The two chairs

The final quince of 2018 (A5 acrylic 2018)

Recently I’ve been dipping into a book called Preaching in Pictures: Using Images for Sermons that Connect by Peter Jonker. I’m not about to write a sermon any time soon and I’m not even particularly religious, but I was told about the book by a dear friend and became interested in the author’s take on creativity.

The Reverend Jonker is himself a thoughtful man and a creative thinker (you can sample his very engaging sermons from LaGrave Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, online if you wish). One of the images he uses in his book concerns two chairs.

Writing a sermon, he suggests, involves a good amount of time sitting in the straight-backed chair of concentration: checking your text, looking up references, researching what others have said or written about the piece, etc. Then – here comes the good bit – you have assembled a ‘beautiful mess’: all that ‘stuff’ you’ve noted down, cut and pasted, bookmarked online – it’s all there in front of you in its magnificent disarray and on Sunday morning you’ve got to engage the interest of your congregation – some of whom are sleepy from the night before or looking forward to a late brunch after the service.

So then you switch to the comfortable chair of contemplation. You move the pieces around in your mind, you try to pick out a thread from all these post-it notes in your head, you put the variations on your original theme in an order that produces a meaningful melody. It’s a more gentle process than the straight-backed chair phase but don’t let anyone think that you’re dozing because you’re sitting in the comfortable chair – your mind is still working.

The Mindfulness community will tell you something similar: if you keep rushing around you’ll achieve less than if you are able to give yourself space to breathe, to clear the table so you can see the pieces of the puzzle more clearly.

The painting of the quince above (don’t worry, it’s my last one for this season) lay unfinished on my desk for weeks. When I first started painting it, I was determined to dash this off in one sitting: it’s a single fruit, for heaven’s sake, how complex can that be? More than I’d thought, is the answer. Eventually, by sitting in the comfortable chair for some weeks (metaphorically – life isn’t that kind to me), I solved the problems with the picture and in less than twenty minutes one evening, finished it.

“Aren’t you just saying, take a step back?” you ask. Indeed, but that conscious switching to the comfortable chair of reflection is a powerful process, I’d argue. How many times do you feel like a fly in a bottle, banging your head against the glass sides, before you actually say to yourself, let me just sit down and think this through?

My New Year’s Resolution, if I did such things, would be to spend more time switching between the two chairs. In drawing and painting, too, there are straight-backed chair phases, but I know my creative process will benefit from mentally standing up, going into a different space, pouring a glass of red wine (I’m elaborating on Peter Jonker’s image, I realise – but, y’know, it’s my blog), and spending some time in the comfortable chair of contemplation thinking through what I’m trying to achieve.

I wish you a happy Christmas, Hanukkah, Pancha Ganapati, Chahrshanbeh Soori, winter solstice or whatever you celebrate to bring light to these dark days. Thank you once again to those whose support has meant so much during the year, despite a rather unproductive rate of posting on my part, to all of you following this blog and especially those who take the time to comment. Here’s a Christmas Eve selfie for you:

32 thoughts on “The two chairs

  1. Interesting post, Michael. The thoughtful reverend is sharing reflections on the creative process that mirror what other writers have said.

    Graham Wallas was a founder of the Fabian society and if the London School of economics. He weite “The Art of Thought” in 1926.

    James Webb Young was an ad exec. Like a 1930s Don Draper. He was asked by Chicago business school to explain his process for creativity with their students.

    Both of them describe step 1: immersion in the problem. Do the research, gather the facts, vuews…understand the problem. Like yiur straight backed chair of concentration. Rational and conscious. Takes effort.

    Step 2 is incubation: mull it over, let the unconscious mind work on it. This more unconscious; less obviously effortful. like your chair of contemplation.

    Both steps are needed. In our busyness we probably forget that. I think we’re more likely to forget the second.

    Plus…we don’t trust it! We can’t ‘control’ it. I’ve found, again and again and again…that these two processes work beautifully together.

    Merry Xmas you and your unconscious,

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Oh, Michael so good to ‘see’ you again. I absolutely adore this post. I have been struggling with this process myself (I know you’ve read my recent post on revision aversion) and this visual of the two chairs will work so well for me I think. Thank you for the inspiration.
    I wish you a happy holiday – one with two chairs and a glass of red wine. 🙂 Mine will be quiet as all our kids are off somewhere else for the holidays. That’s ok, I like quiet. I do have an annual solstice celebration tomorrow night that I am looking forward to. And I hope to post a solstice poem tomorrow that I have been revising (and revising and revising!) for a while. Enjoy the season and I hope to continue reading your inspiring posts during 2019. Peace.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much, LuAnne, I’m glad this struck a chord with you too. I loved your post on revision aversion – I can engage in any number of displacement activities myself!

      I wish you a very peaceful holiday season – quiet times can be very restorative too. I’ll be a long way from my home in England but enjoying a family Christmas in the US, someone else’s family (the dear friend mentioned in the post), which I’ll looking forward to enormously. Peace and happiness to you, LuAnne, and a new year full of creative times in the comfortable chair!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s a great analogy, and while the straight-backed chair is key I certainly like the idea of spending a little more time in the comfy one.

    Lovely words and pictures, as always. Merry Christmas to you, the Prince of Quince! 😉


  4. This is a delightful Christmas/holiday gift you’ve given your readers. With photography, processing the image after taking the picture can be done pretty quickly, but taking that time out to change gears, as you describe, could make a big difference. The Lightroom or Photoshop business is so quick, that I think it’s even less likely to want to spend time in the comfortable chair of contemplation, than it might be if you’re sketching or painting. Same thing for taking photos – it’s so easy to just push the shutter and move on, without checking in with how your’e feeling. But, stop, breathe, feel, and things could get more interesting. Am I preaching to the choir? I know I need to hear this over and over again! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Excellent – thank you! I think the idea of the conscious pause can be applied all over the place. It can even come before the hard chair phase in photography, perhaps. My daughter studied design for a few months and was given the task to take 24 black and white photographs using an old fashioned slr camera. Before every shot she had to look at her subject and imagine it in monochrome. In other words, she had to look long and hard at her chosen image, then work through the composition, exposure, film speed, etc. In that way the contemplation came first. Interesting, eh?

      A very happy Christmas to you and a creative New Year. Thanks for your thoughtful comments. M

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Absolutely lovely post – somehow I’d missed seeing it and so glad I found it now! I’m looking forward to honing my practice of using those two chairs. It’s such a good image. A very Happy Christmas, and thanks for all your great posts this year.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. What wonderful thoughts. I definitely need that chair. So much pressing, but we do need to decompress as well. In art, life, and as your friend knows so well, communication. Well, they all intersect, don’t they? Happy New Year! (K)

    Liked by 1 person

  7. The creative process is indeed fascinating and often frustrating. There are so many approaches and no one “right” way to ensure inspiration. Your exploration of the subject makes me think of Otto’s efforts over at In Flow
    BTW, I love the final version of The Quince.

    Liked by 1 person

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