Minding the Muse, A Handbook for Painters, Composers, Writers, and Other Creators by Priscilla Long, Coffeetown Press, Seattle, 2016
Priscilla Long’s slim handbook for artists suggests ways to reflect on one’s creativity and so become a more effective creator. It is pithier and more intellectually respectful than recent creativity how-tos like Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic, and old standards like Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way.
If the topic of creativity interests you, you may have read Nancy Andreasen, Julia Cameron, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Mason Currey, Elizabeth Gilbert, Rollo May, Roger van Oech, Stephen Saitzyk, Dorothy L. Sayers, Blake Snyder, and Twyla Tharp, and wish to know how Priscilla Long’s 2016 handbook from Coffeetown Press distinguishes itself.
Long promotes hard purposeful work and asks readers to figure out for themselves how they can become more productive. She labels her book an “aid … in this process of reflection.” The happy results of her handbook: more thoughtful artwork and more thoughtful artists.
Unlike Julia Cameron, Priscilla Long ignores aspects of us that are none of her business. Although Cameron acknowledges her readers might not believe in God, she bases much of The Artist’s Way on the deity notion. A person wishing to skip those references has many passages to hop. There is no such fat in Minding the Muse. Like Blake Snyder (Save the Cat), Long cuts to the practical while remaining thorough. Each of her fourteen chapters ends with “Questions to Contemplate as You Continue Your Practice.” While Minding the Muse is a quick read, contemplating Long’s questions and implementing her ideas could take the rest of an artist’s life. And readers will want to reread. Handbooks are to be kept at hand, after all.
Enthusiastic Elizabeth Gilbert (Big Magic) assumes we need seventy pages of cheerleading before creating anything. Priscilla Long believes her readership is already ambitious. Gilbert provides no significant deepening of an understanding of the creative process. In contrast, Minding the Muse distills Long’s extensive research on productive creators “from Picasso to Patti Smith …” down to the most helpful processes for furthering even an experienced creator’s practice. We improve our chances at being our best creator selves if we apply the most successful practices to our own. And as Long says, “No matter how experienced I get, there’s something more to learn.”
Gilbert and Cameron can come across as new-agey. Long is classic. Never new-agey. Twyla Tharp (The Creative Habit, The Creativity in Each of Us) is also classic. Tharp’s ideas about creativity include wacky practices, such as unsticking oneself by assuming the egg position—a fetal tuck, eyes closed—until breakthrough, and standards, such as launching into a ritual to initiate the creative day. Tharp and Long make a great duo for creators interested in reflective practice.
How-to authors tell readers to set “specific and reachable” goals. Long is no exception. She stands apart by adding, “A goal is a product, such as a painting or a poem. It’s not a process.” Thus, announcing, “I am going to paint for two hours every day this week,” is not goal-setting; “I am going to paint a landscape every week this month,” is. Her definition changes the creative equation. It is not about hours+hours=terrific(?)new art. It is closer to hours+purpose=potential fulfilled.
Some of Minding the Muse’s practices ring familiar, such as ignoring mood and learning the habit of work, (Chapter V, “Feelings Are Unimportant”). But some of the practices surprise, such as contemplating: “What artworks might you study outside the traditions of your own art form?” and “Do you work on more than one piece at once?” In my favorite, Chapter VII, “Creativity Heuristics for Artists,” Long posits quirky things for creators to do within their own works, such as lateral moves, “… techniques … devised to move sideways, to invite in the non-obvious, to create more associations, to generate ideas and create works, to think divergently.” Some practices inspire, as in Chapter XI, “Accounting for Works.” Long suggests artists inventory their work. Have you seen this suggestion anywhere else? Whatever your medium of creation, try the works list. You will gain a fresh perspective on how you have spent your time over the years, and on how you may move forward.
Chuck Smart’s gorgeous The Painters Hand decorates the cover of Minding the Muse. It is a fitting visual synecdoche of creativity.