing in the NFL.)  That high school building is a total loss because of the tornado. Here’s a photo of the scoreboard sign that was blown down during the storm.

There will always be the storms of life. And as I’ve written before, movies can help us endure those storms and even inspire us. (“Throughout most of the Depression, Americans went assiduously, devotedly, almost compulsively, to the movies.”-Carlos Stevens) So work on your craft because we need great stories that give us a sense of direction, but don’t waste your life just writing screenplays.

words & photos copyright ©2008  Scott W. Smith

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