David Usher not only tells us that creativity is a lot of hard work, he teaches us how to do the work.
Let the Elephants Run: Unlock Your Creativity and Change Everything by David Usher, House of Anansi Press, 256 pages, $24.95, Hardcover, June 2015, ISBN 9781770898684
Putting the paint on canvas, designing the perfect user experience, or finding an elegant turn of phrase—these are all part of what we classically think of as the work of creation. These are the things creators dream about doing when they imagine their creative life. What they do not dream about is operational infrastructure.
There are two adjacent graphs on pages 186 and 187 of Let the Elephants Run that perfectly represent a moment—a very distinct, harsh, wake-up-call of a moment—that every single person in every last creative field has undoubtedly had.
Author David Usher illustrates this moment by using his wife Sabrina Reeves’ (Bluemouth, Inc, Fée Fatale) life in theater as a launching point. The graph on page 186 is titled “The Dream of the Artist’s Life” and takes the shape of the letter L. The long vertical stem of the L contains the words and phrases, “Performing, In Studio, Touring, Talking about art, Sitting contemplatively at a café (my favorite).” The much smaller, horizontal leaf of the L, of course, only lists “Crappy business stuff.”
The adjacent graph, a backwards L, is titled “The Reality.” The bulky stem of the L contains, “Writing grants, Organizing rehearsals, Fundraising, Budgets, Accounting, Meeting, Board meeting, More meetings,” while the tiny little horizontal stem says, “Fun art stuff.”
Talent matters, but work is what delivers you. This notion is counterintuitive to the popular mythology propagated about the artist. Artists get up late, do their art for a bit, and then the rest of the day is spent reading Bukowski, drinking red wine, and then it’s on to lots and lots of free love (there is some of that). Working artists know that to get really good at their creative discipline, they have to work incredibly hard.
I have on good authority that Bukowkski, red wine, and free love is, indeed, every 22 year-old artist’s dream. But I digress.
Every successful creative person makes the transition from the first chart to the second. Let the Elephants Run is a book aimed at helping professionals transition from the dream of unbridled creativity to the reality of organized, disciplined creation.
Usher’s book is incredibly well-designed and is both practical guide and workbook. The practical guide teaches readers how to organize, manage time, learn our communication tendencies, understand the level of commitment necessary to create, and yes, even how to steal the heck out of everyone else’s ideas to create our own:
Artist or entrepreneur, in my mind we are all hustlers and thieves. We are an amalgamation of the ideas that surround us. There may be a few rare geniuses that can pull incredible brilliance out of the air without any prior knowledge or contextual influences. But for the rest of us, ideas are based on other ideas.
In other words, steal steal steal! Don’t blatantly rip off someone’s writing or product, but combine a lot of stolen goods into something new.
The workbook angle of the book happens when every few pages Usher offers an action page where the reader is prompted and encouraged to literally write in the book to exercise the tools discussed in the preceding pages. If you’re struggling to transition from dream to reality creating, this is a fantastic way to become unstuck.
There is a moment of confusion and sadness when we realize we can’t while away the days with raunch poetry and cheap, jugged wine (and lots of free love), but what happens after this realization is what determines whether we reach our creative potential or find any old job to pay the bills. Bands break up and startups close down because they don’t want the work part of creativity. But if you’re willing to accept that most of your creativity comes from spreadsheets and exercise, filing systems and psychological self-examination, pick up Let the Elephants Run and get to work.