One memory that keeps returning from the grunge years is of an industrial band called Machines of Loving Grace. Closing out their—really good, actually—album Concentration is a hidden track just before “Trigger for Happiness” with a voice repeating “don’t fool y’self” several times. It’s still creepy, good advice.
It’s easy to deceive ourselves, after all, we know what we want to hear to justify any whim. But being realistic about your faults and your facility is helpful for creative path walking. It’s a lot easier to work within constraints, too, than to have too many options.
One big reason for working as a habit, a little every day, is to be ready for the unexpected. Or, dramatically, The Unexpected. When inspiration hits, when strange new visions come along, it’s a lot easier to have been working on the thing rather than have to deal with such revelations without a foundation. It’s a lot more difficult to try and build up a fire around the unexpected spark when you haven’t been gathering, cutting, and stacking tinder, kindling, and logs.
It’s a little counterintuitive. Not only does our natural reluctance to do anything difficult get in the way of creation, it’s massively romantic to believe art should flow from the blaze of inspiration. But inspiration rarely comes, in the grand scheme, for most of us. We have to slog. We fret. We noodle and stumble, often blindly building up pieces of a whole we have no idea the shape or size of.
Getting ready to throw the spark into the fuel is key to a nice, warm fire. Or if you’re lucky, an uncontrollable inferno.
Speaking of failures, I’m still spending way too much time reading news, political analysis, and random minutiae online, despite a redoubled effort to shift my attention to creating stuff and reading books.
Distraction is easier all the time. Setting out to write this post, I have opened Spotify, messed with battery settings, checked text messages, started to read emails twice and realized what I was doing—it’s really endless.
I’ve learned how to circumvent this monkey mind dopamine loop—MMDL in the literature, I’m pretty sure—pragmatically: make your to-do list he night before, stick to it in Pomodoro segments, start early. It’s still always there, and it’s always a fight. Habits of distraction built up over years, as my social media and information overload have been, are really really hard to break.
I don’t have any real advice, here, maybe just an ongoing reminder that almost nobody knows what they’re doing and is muddling through it all just like you. Unless you’re effective and prolifically productive. In that case, teach me your ways, kind stranger.
There’s a longtime meme circulating in the business world, to the effect that one should fail fast, because we grow and learn more from failure than from success. At least, from early failure, or in many cases, testing raw ideas and methods. In creative circles, this has been labeled “fail faster.” It means we shouldn’t try to make things perfect up front, we should try out ideas and concepts to see what will best fit. The quicker we weed through our early failures, the more likely it is we’ll find the best elements of the thing we’re working on and succeed with the final version.
If the idea seems at first counterintuitive, there’s some other research suggesting why. Researchers published a paper last December that links social anxiety with a preoccupation of making mistakes. If further research holds this up, we have insight into the fear. Some of us don’t want to interact with each other because we’re afraid we’ll do or say the wrong thing.
But in art, there isn’t much that’s “the wrong thing.” You need to be better at trying new things, different things, crazy things than you were the day before. It’s openness to experimentation that knocks work into a new realm, a higher level. Make mistakes. Make them faster.
And if you fail, so what? That thing needed failing. It means you’ve got a clearer path to the work that will, well, work.
There are few things I enjoy more online than a really great YouTube vlog. No other visual format gives me the same sense of visceral connection to another person’s life. Writing is the ultimate form of being inside someone else’s head, but ironically, that tends to abstract their reality and recontextualize it. If I feel I’m inside someone’s thoughts, they become, in some sense, part of my own. Videos put me in front of and in the physical place of another human.
And for the past few—several?—years, no one has given me that feeling more than creator Myles Wheeler, better known on the YousTubes as itsamemyleo. His twist on the classic British vlogger style is often to craft a metanarrative over his footage, which can be a massive pool of clips filmed over months. He’s expert at taking disconnected shreds of his daily existence and getting them to fit these wonderful blends of melancholy and humor.
All this to say that after a long absence, he uploaded the vlog-to-end-all-vlogs, a massive 85-minute wonder.
Every time I start thinking about the myth of the lone genius, I think about Fred Rogers. For most of every show, it’s just him and you together, the screen and time separating you, but together in a compelling and connected way. It’s easy to think of him as doing it on his own.
It looks like it’s all him. And, to be fair, he did do a tremendous amount of heavy lifting on his show. But he had production crew, producers, editors, (fellow) musicians, artists, and even consultants. We often need each other and benefit from helping each other. The upcoming documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” is a touching and insightful entreaty to enter Rogers’ larger world.
I don’t have a large audience, here. But I’m grateful you’re reading this. Thanks for your time and attention, and for being my internet neighbor.
There’s a distinct advantage to having long or severe winters. Your boredom is stoked and you have the time to create while you wait for less inclement weather. Genial weather.
Because when shorts and sandals time comes, there’s lots to distract, places to be, things to thing.
The only thing that’s consistently helped me—having grown up in the deserts and asphalt of Arizona and Southern California—is implementing a habit as daily discipline.
The periodic creativity romanticized by a private holing up and creating a masterpiece tropes has long been exemplified for me by Edward Gorey’s The Unstrung Harp. I recommend all writers and artists in general find that piece. It’s one of the most penetrating, incisive looks at creative process, eschewing hand-waving techniques like montage. It’s visceral and arresting, and creators will recognize themselves throughout.
I watch a lot of painting demos these days, looking for Procreate tips. Digital painting may have a similar perceptive core, but the execution is different. Few videos are as serene and revealing as this one of Studio Ghibli background artist Osamu Masuyama painting a sky and landscape.
This is one of the traditional ways art is taught in school. You watch a master work up a painting or drawing, and you try to do what they do on your own. Most of art, any art, is practice, I believe. There are techniques that will save you time, and specific exercises that can give you facility with the work, but time and effort is the biggest factor in anyone’s level of ability. Talent only goes so far.
It’s counterintuitive perhaps, but organizing is potentially both good and bad for creation. It depends how you approach it. A lot of clutter in your workspace is mentally taxing. You have to fight through the visual chaos to find things, you’re distracted by (metaphorically) shiny objects, and you bog down in the face of these things. I know this because I’m the king of clutter.
But organizing can be a distraction in itself. It’s an anal-retentive procrastinator’s dream. You tell yourself you need to get your studio or desk or files in shape so you can work distraction-free. But de-cluttering can take time, if things are a swirling soup of stuff. You can easily spend a day or more moving piles, scheduling things, sifting through neglected mail, reshelving supplies and books.
Most tasks are best handled in chunks. And nothing starts your day in triumph like getting a couple of creative things happening before you do anything else. The two practices can balance each other very well, as long as you keep them to discrete slices of time, say, 30 minutes to an hour. A little right brain, a little left. It’s not intensity that gets you a hundred pages written or a big canvas filled, it’s the day-to-day, bit-by-bit daily habit over time.
Akin to wonder, there’s something special about finding things in the world to be delighted about. Even for those of us who explore the dark side in our work, there’s still room to collect elements of the delightful we find around us. The gloomiest day has something charming to find.
This isn’t to say we need to try to exclude feelings or perceptions, nor feelings outside it. Just that it helps spark creation. Adds meaning. Inspires the wonder.
I try to look for them like jewels in the dark, moments of pleasure, in Kate Bush’s words.
About the Author
Marcus is a maker of things and thoughts. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.