That big project that I had in mind, the one that I have formally announced that I am starting… Yeah, that one. It’s not exactly rolling smoothly and effortlessly. The creative wheels haven’t started to churn efficiently.

Just because a commitment is made to start a project doesn’t mean that it will actually flow. It doesn’t make the door into the heart of the project any more clearly defined. Nor does it suddenly announce a logical starting point.

Committing to a project only means that I have said that I am going to pull the idea out of the large file cabinet of my mind, dust it off, and attempt to make something of it.

But where to start?

The project is based around the HJ Andrews Experimental Forest. I was given two huge binders filled with documents to sort through, most of which ‘Hoss’ Andrews generated during his career as a forester. The logical place would be to start there, so that’s what I attempted. I sat and read through a bunch of documents that don’t mean that much to me at this point in time. I don’t have enough background knowledge under my belt. I stared at the binders for a few days but ultimately became frustrated.

Landslide - road to HJ Andrews

The road to HJ Andrews Exper­i­men­tal For­est washed away in a land­slide. Photo by Fred Bierlmaier

In a fleeting moment of confidence, I e-mailed someone who is thick in the workings of the current iteration on the HJ Andrews Experimental Forest. I wasn’t sure what it was that I wanted to say because I’m not far enough along with my thinking to know what I need. So I basically just introduced myself. My introduction was met with enthusiasm, but said person is out of town for a month or so. Luckily, that avenue is on hold, hopefully for long enough to let me gain a foothold. However, it didn’t provide a step further into the project – at least not for now.

Most of the time visiting the location a project is based on is a tried and true way to gain some clarity. That was my next plan of action. But this plan was thwarted by the forces of nature. Oregon was inundated by water. Lots of water. The road in to the HJ Andrews forest was washed away.

Back to the beginning.

Although all of these attempts to find a way in to the project didn’t pan out too well, they were actually very helpful. This project has so many different facets. There are too many choices available that the many options for starting became debilitating. I was stuck because it seemed too big to wrap my head around.

Forces beyond my control worked in my favor by narrowing my choices. I didn’t know where to start so I was just stabbing around to see if anything could provide a path to follow. But when the options fell away, I finally had a clear starting point because I had a narrow focus to contend with: my big binders.

Those are too big in their own right. It was my job to narrow down the choices even further, but I now had only to concentrate on those binders alone. The project suddenly felt more manageable.

Even more narrow.

I thought about the things that attracted me to this idea in the first place.

  1. Before moving to Oregon, when Tim and I were first dating, HJ Andrews was one of the first places that he took me. It was one of his special places. Because of that, it was flagged in my mind as ‘important’.
  2. I kayaked the Blue River, the river running through part of the forest. I am a sucker for places where I have kayaked (see Average Colors of the South Yuba River)
  3. I am even more partial to places that I have kayaked that are in the same watershed where my drinking water originates. Blue River: check.
  4. Tim and I stayed the night at his grandmother’s house a few years back. She pulled out a bunch of her father’s documents (Hoss’s documents) – these are the ones that I have in my possession in those formidable binders (at least copies of them are). The ones that I was most taken with were all of the letters of condolence that poured in after his untimely death. They even included a handwritten letter from Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. This intrigued me, but I can’t exactly say why.

Number four is where I started to dig. I have the letters that intrigued me in the past, even though I still don’t know why. Now I have a question to pursue.

Starting a project isn’t always easy. When it isn’t, I usually find it’s because I’m not clear enough about what I am doing. I don’t have a definite question to answer or problem to solve – the idea is too big, to vague and too nebulous to grasp.

Part of the creative process is narrowing things down and eliminating options. This may sound contrary to many beliefs on creativity, erroneous beliefs in my opinion. I’ve heard many variations on the theme that anything that creates rules or boundaries is harmful to creativity. But I disagree. Boundaries are needed to keep an idea from becoming an unruly beast that can’t be worked with. Eliminating options can be the key that creates real freedom that didn’t exist when there was false ‘freedom’ within the idea (too many possibilities and choices).

I still don’t know what I am going to eventually do with those condolence letters, but at least I have a place to start.  I have scanned each one of them and have begun to manipulate the words.

Now comes the fun of playing with a composition. This is when the creative process actually feels creative. More on that later.

 

Have you ever felt paralyzed or stuck at the beginning of a creative endeavor? Tell me how you moved through it.

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