Thursday, January 26, 2017

Art Is Travel - Planning vs. Spontaneity

Is it better to plan ahead or just start creating and see what happens? Different artists choose different paths, and sometimes we don't even have a choice ...

The best way to travel is going to see what you want with enough room for unexpected detours and adventures.

When I started this blog back in 2015 I typed "art is" into the Google search field and then wrote down Google's suggestions for how to continue this sentence. One suggestion was:
"Art is travel."
I love this idea. No matter what kind of art we create - we always go on a journey to discover something new, to push our limits and to come back as a new person. And, just like with literal travel, you can organize your artistic travel in two ways:

You can either
  • plan every single step and have the exact result you want, or
  • make no plans at all and just enjoy the surprise of where your feet decide to carry you.

In artistic practice it looks like this:
Artists who plan every single step always know what they are doing and why. They know how much time they need for a particular project. They know almost every detail they will include later. They are writers who make notes and build plot structures before actually writing the story and artists who make detailed sketches.
Obviously, this is how a potential client would want them to work.
Artists who don't plan at all usually don't know what they're doing and what will be the result of them just messing around - or if there will even be one. They don't know what genre their novel is going to be, and they're most surprised by every plot twist. They're artists who just doodle around and then try to figure out what the shapes they've drawn look like and then add the details.
Obviously, this is more about artistic self-expression.
What we have isn't only an opposition of how we create art. It's also an opposition of how art requires to be created. When you work alone and only for yourself there's nothing wrong with spontaneous ideas and decisions. When you work for clients or as a member of a team, however, artistic self-expression would lead only to chaos and unnecessary delays. There are whole art genres that can't work without planning: When you employ a team of creative people for a movie, a game or a TV show you and your team better stick to a strict schedule, or your project is doomed.

The Crucial Difference between Tolkien and Martin

As far as I know from reading and communicating with creative people every artist likes freedom. And yet, even if you're alone, it's sometimes necessary to limit your own freedom. One of the main differences between The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien and A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin is that Tolkien just went out on an adventure with his hobbits and the end result wasn't what he had expected it to be while Martin knows exactly how his novel series is going to end.

The Lord of the Rings is, above all, a series of adventures many of which don't contribute to the overall plot (which is probably the main reason why the Tom Bombadil chapters, for example, almost never make it into adaptations). This is one of the factors that make the charm of Tolkien's epic fantasy: You dive into it and it just grows bigger, and bigger, and bigger ... After starting the journey in the shire where everyone and everything is small you go to escaping barrow-wights, then an ancient balrog and eventually you finish your journey with epic battles.

As for A Song of Ice and Fire, personally I don't feel like it grows bigger. It rather grows deeper and the web, all the secrets, intrigues, relationships ... - The web becomes just more and more complicated. You do discover new things, yet there's usually a link to what you already know, and thus the world isn't actually growing but it's rather you gradually realizing how big and interconnected it is. Tolkien's fantasy isn't half as interconnected as Martin's, even with The Hobbit and The Silmarillion. Writing something like A Song of Ice and Fire is impossible without planning in advance.

So What Is the Right Way to Create Art?

Both novel series discussed above are epic fantasies with every reason to be as popular as they are. Currently writing a fantasy story myself, I unexpectedly found myself on Tolkien's path, which is, for such a control freak like me, a very uncomfortable one. I've been writing mostly short stories for more than a decade, and even my novel-length stories were reduced to what is absolutely necessary: All because I always knew what kind of story I write, how I want to affect the reader and what message I'm trying to convey. It isn't like I haven't been open to spontaneous changes, but every change I decided to bring into my original plan had a definite reason and purpose. In other words, my writing habits are more like Martin's.

Now I've started a story I didn't even plan to start. I planned to start another one and ended up with this. For some reason. A story that doesn't even have a main conflict. When I try to define what it is about I can't formulate anything more precise than: There's a protagonist who is shaped by his background, he still suffers from some childhood traumas, he has friends, relatives, acquaintances, he has duties and plans for the future ... and in the background there's a civil war brewing. It's actually a coming-of-age story about a teenager with an unpronounceable name (unless one can read Polish) who is about to graduate from an elite military academy, a teenager who wields swords and guns and scrupulously kills cute rabbits to prepare them for dinner, a teenager who is mentally prepared to kill people, a teenager who takes up the responsibilities of an adult, and, last but not least, a teenager who isn't even human. Who can relate to that? After all, it's supposed to be a slice of life story! Who is going to read this? Honestly, I think it's the first time in my life that I can't define my target audience.

On the other hand, reading what I wrote just now makes me realize that I would actually read it. The everyday life of someone who can't be related to easily could be interesting. And, while killing rabbits may not be relatable for a modern reader - rejecting another person's feelings certainly is. Life is life, no matter whether you're human or not. The fact that it isn't the usual pseudo-medieval setting but a pseudo-early 17th century one where the flintlock has recently hit the market, too, seems intriguing to me. So if I find my idea interesting - why shouldn't others? I don't know where my feet will carry me on this travel, but this path doesn't seem any less reasonable to follow than the path of planning.

The Balance between Planning and Spontaneity

No path is better than the other. Both paths have their advantages and limits. Without one we wouldn't have half of our favourite artworks, and without the other one we wouldn't have the other half. In fact, without even one of them we probably wouldn't have any artworks at all, because, let's be honest:
  • No matter how much we plan, there are always great ideas that come to us when we least expect them.
  • No matter how little we plan, with time our draft turns into a solid structure and needs very specific adjustments here and there.

Some artworks require more planning, others require more spontaneity. But all artworks require both. For the best way to travel is going to see what you want with enough room for unexpected detours and adventures.

How do you prefer to create? Do you have a specific plan when you start, or do you just start and leave figuring out what it's supposed to be for later? Leave a comment below!


  1. I work in a pretty loose manner. If I tied myself to a bunch of steps intended to lead me to the realization of something I held in my mind before starting, I might try a few times but would always be disappointed because whatever I can think up will always seem better than what I can actually do. Fantasy is more colorful and exciting than reality and quite a bit more perfect. So I just let myself pour out whatever's in here and then try to decide what the value of what I have done might be.

    1. I agree, fantasy usually is better than reality. I've noticed that even when I carefully plan every step the result usually is better when there are at least a few unplanned elements that just came out of me spontaneuously.


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