Book Review: Untitled by Blaine Hogan

untitledbookcover

The Bottom Line

“Untitled: Thoughts on the Creative Process” is Blaine Hogan’s manifesto to other creative artists in the church. The title comes from that place of dread that anyone who has ever attempted a creative endeavor knows too well: The Blank Page.

What follows is a collection of thoughts derived as I’ve wrestled with my own creative process of filling blank pages, and I now offer them to you.
from the introduction.

That may not sound like a mind-blowingly, powerful beginning, but Blaine delivers. The lessons he has learned are worth your time. The book is great material for reading together with any team at a church or ministry that is creatively telling the Gospel. Blaine’s writing style is approachable and disarming and naturally leads into discussion.

The book is divided into 4 movements:

Movement I: The Work
Movement II: The Inside Out (and other philosophies)
Movement III: Fear, Failure, and Making Mistakes
Movement IV: Worth It

I should note that I read this book on my iPad and, therefore, do not have page numbers for my quotes. The quotes are from each specific movement. Although the book was written in July of 2011, I expect it to be relevant for many years.

Movement I: The Work

If we were only in the right place and people understood us better, we would thrive in a magical environment of free-flowing creative genius without restraint. Right?

The work of art appears to be glamorous because, when it succeeds, the end product is often glamorous. Blaine is here to set us straight. Make no mistake, we must work. That is the part we can all agree to, but Blaine doesn’t stop there. He goes on to give some great practical suggestions on how to execute creative work. And this is where the rubber meets the road. It is not the ideas that matter, it is the execution of those ideas.

Talent is rarely the issue, if you’re wondering.

No, the issue is whether or not we’re willing to risk our reputations to do the painful work required to create great things, or take the easy way out by underselling our pitches, regurgitating old visions, and recreating what we know.

This is the insightful, laser beam like poignant observations that Blaine continues to challenge and encourage us with throughout the book. We are worth so much more, our gifts are worth so much more, than what we settle for.

Vision is easy. Idea are even easier.
It’s execution that separates the amateurs from the pros.

I have been in many (perhaps thousands) of “creative sessions” where ideas start flying like grass clippings out of a lawn mower. I’m rarely moved by the ideas themselves if the people so casually throwing them out cannot execute them. Anyone can just come up with ideas. Don’t be that person. Learn to execute. That’s where the value comes in. That’s where our gifts and art begin to change the world. Sure, we will have to execute someone else’s ideas before we get the experience and privilege of making our own, but never forget that this–THIS!–is what’s valuable.

So how does one arrive at new ideas that aren’t just regurgitated leftovers and then execute those ideas into something meaningful? I really like Blaine’s advice here. It is composed of two ingredients: (1) scratching (ala Twila Tharp but with his unique twist) and (2) getting unstuck. That’s it.

If you take the time to invest in yourself (keep putting something in the tank) and know how to personally find motivation and momentum, you will deliver. And you will deliver something fresh and personal and of immeasurable value.

Movement II: The Inside Out (and other philosophies)

Great stories don’t tell us what to think, instead they do the much harder thing which is getting us to believe in something.

Great art comes from within you. Blaine makes that point, but does not really focus there. His goal is to help us be better people and out of that renewed, inner place will come better art.

Art seeks to tell the truth in dark places … I have found that when I’m brave enough to venture into those arenas; when I’m able to offer my full self; when my inner self has been explored, I tell the most truth and I create the best work.

The practicality comes in as he challenges us to embrace our awkwardness, allow our art to be our confession, and find our center. Notice that all of his advice branches out from a general principle of knowing who we are.

Are you not being your full self because you’re scared of what might happen? Have you found yourself blaming your employer or client for not allowing you to be you?
Instead of blaming someone else for preventing you from being who you really are, why not start showing up and see what happens?
You might get fired or something better.
Perhaps you might finally let your organization be what it should be — a laboratory for your transformation, not theirs.

He goes on to highlight additional philosophies. I would like to highlight one: Did it work?

“Did it work?” is not a question of art.
That is a question for your washing machine.
“Did it work” is not a bad question, there are just better ones like,
Did you bring your insides out?
Did you acknowledge the lump in your throat?
Did you tell a compelling story?
Did you try something new? Something risky?
Did you work from your center?
Did you allow yourself to be moved?

Our job is to communicate the human experience and that is something a machine will never be able to do.

Imagine a chapter full of this kind of wisdom and comprehension and you are starting to sense the value of what Blaine has given us in this book.

Movement III: Fear, Failure, and Making Mistakes

When we begin the risky journey toward making our insides whole and we start to fill our blank pages with stories that might make the world a better place, darkness will inevitably conspire against us.

If you have read your share of books on creativity, you will recognize this material: learn to silence the inner critic, be willing to make mistakes, how to learn from failure, etc.

All of this is very good, but once again, Blaine goes beyond what we already know about these concepts and personalizes them. It is a powerful thing to move from concept to tool. Blaine succeeds.

Take a moment and ask yourself which part of the process scares you the most.
Is it the beginning, the end, or somewhere in between?
Write it down on a sheet of paper and put somewhere you can see it everyday.
The_________part scares me the most.
Become very familiar with that phrase.
You absolutely must know which part is most scary for you because that is the part you will sabotage, intentionally or otherwise.
Resistance doesn’t want us to know this.
But we must if we are going to win.

One of the takeaways Blaine gives us is to stay curious. Instead of taking our failures personally, we should adopt curiosity. Staying curious will help us stay objective. It will help us stand outside our mistakes and learn from them and continue to be honest with ourselves and our work. It will help “spur us toward life not death.”

“The function of the overwhelming majority of your artwork is simply to teach you how to make the small fraction of your artwork that soars. One of the basic and difficult lessons every artist must learn is that even the failed pieces are essential.” — DAVID BAYLES & TED ORLAND, ART & FEAR

Movement IV: Worth It

My fear is that unless we decide staring out a window and letting time take us (into our own stories, new ideas, and new worlds) is important, and not illicit work, we will continue to create fewer and fewer pieces of art that move people.

How can we expect to hold the world’s attention with mystery and beauty if we won’t allow ourselves to be captured?

The bottom line of this chapter is simply this: the world needs what you and I have to offer. Getting that out of us into the world is a lifelong, challenging process, but worth it.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from this chapter:

If we are going to create truly meaningful art, if we are going to give our lives over to such a process of creativity, then we must fight tooth and nail to capture what others are missing.

An artist’s job is to see well and to do that you must have slow and steady eyes to see.
It takes time to do this.
Becoming a great artist is not about might, it is about being.

I wonder what you could really make, if you let time take you.

Concluding Takeaways

It is rare for me to find a book that I so eagerly agree with one moment while getting graciously challenged the next. (Well, graciously challenged sounds a lot nicer than saying getting your teeth kicked in. In love, of course.) I didn’t realize, until Blaine unmasked my compromises, how much I needed to be freshly challenged to recommit my whole self to my projects and not be satisfied with less than my best.

Untitled was really helpful to work through by myself, but because it is so stirring, I wanted to talk about it and share my discoveries with others. For that reason, and because of his engaging style, I believe this book would be a great resource for a creative team to read together.

Blaine exposes what we already know to be true, we can do better, but he also has us believing that we can be better. That is the gift of this manifesto.

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