The Creative Process: Thumbnail Sketches and Napkin Notes

The Creative Process: Thumbnail Sketches and Napkin Notes


By Amy Duncan

A few weeks ago, I posed these questions on Facebook:

Here are a few questions for my creative friends (writers, musicians, composers, artists, photographers, etc.): What is your creative process? How do you approach your work, day by day? What are your work habits? Your frustrations (if any!)? Feel free to be wordy!

I received so many interesting and varied answers that I decided to share them here on my blog. Feel free to add your own in the comments section!

CHIP DEFFAA – writer of eight published books and 12 published plays:

“Sometimes, when I wake up, so fired up to work on a script that I don’t want to take time out to eat, I just feel like the luckiest guy in the world. I really love writing scripts. The whole process. Every bit of it. Some of my writer friends tell me they hate writing, that it is always always always like pulling teeth for them; that they hate writing and they also hate when they’re blocked and can’t write. I don’t know why they don’t quit it and become washing-machine repairmen, or tango instructors, or rainmakers, or something else.”

JOHN ELLIS – actor/playwright/director/designer:

“My process is odd; I get a whole play in my head before I can write any of it, then blow it all out in five or six days, playing all the parts and taking it down, a complete first draft. Then spend weeks, months, years fixing it, weeding it like ragged yard, until I let it go. And I always get the poster design in my head halfway through the first act. At least that’s how it’s happened four times.

It’s also physically trying, the level of concentration takes a toll on you. Muriel Spark would hire a nurse when a novel came upon her. She’d get up, the nurse would feed her when she took a break, then put her to bed at night. Until she finished it.

One afternoon I was writing the 1Cradle Will Rock’ section of the Blitzstein play I wrote, using a cassette of the lengthy recording he made of his memory of it, transcribing it back and forth, replaying sections, revising my changes—and I went at this nonstop til I finished. I thought it had been maybe an hour and a half. I looked at the clock and it had been twelve hours. My body and mind separated, my body so furious I’d inflicted that on it that it threw the cassette deck across the room before I realized what it/I was doing.

My brother has a friend, Juilliard graduate, who never touches a piano, he composes symphonies at a drawing board, because he hears the whole thing in his head. I get whole play productions in my head, that’s when I know it’s ready. And then I just take it down, almost like dictation, and describe the set, and even work out the costume changes and possible multiple castings. So I write productions, not plays—if any director improves on what I saw, great.”

KAREN BATES – kind-hearted lover of nature, a twin and mother of twins (and also my cousin!:)

“This may sound silly but my best plans come while bathing. I look out the window and think about my next project.”

ZACK DANZIGER – musician (guitarist, vocalist, composer):

“Concerning your comments about being in the bathtub…There is a phenomenon that is well-known among physicists and heavy duty scientists… People who work on extremely complex problems… And this phenomenon they call “the three B’s”… that refers to, bed, bath, bus… In other words, if they have been grappling with very heavy problems for days and weeks and months and just as they step into the bathtub, or get into bed, or step onto a bus… The solution appears instantly.

Q. Have you found that to be true for yourself?

A. Yes, that’s why I am always in the bathtub.

I like the story about the art teacher who told his class that he would grade half the students on quantity, and the other half on quality … and then he said, “start!” … and the surprising result was … the quantity students produced better quality.”


“I like the dictum “A writer WRITES!” So I have a journal titled Nulla Dies Sine Linea.” Sometimes it’s “Multa” rather than “Nulla”—days that go by without a line, but a lot of my writing is done in comments like this and other messages and notes. But I do try to write something non-utilitarian every day. Anything can inspire it, I just hope to be ready, willing, and able to recognize it and act upon it.”

ROBERT SERBINENKO – photographer:

“I need to make up my mind about what I want as a result of a photo. I also need to “feel” the idea, putting aside everything else that’s not related to it. It may take moments or several days… As for the approach, I tend to search about the subject, getting to know more about what it is. Frustrations?…of course there are many, but I’ve learned that the photo I take is not the one someone is going to see, as we do it with our life, which is unique. That’s kind weird sometimes, because almost never what you meant is what you get as a response from the audience.”

LOUIS LOPARDI – director and sound designer:

“Leonard Bernstein once said to me that he really composed “lying down.” Away from the piano, he formulated the entire section in his head, all the “plot twists” and “mechanisms” etc., and only later actually did the “grunt work” of putting it down on paper. And let us not forget Mozart who heard even his Jupiter Symphony as one single incredible sound which he later would meekly put on paper as if merely transcribing it. I, for one, almost never stop revising poetry; and stop revising the text at least of plays only after 2 or 3 productions.”

PAM LAMPSON – sometime artist and poet:

“A spark, a word, a flash…write it down. If more comes on the heels of that, fine, go with it and finish it. Only rarely will I let go of it then, but if I just can’t get it “right” I leave it alone…although it is still passively, to human sense, percolating. The answer comes in another flash or in a concentrated inspired work session. Since I do not depend on my writing or poetry for a living, I have the luxury of not forcing anything.”

ELIZABETH RAGSDALE composer and graphic artist:

“My approach to writing hymn arrangements is the same as I use in my work as a graphic designer. I start with thumbnail sketches—lots of ‘em. I just whip ‘em out as fast as I can, aiming for quantity and trying not to judge quality. Ideally I let these cool off for at least a day. Then I develop those that seem to have potential. Next comes the fun part—fitting the variations together like puzzle pieces, connecting them with transitions, and sometimes writing an original intro, interlude, and coda. I love how highly divergent styles can work together if I get the transitions right. Then comes the editing process, in which I enlist another pair of ears. During this stage, I’m fixing not only what I hear, but also what I see on the page, with the goal of sight-readability. I’m making this process sound neat and orderly, whereas it’s often quite messy. Of course it works better if I remember to make a connection with the one Creator. I know I’ve made this connection when I wake up in the middle of the night and effortlessly write down the solution to a thorny passage.”

KAREN MOLENAAR TERRELL – author, photographer, teacher:

“Lately I’ve found myself waking up in the middle of the night, asking myself a lot of questions and looking for the answers, and then posting blog posts that I know are going to bring me trouble… but… crap… I cannot seem to help myself. Art seems to come in spurts and waves for me. There are long periods where ideas are just percolating (or ripening—depending on if we’re talking coffee or fruit), and then it all just comes flowing out of me… I’m writing on napkins, receipts, waking up at all times of the night… it’s GREAT! Like giving birth or something.

The photography is a little different—that’s more like going on a treasure-hunt—staying aware of all the amazing and beautiful—staying conscious to all the good going on around me and capturing it…”

KAREN NOBLE – writer, photographer, artist, all round entrepreneur:

“At this point I let my heart speak my thoughts out on the screen through haiku. I let Love be the focal point. I make sure that I end all my projects on a positive note (to the best of my ability). The paintings, haiku, photography, writings are sprung from a spiritual thought, idea, standpoint first and then I let it have free flowing animation through me as a witness to it. If I get in the way it just isn’t “successful.” I know I’m finished when I feel a wonderful sense of Love for it, it gives me peace, and I know then I’ve accomplished what Soul has set out for me to do.

It is Soul created, Soul filled, Soul completed….with gentle hugs.”

MONDAY MICHIRU – singer, flutist, composer, lyricist:

“On a day to day basis, I practice my vocal scales and stuff just to keep it toned—to me, that’s my “work.” On a creative basis, if something inspires me, I write down my idea(s) (send myself an email, write it on something and keep it in a file, or note it on the computer and keep it in a file)—it could be anything from a melody idea, a rhythm, a chord progression, lyrical concept, a bass line, etc. These days, I sit at the piano and see where my fingers land without thinking of anything, and if the first chord sounds good, I’ll go from there, letting either my fingers or my ears lead me. To me, that’s a gift from the universe that I’m grateful to be given, and if it hits me right (and by that, I mean the harmony will vibrate in me in a way that’s inspiring) I know it’s something I need to keep exploring; in this process, the melody and lyrics come after. Frustrations are many, mostly to do with my lack of knowledge and limited ability with the language harmonically and otherwise, and it slows the process because I hear it in my mind and heart, but it’s hard to get it out and takes a long time, and sometimes it’s not completely what I’m hearing. What propels me to write is knowing that I still haven’t written that perfect song, that perfect expression that I feel I have nothing left to write, that expresses my perception of life in all its beauty and mystery. I also wish I could do better programming and have more technical knowledge and ability to produce my songs better rather than relying on others.”

LAURA MOLITER – author, poet, and singer/songwriter:

“It’s discipline. Setting aside the mental space and time and deciding to “create” without feeling as if there is something else pressing me OR that I won’t be inspired. Then it’s patience to listen and just see what is revealed…to get out of judgment and into God, so to speak. It’s also the wisdom to know when my best work may be meant for another time or day, but that the “practicing” is not a waste, but working together for good, the end result.”

KAREN BACKSTEIN – writer, copywriter, and editor–plus hobbyist musician and dancer:

“I actually don’t feel the need to be wordy. My basic rule is just sit down and do it. Don’t wait for inspiration to strike. Just write. And if it’s not good, don’t use it. It’s the process that matters; one little sentence out of a day’s work can make the difference. That said, some of the best ideas do come when you’re just letting the ideas flow freely. For me, a walk can help when I’m really at a loss.”

LORRAINE FEATHER – lyricist, jazz singer, 3x Grammy nominee:

“I have done a lot of work-for-hire; when that’s the situation I come up with a few titles and run them by my co-writer, as well as a possible musical style, or maybe he has the style in mind and I work from that. I’m much more organized and structured when it’s an actual gig, especially since these jobs have almost all been for children and the songs are short. No wacky detours, unless you’re envisioning a dream sequence with dancing ponies or something.

For the last few years, the way I work with the collaborators for my own albums is that I think of a title off the top of my head, then write down scrips and scraps of ideas, possible rhymes, possible endings. I make notes, like “Maybe this would come later,” or “Probably fix, because ugh,” or the like. I send the lyrics ahead to Russ Ferrante or Eddie Arkin or Shelly Berg and more recently Dave Grusin. If it’s an up-tempo tune, I speak the possible phrasing over a rhythm, often that my husband Tony Morales records for me, with the understanding that it may well change when we get together. I send a voice memo to my co-writer.

Like others who have responded, once the process has started I think of ideas in the shower, also when walking or gardening. I rarely write a song specifically about something that happened to me, but incorporate various feelings or events from the past, something inspired by a book I’ve read…one of the songs I wrote for my new album, Flirting with Disaster, references a scene from The Razor’s Edge, which I recently re-read, about two people in love who are confessing to each other and frequently repeating themselves, as (Somerset Maugham felt) lovers often do in such situations.

Sometimes I take some little moment or passing emotion and exaggerate it a million times, or presume to know what someone else was thinking or feeling when they said something to me, or just invent. I don’t keep a schedule, but I like to start writing before mid-morning. Once I start on something, it consumes me and I just keep going. If I have a beginning I like, I feel satisfied that I can probably finish the lyric and can happily go to the store or make phone calls because I know it will be there when I get back. I write pretty fast, but it might take me two days to write most of a song and another week to figure out one couplet. Most of a lyric does not happen in the realm of thinking per se, it just seems to come out of the air. Sometimes I look back and see there is an internal rhyme or a play on words, and I wasn’t aware of it at the time at all. After my writing partner and I are have a handle on the song (I could go on for as long about just that part), I sing it over and over and lyric edits usually happen at that point to make it sing more naturally. The weird thing is that they always seem to be improvements content-wise too.

Nowadays I go for the near-perfect rhyme. I say “near” because I only discovered a few years ago that in strict rhyming dictionaries, “thought” doesn’t rhyme with “got.” Or maybe much of the lyric won’t rhyme at all. Since it’s jazz, or some hybrid form of jazz, I don’t feel that every “A” section has to scan the same. You might take forever to get to the so-called hook, or have no hook. Some songs have a kind of punch line at the end … I never studied songwriting, but have been saturated in music my whole life, and it’s fascinating the different way songs can be put together.

With singing, a lot less to say (you’re welcome!) I do Seth Riggs exercises every day to warm up, then start singing, anything. Sometimes I sing through a lot of my stride songs because they feel good and warm me up. I also do this Gary Catona voice building, usually at night when I’m done singing, because it can thrash your throat, though the end result is good. I leave at least two days between the Catona thing and any session or live performance.”

ROGER ALDRIDGE – composer:

“For me, I don’t have a single way to work on a new piece of music. Over the years, I’ve probably used just about every way there is. At this point in my life (and given that I’m not doing commercial music), I’ve found that my most interesting pieces are those in which the music or the concepts for a piece come to me. I can afford to do this because I have A LOT of music that I’ve composed over the past 25+ years. So, now, I don’t have to force the process. What has happened is music now often comes to me through my intuition or in dreams. I’ve had some really amazing dreams about new pieces or concepts. Sometimes in dreams I hear the music and sometimes I see pages of a score. When that happens, I get up and write down as much of the music as I can remember. Then, over time I’m able to fill in the gaps. By being open to my intuition, ideas for new music can happen at any time and anywhere. “Donut Music,” a recent piece for solo guitar, was written through this process. The concept for it came to me when my wife & I were talking with one of our nieces. She told us about a story that our granddaughter (8 years old then) wrote and read to her. Hearing about that, a whole bunch of lights came on in my mind. Having an overall concept, ideas for each of the movements then came to me in various ways. The tango movement, as an example, came to me when I was driving to the organic food market. Logically, I cannot explain how this works. At times, it feels rather mystical to me…like the music has a life of its own and it picked me to write it down. I don’t want to give a false impression about this. While new music comes to me in unexpected ways, there is still the element of work and attention to detail in my writing. Something that I forgot to mention is how quite a bit of my work has been directly inspired by places in our area. My tune “Rainy Afternoon” came to me when I was hiking by the Potomac River, Happily, I was able to remember it until I got home and wrote it down. Other tunes have come to me when I was in the mountains or in places around the Chesapeake Bay. As I experience it, the music expresses a spirit of place. I’m convinced that if I had lived somewhere else that my music would be different from how it evolved for me in Maryland.”


“Okay…I work best with long blocks of time. It takes me a while to get going. This is a hard model in a busy house, but I do my best. I try to write every weekday, though it doesn’t always work out. I like listening to music—as it drowns out minor disturbances, but usually it has to be wordless or in a foreign language, or I get distracted.

I find the writing part very difficult. But I love the editing part. So I slog through the first version of a scene and then have a wonderful time moving words and ideas around…until it’s done, and I have to do it again”.

GENI SKENDO – nose flutist (my note: Geni plays more than the nose flute!):

“This is a PHD material question 😉. Basically I stay open minded about stuff & whatever I like I grab it. Sounds, rhythms, quotes. And I do my musical process with it. Besides that I focus some specific time on skills. Skills pay the bills.”

KAMRAN SABAHI – visual Artist:

” could become spontaneously inspired by shapes, patterns, colors, or a situation, therefore, composing a photograph or elaborating it into an image later. Also I might start with a preconceived idea and look for images to sublimate it. Post production work flow is always technical. Processing the image —with an audience in mind—to a point that is gratifying to me (again and the audience, yet I have to like it first). With photography and composites, since I have been selling them, is hard not to think about people’s reaction to them. Film making is always an idea first, a personal idea influenced by sociological elements. Work flow constantly involves thinking of audience. Audience influences every step of writing, production, and post production.”

ANNE VAN ATTA – musician, Dali museum docent and chocolatier:

“I am almost embarrassed about the way I think of creativity. It seems rather random. I play chords and think of words that match them; I listen to sounds and love them. I wish I could express this more coherently; I love the way life sounds.”

ROBIN BARBEN – published artist and writer:

“The joy of taking photos, brings me into a state of appreciating everything around me. I love the resulting photos, but that state of joy and gratitude for the world around me is just so much fun. Joy is a great starting point.”

SAM BURTIS – devout musician (my note: yes, Sam is indeed devout. He also plays the trombone and composes):

“I get up in the morning, take care of my own needs…food, exercise, meditations, etc…and business necessities, and then I go to work. Practice, mostly, although I am currently writing a great deal of music as well. Eventually I run out of time/energy and have to rest at night. Then the cycle begins again. Fancy stuff? I dream music. Sometimes it wakes me up and I have to sketch it out before I go back to sleep or I lose it. Other than that it’s just what my father taught me. He had a battered old French language primer that he kept all of his life because of its name. “Pas à Pas.” Step by step. It’ll get you there every time. Bet on it.”

THOMAS CUNNIFFE – jazz historian:

“Simple: Know your deadline, and exactly how much time you need to meet it. Then get started and ignore everything else until you’re done.”

ERIC PERSON – saxophonist, composer:

“The process of creating new works has changed for me in the last few years. It’s interesting cause when I first came to New York I used to compose almost every night I wasn’t “hangin’ out” or gigging. I would compose and record on a Fostex X-15 four track recorder. Musically, It was a time of a lot of experimentation so I had a ton of songs that I wrote, the Thoughts on God Suite being one of them. But now I write more “per project.” Over the last few years this has been effective for me: I get up in the morning, go straight to my keyboard (which is across the room) and put my hands down on it, and there is an instant connection. I have had so many new songs start with that first sound that came out. It’s divine. These days I’m also writing in different ways: from off the piano, my flute or saxophone…”

SEE LATEST PRESS NOW ON E-STAND: The Woven Tale Press Vol. II #7

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