Sunday, September 4, 2011

79. Muses are overrated, Suzannas are underrated: Make a bad First Draft

muse  (mjuːz) 
— n
a goddess that inspires a creative artist, esp a poet
[C14: from Old French, from Latin Mūsa,  from Greek Mousa  aMuse]
You know the funny thing about the Ivy League schools is the huge difference between your inflated expectations of what an Ivy League class should be like and what they actually are. Take the kind of students for example. In my puny little brain, I imagined that there would be the most brilliant students there from all over the country and perhaps the world. I imagined them having encyclopedic knowledge and that they could recite Baudelaire or expound on Foucault’s philosophical theories on demand. And, indeed there were quite a few geniuses, and I am not exaggerating. They were some super smart people who seemed like they were hyper intelligent aliens from another planet, but they were the exceptions not the rule. Most of the students there were just plain old average Joes about to be indoctrinated into the cult of architecture. They were kind of the same people you went to high school with ,minus a few class clowns. I said a few not all. There were people from many different backgrounds of varying IQ levels with different ways of working,

One guy I remember quite well was Alec, he was what you call a classic talent. He was one of those people that was born with it; the gift. His visual skills were highly developed in comparison to the rest of us. Some of his close friends told me that when he was in high school he was close to a rock star. He was revered by his teachers and fellow students because of the things he could make and the way he could draw. When he got accepted to one of the top architecture schools in the country, everyone just kind of accepted it as a matter of inevitability. Alec was never the vocal type, he was a little reserved, and felt more comfortable expressing himself through his work.

When he got to college, things worked out a little different for him though. The problem with Alec was that he was so accustomed to being the best and the center of attention with his work that he just could not accept being an average guy when it came to design and creative work. He was certainly not the worst in his class but he was not exactly number one either. 

The way I saw it, there were two broad categories of people in our studio. There were the people who gave a damn and those who didn’t. 90% fell into the first category and Alec fitted squarely in it. They were the hard working types that worked and worked and worked and worked. They lived in the studio and if they weren’t limited to how long you could be in school, I figured they would probably die there too. They always set high standards for themselves in terms of design. It would behove them to create something that they considered banal, or unsatisfactory. Their modus operandi was “I have to make something interesting, something that is gong to blow everybody away”. They were so caught up in trying to make that one masterpiece, that one where people will be talking about it for years to come. They were going to make a memorable super fantastic project and they will do it at what ever cost it takes. 

They burnt the midnight oil, smoked pot, and drank themselves silly, whatever. Whatever helps them to come up with that great killer idea. 

Come presentation day, they would pin up and what they have up on that wall was indeed interesting. I remember when Alec used to pin up, everyone would huddle around his work to marvel at the fantastic image that he had up there before he cold finish pinning up. And while the professors were talking about the other folks work their eyes could not help but glance over at Alec’s drawings every now and then. The rest of the presentations was just a long annoying prelude to Alec’s presentation. I could guarantee that everyone in the room was thinking the same thing “I wonder what he is going to say about it?” And when it came time, it was almost always a little deflating. He would present and then once all the questions were asked then things would start to go down hill from there. 

It was always like:

“Yeah Alec, these images are really nice but I have yet to see a section through the project. These plans are great but I can imagine the actual elevations and sections in a hundred different ways. They are all fantastic. But what is your version?”

or my favorite:

“Yeah Alec, but what happens when it rains?”

His answer to all this was:

“Yeah but, this is just the general idea, I haven’t worked out all the details yet. Can’t you just critique the idea of the project?”

And so you get this constant back and forth. 

“No Alec, I can’t critique what is not there!!! you need to...”

My theory is that Alec could not figure out a very elegant way to solve the section so he just did not draw it or present it. He just needed to go back into his hallucinogenic state and wait for the muses to deliver him that perfect section. It was not because he was lazy or did not work hard. Although he did not produce a lot of physical drawings or models to demonstrate that he was indeed working, he was toiling with the project in his thoughts, visualizing it in many different ways, and was emotionally engaged. Perhaps too engaged. If that fucking muse would just deliver the Gaad damn section he would produce a million beautiful sections like you have never seen before. 

But the sad thing was, the fucking muse did not deliver in time and Alec, though a talented well meaning and quite a charming fellow, failed the course... and another... and another ...and was eventually thrown out of school.

I know a lot of Alecs out there in the world.

On the opposite side of the scale from Alec was Suzanna. Suzanna fits in that 10% of my class that did not give a damn about how it looked. She had no visual talent that I or anyone else could see.  Everyone wondered how she got into this school or any architecture school for that matter. Her work ethic was just abhorrently normal in relation to the rest of the schizophrenic and downright unhealthy work ethic of the rest of us. She was just like a regular normal human being and it bewildered everyone in the class. What the hell is she doing in architecture school? 

Suzanna would arrive in the studio sharply at 9:00 am and proceed to draw very diligently for about 2 to 3 hours. She would then take a 45 min lunch break come back to the studio and continue to work until about 5 and then she went home. 

When it was time for desk crit, Suzanna would calmly take her drawings to completion the day before and come to the studio at the appointed time. She would unroll her completed set of drawings: plans, sections, elevations, and details and lay them out on her desk. Then she would reach into her hand bag and pull out a pocket romance novel and begin to read patiently while waiting for a professor to come around to critique her work. 

Now, I don’t know about you, but seeing a fellow student sitting across from you reading a romance novel while you are in a state of complete and utter stress trying to come up with a building that is supposed to revolutionize architecture, save humanity, create world peace, and eradicate universal hunger is a little bit annoying. 

When Suzanna pinned up, her work always seems invisible. Everyone would just glance by it as if it was not there. It was just well...boring, bland, blaaaa. All the lines were light and roughly the same line weight. If you stopped to take a look at it, you would see that everything was done by the book. Everything that was required of her was done. She approached architecture with the same even handed logic that one would approach a high school algebra problem. 

step 1 - solve for all the Parentheses
step 2 - solve for all the Exponents
step 3 - solve for all the …

...and so on and so on...

When the professors commented on her work their body language would all express that something was missing. They would explain to her in diplomatic and undiplomatic archi-speak language:

“This is boring Suzanna you need to get inspired!” 

But in the end, that was just their opinion. The fact is, she did what was required of her and they could not fail her on the grounds that her work was boring.

Suzanna passed class after class after class and eventually graduated, became an architect and I presume, went on to add to the collection of grey boring buildings that dominate our skylines.

When I think back on Suzanna & Alec, I always thought, if they could figure out how to work together, those two would make a really kick ass team. No seriously. Here is how I imagine them approaching an architectural problem.

First, Alec would go into a spiritual trance and come down from mount euphoric with a remarkable and very inspiring plan that was sketchy, incomplete and unresolved. Then he would struggle to death to come up with a way to resolve it in a way that was up to his standards. After a fruitless and exhausting effort, he would just keel over with exhaustion. This would be where Suzanna come in. She would take up the hopelessly unresolved plan and sit there steadily, line after line and come up with a clean, comprehensive set of drawings that thoroughly solves Alec’s plan. Upon waking up and seeing what Suzanna have done with his plans, Alec would suffer a mental relapse and pass out again. When he recovers again he would begin to lecture Suzanna 
“Holy sweet Jesus, what have you done! 
You are killing me Suzanna, you are killing me! 
you don’t do it like that” 
then he would take out his pencil and begin critiquing and editing her solution. 
“It’s better if you do it like this”. 
Then he would sit there cutting and pasting and tweaking and polishing until it becomes a brilliant master piece he is satisfied with.

It would be an ugly process but I think it would have worked.

The key to this working relationship would be that they complement and compensate for each others strengths and weaknesses. 

For Alec, like most people, it is a lot much easier to criticize and edit what someone else have done than it is to create something from scratch. He is far too self critical to make something bad, so he just goes into a creative block and freeze up. He just cares way to much about how it looks.

Suzanna on the other hand doesn't give a damn about how it looks. She just wants to get it done so that she can get back to reading her romance novel. Alec’s unconventional ideas, and forms would challenge her to think outside the box and force her to be a lot more imaginative than she would normally allow herself to be.

But without Suzanna there to make a bad draft the first time around Alec would never be able to have something to criticize or edit, and thus would never be able to do anything.

Now I am talking about Alec & Suzanna, but this is also struggle that exist in the heads of most creative people. We all have both an Alex and a Suzanna, embedded into our creative dialogue. I believe however, the most effective creative professionals, (ie. Famous Architects) are the ones who have the courage to back the fuck off and allow their inner Suzannas to do what she does best: produce a boring functional first draft.

In fact, I think the Suzannas in our creative process have been underrated for far too long. She is always overshadowed by that fucking erratic muse (who comes and goes whenever it pleases her) with the beautiful inspiration that only lives in our heads. Our inner Suzanna is the dependable faithful midwife that allows the idea to come into the world that you and I live in.  There would be no 99% perspiration without our Suzannas my friends. 

I believe Alain de Botton, put it best when he said.

Those who go on to be proper writers are those who can forgive themselves the horrors of the first draft

This was what Alec could not allow himself to do. He could not make a terrible first draft. He could not forgive himself if he did while Suzanna just accepted it. 

We could have easily said

Those who go on to be great architects are those who can forgive themselves the horrors of the first draft.

By Conrad Newel,

Liberaing Minds Since August 2007

What better way to celebrate Suzanna than by naming my first airplane after her.


James Black said...

"Those who go on to be great architects are those who can forgive themselves the horrors of the first draft."

Well said.

James Black

Whats on the A.R.E.? said...

Great read minus a few grammatical errors but we loved it just the same. A Denzel Washington said to a crowd of newly graduated college students "Do You Have the Guts to Fail?" that is what came to mind during the summation of your post. You can not be afraid. What about all of the architects that do the boring buildings we take for granted?

AlaskanGeekArchitect said...

I loved the post. Truely.

I read the post from the position of someone more like Suzzanna then Alec.

Time and time again I was told by my professors to be more abstract and less literal in my design.

But you know what, when handed the assignment to design music rehearsal and composition space for a concert pianist 400 feet from her main residence, my design was the only one with a damn roof. I was also the only one who remembered to put in a restroom, and I was the one who remembered to specify appropriate acoustic wall material instead of Cor-ten or anodized aluminum.

Sure it wasn't pretty as the exploding flower design or the lily pad inspired works the other students did... but mine would keep the snow of her piano during the long Montana winters.

So three cheers for the Suzannas!

Conrad Newel said...

Thank You AlaskanGeek.

It's really good to hear your comment. It was unexpected.
When I was writing it, I figured that everyone of my readers would identify with the Alec character.

I personally feel a strong connection with both.

Your reaction reminded me that I am still but a little grasshopper with much to learn :).



Anonymous said...

that was brilliant! precisely what i needed at the moment in my present student design problem. let the suzanna take over. you've made my semester Conrad (hopefully) !

Conrad Newel said...

Good luck.

Turn Suzanna lose!

Just remember to take back control after she has done her magic. Thats were the real work begins.