I was giving a lecture to students at Vassar not long ago. Working with the students’ autobiographies, I invited a dance student, a music student who brought his saxophone, and an art student to join me on stage. I asked the dancer to improvise some movement from a tuck position on the floor. I asked the saxophone player to accompany the dancer. And I asked the art student to assign colors to what they were doing. I admit I was constructing a three-ring circus in the lecture hall. But my goal was to bring the three students together by forcing them to work off the same page, and also to free them up to discover how far they could go improvising on this simple assignment.
When I asked the art student to read out his color impressions, everyone in the hall was taken aback. He droned on and on about himself, feelings he’d had, stories about friends. Not a word about color. Finally I heard “limpid blue” come out of his mouth. I waved my arms, signaling him to stop reading.
“Do you realize,” I said, “that you’ve just recited about five hundred words in an assignment about color. You’ve covered everything under the sun, and ‘limpid blue’ is the first time you’ve mentioned a color? I’m not convinced you want to be a painter.”
As far as I was concerned, this young man was in “DNA denial.”
The above quote comes from Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit. Learn It And Use It For Life. In the second chapter of the book, she introduces the concept of “Creative DNA,” which she defines as a type of code which determines our creative needs and explorations: “the forms we work in, the stories we tell, and how we tell them.” Twyla believes that certain choices, i.e. choosing to paint miniatures rather than epic battle scenes, or to write short stories as opposed to multi-volume historical sagas, are made on a subconscious level. This doesn’t limit us to one discipline; Twyla sees it more as a specific structure of work and a set of patterns we are drawn to. Of course, there are artists devoted to one form of expression but the inner creative code applies to everyone, and even in the case of a multi-disciplinary artist, there are definite strands to their work, some topics and problems they keep investigating regardless of the medium.
And Twyla is right – understanding those strands of our creative DNA can help us learn about why we do things in a certain way and learn the difference between venturing out of our comfort zone and going against our nature. The former is a necessary part of any artistic endeavour, while the latter is a recipe for becoming mediocre at something many other people will excel at because it is their real vocation.
Identifying our Creative DNA requires self-knowledge, intuition and honesty. Sometimes we want to do certain things because they seem more attractive than the ones we’re actually good at. One of the most famous contemporary Polish writers, Andrzej Stasiuk, always wanted to be a drummer. Surely, for a teenage boy, the vision of being onstage with a band, in front of an ecstatic audience, is indefinitely more appealing than sitting alone at a desk and writing. But for whatever reason, Stasiuk was able to recognise the writing skills he had and develop those instead of jamming his evenings away with friends. Which turned out to be a good choice.
I’ve met people who claim they work in a certain discipline but they either don’t seem to do much work or the work they do is preceded by hours of pain and stress. It’s as if they were consciously identifying themselves with a goal that is not part of any of their DNA strands. Somebody said to me once that if you want to do something, you will find a way. If you’re not working towards your goal that you proclaim, and you keep coming up with excuses (time, money, deadlines for other things, personal life etc.) then it’s likely that what you’ve chosen (and struggle) to do has little in common with your true creative mission. But it’s very difficult to be honest with ourselves about our goals, as we tend to emotionally cling to ideas without questioning them. A painter in “DNA denial” who doesn’t paint because of a daily job will remain upset and convinced that his lack of work is due to the lack of time, whereas another person for whom painting is the foundation of their Creative DNA will happily stay up until 3am painting, regardless of other jobs and responsibilities they have.
On the other hand, just like the biological DNA changes, so can the Creative DNA. DNA’s mutations are the raw material of genetic variation and they’re essential to evolution, while transformations of the Creative DNA are an integral part of our emotional, intellectual and cultural development. As John Updike, quoted by Twyla, said: “Each day, we wake up slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead.” So it is entirely possible to alter or develop new strands of creative identity. This doesn’t mean replacing the existing DNA with something completely different, but perhaps modifying elements of the “form-story-style” structure.
I see many examples of both deconstructing and reconstructing the Creative DNA. Sometimes we succeed at identifying the way we want to tell our stories (make feature comedy films) but we realise that, as a career choice, this particular way doesn’t suit our character (we’re introverts and enjoy being alone), temper (we like working slowly) or lifestyle (we want to work from home). So we might want to explore other ways, such as making animated films. The (comic) stories might stay the same, as can style (i.e. black humour) but the form will be different.
It is easier to identify our artistic calling as well as construct/reconstruct its structure if we have one obvious talent. Things become more difficult if we excel at more than one medium, and the difficulty lies both in choosing the talent(s) we want to pursue, and constructing the frame that responds to our Creative DNA and to our life. This often happens through the process of trial and error, when by experimenting with telling our stories in different forms, we discover which ones we should most certainly abandon. I have a friend who studied theatre design with me at CSM, and all the time she was at the college she drew: people, places, urban scenes. As far as I know, she’s done some theatre and film design work but above everything else, she is now an illustrator. While Ula drew little people in her notebook, I wrote and drew storyboards. Whenever a project involved either writing or storyboarding, I would give it my full attention, sometimes neglecting other elements. When I was assisting designer Paweł Dobrzycki on the Polish première of Shrek the Musical in 2011, I was incredibly glad that my role was to create the storyboard. I’m sure that a lot of people would have wanted to assist by helping the storyboard vision come to life onstage, but I had very little interest in that. This is why I stopped acting against my Creative DNA and abandoned theatre design.
That was one of the first steps of deconstructing what my vocation is. The next one was identifying the role of writing in my life. From school cabaret plays, poems, ancient Latin poetry adaptations to BA and MA thesis, scripts, short stories, journal, blog, children’s books and most recently, a comic, I’ve been writing all my life. But it was relatively recently when I realised that I write more than paint. Painting for me is not the final product, it comes as part of a story, a book, an animation. Just like that art student from Twyla’s anecdote, I wouldn’t be able to limit myself to describing a colour, for feelings, memories, opinions and all sorts of ideas are constantly buzzing in my head and keep coming out in words.
I recently found out that a couple of friends have decided to significantly change their careers. Juliette, another friend from CSM who for the past few years has been painting, dancing, performing, writing poetry, healing and leading creative workshops, has recently announced on social media that she is going to pursue a career in acting, and has cleared her painting studio. Another friend is leaving acting for environment studies and work. Both seem happy with their choices. Being honest about what we are going and not going to do is very liberating. True dedication to our mission is the only weapon against the enemies awaiting us on our journey: fear, failure, being in a rut, the project going wrong. If we are pursuing something we seriously want to do, we will persevere and get through the dip. If not, all of these will be handy excuses not to do the work.
Re-examining what we’re built for and how much effort we’re prepared to put into it is the key to a fulfilling creative career. Procrastinating is incredibly frustrating – but it can sometimes offer some valuable information about a wrong goal choice, and an incentive to make a change. Life is a process, and there is no limit to the number of career and lifestyle changes we can make. What matters is that we’re in tune with what we’re like and where we want to get.