Back to (Magic) School

From Dr. Larry Hass, Associate Dean

“Before you can think out of the box, you have to start with a box.”  —Twyla Tharp

For me, September is the month of transitions. It is the month when the nights start to get cooler and the days get shorter. It is the time to roll up my sleeves (vacation is over!) and get started on some fresh new thinking and projects. And above all, it is time to get “back to school”!

Lawrence Hass

“Back to School” is the theme of all our Mystery School Monday shows this month and I hope that you’ll tune in because we will have a lot to say about “hitting the books” with your magic (Mondays, 7:00 p.m. pacific, But here I want to talk about something I won’t discuss during the shows and which I have found to be utterly essential for bearing in on September projects. And that is: “taking good notes,” in other words, the practice of keeping an artist’s notebook.

I don’t know about you, but for me creative insights and breakthroughs come when I least expect them: in the shower, riding on a train, or walking my puppy. Or I come across an exciting trick or a potential method while I am reading a magic book or magazine. Of course I always pledge and promise not to forget, and yet days or weeks later most of them are simply . . . gone. Or the living heart of the idea has evaporated; I can’t remember what gave me the “creative buzz” that seemed so promising.

This is why I always have my artist’s notebook with me. And it is why every serious artist I have ever known, across a full range of art forms, keeps notebooks or journals. It is the primary way we can catch our dreams and, by putting them into words, make them real. Without this, despite all good intentions, our creative insights flutter away and fritter into nothing.

Now, it doesn’t have to be a note-book. As her epigram makes clear, master choreographer Twyla Tharp uses a box to collects props, artifacts, CDs of music, notes written on napkins, and so on. And you certainly could keep your “notebook” on your “tablet” or a computer. But after twenty years of doing this and experimenting, my preference is to use “Mead Composition Books,” available in any drugstore. They are inexpensive, small enough to be portable, and yet large enough to hold lots of notes. And I personally love the muscular, tactile handwork of writing on paper with pen and ink—somehow this embodied ritual makes it all solid and “sticky” for me.

Whatever system you decide to use—composition book, loose pages in a binder (Jeff’s method), or digital files—an artist’s notebook has two essential functions. The first function has already been mentioned: being able to record your good ideas and creative brainstorms whenever and wherever they might occur (after the shower, on the train, in the middle of the night). This is what I call the “dreamcatcher” function.

The second function is retrieval: you must be able to quickly access your past good ideas when you need them today. Indeed, nothing is worse than knowing that you once had a great idea for this somewhere! I call this the “lay-your-hands on-it-now” function.

In my experience, every system is better at one of these functions than the other. So carefully decide which “box” will work best for your overall work-style and devise additional strategies to offset the shortcomings. For example, my composition books are perfect for recording, but to facilitate retrieval I need to create a supplementary index for each one.

Obviously, there is a lot of variability in how artists keep a notebook. But there is no variability about the fact that doing so will help you be a more creative and productive magician. If you have never tried this practice or if you have fallen away from it, this September is a perfect month to “take good notes.” I think you’ll like what it does for you!

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