Book Review: Make to Know

Lorne Buchman’s book on art and creativity is worth a look if you are interested in art, design, or creativity.

Over time, I’ve developed opinions about what being a creative person means, how you do that, and the many falsehoods about creativity that keep people from attempting to be creative. Much of what Buchman wrote in this book was a partially formed thought or feeling that I had in my gut but hadn’t articulated properly. Make to Know: From spaces of uncertainty to creative discovery has been helpful to me as a framework for understanding and improving my own creative processes.

Who is it for?

Anyone who is interested in understanding of how creativity works and the processes involved in being creative will benefit from this book.

This is not a “how to” book. It is a book about the concepts that will help you to become more creative but you will have to figure out how to apply them on your own.

What is it for?

The book has two purposes. First, Buchman spends some time at the beginning of the book pointing out some falsehoods about creativity, and framing our questions about creativity in a way that is useful and productive.

Secondly, the book is intended to communicate some commonalities between many areas of creativity and how they are applied in various art forms.

Does it succeed?

The book succeeds in expressing the ideas the author wanted to get across.

I had a few disagreements with the author or the artists he quotes in places. The most glaring example is when discussing filmmakers producing adaptations of fiction. The assertion was that the filmmaker is making their version of the story and are not bound to the vision of the original author. In my experience, this thinking is why most film adaptations suck.

Other than relatively small disagreements and what sometimes feels like overzealously belabored points, I thought the book accomplished the goals of the author.

What’s the thesis?

Buchman begins with the false narratives common in our culture’s thinking about art and creativity. The two main misconceptions are that great art is the result of “genius” and that these geniuses come to the canvas, the stone, the blank page with the work fully formed in their mind and all that remains is to create it. Both of these are wrong.

Do talented geniuses exist? Yes and there are very few of these people. Yet there is an avalanche of creative output made by normal, perhaps slightly above average people, every day. What the geniuses and the more typical artist have in common is skill learned through long effort and a creative process that is the title of the book. That process is “Make to know.”

“Make to know” means that the artist doesn’t know what the thing they are making will be until they make it. It may take multiple iterations of the project before they figure it out. They may have to write and rewrite the novel multiple times. They may need dozens of sketches before the painting takes shape. They have to Make to Know what it is they are making.

Understanding that the story of genius coming to their work with the fully formed image in their head is damaging to creativity. Most of us don’t look in the mirror and think to ourselves, “I’m brilliant and today I will make great art!” What many of us think is, “I suck and I don’t know why I even try.” I think this latter mindset comes from the lie that you have to be a creative genius to make art and that creative geniuses come to their work every day with the fully formed image in their head.

By demolishing this lie and understanding that the act of making is what leads to understanding our work and not the other way around opens up possibilities and takes the pressure off to get it right out of the gate. It gives you room to play and explore.

What I took away.

You have make to find out what the work is but even more critical you have to Make to Know what the work is not. This seems obvious, yet many of us will stare at a blank page and not make anything. We’ll feel blocked, uninspired, perhaps unmotivated.

You start. At best, the work is not quite right. Probably, it sucks. You have just learned what the work is not. This is important. You’ve eliminated a possibility.

A lot of people get frustrated and quit at this point. Artists who understand that this is part of the process keep going and try a different angle, a different method, a different material, and keep going.

Steven Pressfield wrote a blog post a while back about his CULLS file. This file is where he puts all the material that he has cut out of a manuscript. It tends to be longer than the finished manuscript. Sometimes it is twice as long.

A headlining comic might take a year to build a one hour special. They start with jokes in a notepad. They take them to a local comedy club and do a 15 minute spot. Sometimes with the notebook in hand. Sometimes they bomb. They change up the order, the pacing, the wording until they kill. They do this over and over until they get a solid hour and then take it on the road. It’s hard. It’s painful. It takes work. Lots of work.

If artists and designers and their practice of make to know can teach us anything, it is that uncertainty is a space of creative engagement. It is the space where discovery happens through a making that is both playful and imaginative. And it can lead us to know the very thing that is impossible to see before we take the leap. It changes the calculus about how we engage with a life in many ways ambiguous and unknown.

Lorne Buchman- Make to Know

Ostensibly, the book is for people who are “creative” or artists or designers. In truth it is for anyone who wants to develop a better understanding of how to use their own creativity in their work. The final section of the book is about the implications that this exploration of creativity has in education, entrepreneurship, and life.

The main thesis of the book is that we have to enter into uncertainty. We do not know what it is we are creating until we get into it. We get an idea, we find an entry point and we explore. Trying to see the whole thing, or expecting that the thing we make ends up being what we had in our mind when we begin will short circuit the process. This is terrifying.

Humans want to know. We want certainty. We want to feel confident and comfortable that our effort will achieve the defined outcome we have in mind before we start. When you “make to know” you are accepting that there is no certainty. Certainty is an illusion that disappears as soon as you try to touch it.

“Make to Know” is humility in practice. It is accepting that our ability to see or know is limited. Only through taking action, through the act of making, of creation; we discover what was hidden.

This book brought to mind the process by which fantasy role-playing games were discovered. After watching The Secrets of Blackmoor and reading Playing at the World and The Elusive Shift, I stopped using the word “design” to describe what Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax did. They discovered fantasy role-playing. It emerged from their experiments with games. They didn’t know what it was going to result in before they did it.

Dave Arneson didn’t know what the outcome of his experiment with a medieval fantasy Braunstein game would be. He stepped into the uncertainty, engaged with the game form and improvised his way into something that changed pop culture forever.

One thought on “Book Review: Make to Know

  1. Pingback: Some Writing Advice is Crap – Grumpy Wizard

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