Are you as sick and tired as me with all this financial talk? I am bailing you out with a rewarding e-mail conversation between filmmaker/writer Frank Vitale and me. Frank is a filmmaking adjunct professor at the School of Visual Arts and director of the Audio-Visual Division of the March of Dimes Foundation. Frank’s “Montreal Man” was recently selected by CVMC.net for distribution and you can see another of his films, “The Perfect Stranger,” on vitaleproductions.com.
Frank: Ann Cefola, creative strategist and owner of Jumpstart, LLC, is a multitalented wellspring of thought and energy. I attended her creativity workshop on at the Manhattanville College writing program. She gave us a very workable strategy to manage our creative process. Ann divides it into three stages: “The first, the ‘wunderkind’ stage,” she says, “means play and sometimes chaos; the second is ‘shaping,’ where we call upon the inner editor to make sense of the creative mess we've generated; and the third calls for ‘advocating,’ where we summon our inner concierge to go into the world and find opportunities to share our work." This interview explores the Wunderkind stage.
Ann, what is, in your opinion, the essence of creativity?
Ann: The essence of creativity is intuition, the ability to listen, follow and act on inner cues and nudgings. Once I was sorting through tubes of oil paint at Pearl—hefting them in my hand, reading them, considering what I needed to paint. I apologetically explained to an employee, a young man, that I had no formal training. "That doesn't matter," he said. "Eventually you come to realize that your greatest teacher is your intuition." I marveled at the rightness of his words.
Frank: Those “inner cues and nudgings,” they sound ephemeral, delicate, fragile, scary. How do you manage them effectively?
Ann: Most artists have a rich inner life—it’s a way of being that processes the world in terms of messages, symbols and metaphor. When something is appealing or intriguing, we make note of it—even if only on a subconscious level. Writers have many journals and artists sketchbooks. My uncle, an architect, advised his daughters to always carry a sketchbook. How do filmmakers collect and record the primary material that inspires them?
Frank: For filmmakers there must be many different ways. For me, I carry most of in my head until there comes a point when I need to make it more concrete and put it down on paper as an idea or an outline or a script. Once on paper it is never as amazing as it was in my head. And then there is the process of actually making the film that is full of heart-breaking compromises. The film can turn out great, but getting there is torture.
Let me go back to the incubation stage and ask you about the emotional part. It is so hard to take those “inner cues and nudgings” and expose them to the light of day by writing them down or drawing images and then, oh God, sharing them with other people who might judge our work or judge us and trample our delicate fragile imaginings. It’s a very vulnerable time in the process. What are your thoughts about dealing with the fear and natural insecurity that is part of the creative process?
Ann: Mark Twain said, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear—not absence of fear.” It never goes away. What is a greater fear, however, is never acting on that glimmering inspiration. Once a coworker said to me, “Oh you write? So do I: I’ve written hundreds of novels in my head.” That still gives me chills. The insecurity is always there—in the poem “Berryman” by W. S. Merwin, Merwin asks the elder poet:
[…] how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can't
you can't you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don't write
Being a creative person in this world, on a feeling level, makes no sense: I have to embrace the secret calling without wasting time questioning it. And you’re right, the first inklings of creative pursuit are delicate. Wasn’t it Hemingway who refused to say what he was writing about? That’s a practical choice—to hold the work close until it feels like it is ready to debut. Anxiety is part of the creative process and, if embraced, turns into energy and wisdom for the work itself.
Frank: That’s powerful, Ann. There is fear and uncertainty, yet great possibilities. In your Stages of Creativity, the first stage is the Wunderkind. What is it and how does it get us to move beyond the fear and uncertainty?
Ann: If you look at a cut tree trunk, you see all the circles as the tree grew outward. Humans are like that too—we have every life stage within us, despite our advancing years. The child within is the source of all creativity. The child is at home with the imagination. The child knows no rules or bounds. A child will say she’s going to build a tower to the moon. And most adults would respond, “Of course you are!” or a more skeptical “And how do you plan to do that?” There is also a saying that all children are poets—it’s just some of us never forget it.
The child loves creative chaos. Here’s an example: My husband dropped by the neighbors after the holidays. The mother called everyone into the kitchen to see the baby, who had emptied multiple bags of cups from a discount store onto the floor. “This baby has gotten all the gifts in the world for Christmas," she said, "and look what she prefers!” Everyone had a good laugh. That’s early creativity—cups and cups and what to do with them! Not yet one year old, the baby had created a fascinating landscape. Whether using mud, plastic cups or finger paint, kids go with their instincts. You probably know the famous Picasso quote—when he saw some four year olds’ drawings: “It took me a long time before I could draw that way.”
The Wunderkind is that inner child who knows that it’s okay to take risks, think big and enjoy the adrenaline of a visualized new adventure. That child knows how to play and how to play seriously. Somewhere between the sandbox and the laptop, many of us lose touch with the Wunderkind. He or she is still there, waiting to be invited to play. How I choose to interact with my Wunderkind may determine whether I produce anything creative as an adult or not.
Frank: How do you invite the Wunderkind to play? How do you interact with it?
Ann: Say a parent notices a child loves to garden. Maybe the grandparents hear about this and buy their grandchild a little hoe and watering can. Maybe the neighbors pass along an envelope of zucchini seeds. Maybe the parents take their child to the local botanical garden and nature
center. The parents know that their child loves spending time outside and learning about plants. At the holidays, they may buy books about gardening. They give the child the time, space and tools to explore this passion—which seems to increase the more they support it.
When we discover our passion, our curiosity, our instinct—even if only a beguiling direction or pull—we need to be like those attentive parents. We need to give our Wunderkind the time, space and tools to explore. As a poet, I need lots of time just to be, to reflect, to hear lines that come to me. I also need a laptop, and a beautiful pen and colorful notebooks. I need great writing to read to inspire and challenge me. I need other poets to share my work with, and to encourage me to continue. I know I am being a good parent to my Wunderkind when I feel connected to my work and have a sense of playful intrigue.
Is it hard to make time for a pursuit that has no promise of outcome or profit—when I have to earn a living and attend to the everyday details of life? Yes, it is a challenge: Here is the daily, weekly or monthly choice we must make—to live the path we've been given, or walk away from it.
Frank: Thank you, Ann. You have given us permission to play. That’s a great gift.
Ann: My pleasure, Frank!