A few nights ago my husband and I had the wonderful opportunity to attend the 10th Anniversary Gala of the Walt Disney Concert Hall with the LA Philharmonic. The architect, Frank Gehry, was in attendance and the presentation was designed as a celebration of the design and creation of the concert hall building itself.
Conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, each piece represented a time in the process. The program was:
- 4’33” by John Cage – that’s the famous silent piece.
- Bach’s Prelude, from Cello Suite No. 3, with Yo-Yo Ma
- Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme, also with Yo-Yo Ma (who appeared to not have any sheet music in front of him)
- “These Premises are Alarmed” by Adés
- Symphony No. 9 by Mahler (III. Rondo: Burleske)
- Symphony No. 3, “Organ” (IIb Maestoso) by Saint-Saëns – when the actual magnificent built in organ was played.
Each piece was introduced by quotes from a timely Gehry interview, talking about his design process. Then different video clips, presented on three oddly shaped geometric screens, projected on both sides for different places in the auditorium, accompanied the music. This part of the presentation was devised by Netia Jones (who is a fascinating multi-media artist).
The images began with Gehry’s preparatory, exploratory sketches, ingeniously animated, then moved on to his model making process. Gehry spoke of making hundreds and storing them, and continuing to move through the process of designing with the cardboard models. The slides showed images of numbered crates reminiscent of the final shot in “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. (Did I mention I was 20 feet from Harrison Ford speaking only two nights earlier at another charity event?)
Then there were the criticisms, the complaints, the sarcasm in the press about the pace of the project – for a long time only the underground parking garage appeared to be completed. This frustrating time was represented by a visual collage of newspaper headlines and the semi-completed structure.
But in the end of course the building was finished and hailed as one of the masterpieces of contemporary architecture and a new cultural landmark for Los Angeles.
What most excited me was Gehry’s persistence. He continued not just to push for his vision, but through multiple iterations of it, through his own dissatisfactions, and through his search for methods. It is a building that would have been all but impossible (and certainly take much longer) to construct without the computer aided design software Gehry used.
Perseverance is not just not giving up on a project, and continuing to work on and refine an idea. It’s also being willing to discard that idea for better ones.
Persevering with Thinking
When I was working in design, whether it was costumes, sets or lighting, I always knew that my best idea was never the first one. Sometimes time constraints meant that it was the first idea that people liked and we went with, and sometimes it was too late to make the changes that would have improved the outcome.
So when I am working on any kind of creative project or new product, I try to allow time for the ideas to percolate. I sketch and consider the first idea – I get it out of my head and onto paper. But I continue to sketch, play, list, mindstorm, and tinker – not so much to modify the existing stream of thought, but to allow a completely new idea to bubble up.
It is just as important to continue working – editing, revisiting, rewriting, looking at the research, watching the rehearsals, playing with the materials – when you are reasonably satisfied with your work, as when you are frustrated by how it’s looking.
Jim Collins said, “Good is the enemy of great”. He was writing about corporations and companies which by consistent, persistent effort towards a single goal over a very long term gradually become greater than merely successful. But the phrase also works in considering creative projects. The model of the concert hall that won the contest for Gehry was good. But the final result is beyond that to be almost magical, because he wasn’t satisfied with good.
That’s one of the problems these creative competition shows have – Project Runway, Face Off, Work of Art, Design Star – severe lack of time. In the hotbed of competition, it’s not just the challenge of realizing their idea or design in a shortened time frame (which admittedly can happen in the real world occasionally). The real awfulness I imagine is the frustration of coming up with a better idea but being committed by time constraints to finishing what you have started. In support of this notion I present the time in the recent Project Runway episode when bottom three contestant, Dom Streater, was sent back to the workroom and completed a totally different and surprisingly winning look.
What I know for sure is that when I don’t allow myself enough time to think, sketch, plan OR to realize and build, my work is never as good. I have to have time and use it to persevere through doubts, blocks, and sometimes the belief in my own unworthiness.
Perseverance is failing 19 times and succeeding the 20th. ~ Julie Andrews (member of the Gala Committee for the LA Phil Gala)
How to Persevere
- Give yourself time for the process, and for creativity to blossom – but also know that the work expands to fill the time available! Just keep going – baby steps.
- Give yourself more tries than you think you will need. By this I mean if you plan to make a list of 10 things, make it 20. If you plan to make three sketches, do six. If you have a story idea plotted out, spend some time imagining an alternative trajectory.
- Rest, walk away and return. Let the subconscious percolation happen. Take a walk. Take a nap.
- Get enough sleep. Eat enough food. I sometimes forget to eat when I’m lost in the timeless void of screenwriting. Luckily I have people around me who express that they are hungry.
- Gehry would probably say that having sufficient storage space, to keep your first, second, third – who knows how many – attempts is also helpful.
Another time I’ll write about the opposite problem – perfectionism and incompletion, and the risk of presenting your ideas and work to others.
The Encore was a beautiful rendition of “When You Wish Upon A Star“, and silver mylar stars floated down from the ceiling. I was a wreck.