Lots has been said about getting started in a creative habit, or a creative project. Plenty has been written about finishing what you start and what happens after you get something done. What about how you do the middle bits?
It seems trite to say you just keep going. That’s obvious but logical, only there’s more to it. There’s understanding that the feeling of being in the middle of a thing vacillates back and forth between flow and floundering.
Flow is the state of losing yourself in the work. It’s being “in the zone.” Stephen King, in Misery, calls it falling through “the hole in the paper.” What you’re after is to recognize that feeling and try to find it as often as you can. It’s a weird kind of addiction, but constructive, not destructive. It’s something that sustains us through the middle bit.
Floundering is the opposite feeling. It’s anxiety, overthinking, awareness of what you’re doing. It’s a state where you’re unsure and searching. It’s actually potentially useful, because it’s where you can take in the big picture and see where you’ve been and where you might want to go. Nothing is all or nothing where creative work is concerned. It’s constantly moving and changing.
I mean, deal with it. And enjoy this part, because it’s where you spend the most time. The journey isn’t just the reward, it’s the part of life where you’re living.
It probably bears repeating—repeatedly—that it’s no big deal to be wrong. It’s how we learn, how we have eureka moments. Something is off, results are unexpected, and we need to find the right answer. But the answer isn’t necessarily the important thing. As John Kounios says at the link above,
Creativity is the process, not the product
For sure, it’s fun to be right and to know things. It’s just not always good for making art. Being wrong more is a better goal than being the best or striving for perfection. The cracks we fall in between the answers might lead us to an entirely new path. We are seekers, and not so often finders.
Someone at work asked me what I wanted to get out of my blog. I have no idea! I didn’t have a good answer, but I fumbled together something about maintaining a daily habit, and taking on a challenge like putting something new into the world every day, even if it was a brief sharing of someone else’s thing.
I get a lot of satisfaction out of doing this every day, even though it’s not always easy to think of things to post. But I don’t want to view anything in the manner of a corporate raider, that the things we do need to return a profit of some kind—not to mention seeing merit in squeezing every asset until there’s no more value to cash in. I’m certainly not against valuation of creative work, nor profit. It’s just that I think we need more reasons to rethink and do an end-run around value calculations as reason to do something.
Always remember—I’m telling myself as much as you—the word “amateur” has the root for “love” in its beginning. Amateurs are dismissed and professionals lauded, but the labels say nothing about skill or depth or potential. Love comes first, figuring out making any money is later, at some point in the list.
I don’t know how well I can bring anything to being. But what I want from the site, at least at this moment, is to share what I know and the creative things I do. I want to inspire you to start doing the creative thing you’ve long dreamed about but have always put it off. And I want to be one of those things that’s there for you every day, as long as I can do it. All those things are an automatic Phase 3 by also being Phase 2.
It works. It’s probably faster. But it’s not much materially you couldn’t learn on your own with the help of some books and instructional videos.
But art school, like many degrees, leads to a network of fellow artists. If you’re lucky, a few want to be curators—or publishers—and they like your work. I don’t regret at all the time I spent inside mine. But it should never be a reason not to start doing your thing, nor a reason to disparage where you are. School will almost always have the advantage in keeping your disciplined and on a path, even if that drifts and veers, sometimes along the way.
Lots of artists have done the academic thing, and lots have figured out their own way outside it. What matters is keeping it up, moving forward.
So, I used to love this band. I discovered them just before I entered high school, and near their commercial peak. They were Canadian, and I’d already started to love all things Great White North, though they were possibly my first “favorite” one of those. I was in band from 4th grade—Grade Four, for you Canucks—and I noticed they were a musician’s band, an entity prized by insiders and often dismissed by the general public. I’ll stop hinting and say now that Rush, the band in question, became my top musical thing almost instantly, and remained so until the mid-90s.
The lyrics were almost all written by drummer Neil Peart—take out the “P” and the “t” and you know how to pronounce his whole name properly when you put them back again—and although sometimes pretentious and sometimes less than wholly elegant, I loved them and they inspired and guided me. Neil was like a teacher out of school, someone who cared increasingly about writing about human things. He wrote about individualism, about forging an artistic path in the face of opposing forces, about working hard and staying true to one’s dreams. Then he started to write about more personal and everyday experience. He wrote about fear, about dreams, about inspiration. He wrote about relationships, about loss, about the little things that make life richer. This was the period I felt most connected, when I thought, “yes! This deep connection is what’s important.”
Then something changed. For a time, the lyrics he wrote seemed to me to have a sardonic tone. I found an attitude in them I wasn’t sure I liked. It wasn’t quite contempt, but they didn’t have the same love of humanity I’d noticed and identified with before. I’m not sure what happened, but I’ve seen something like it in artists who achieve a high level of material success. Perhaps it’s the isolation of fame. It might be simple weariness after years of exhaustive effort trying to maintain their success. Whatever the reason, I think it’s instructive.
We have a duty as artists to tell the truth, as we see it. But contempt is not an attractive quality. I’d say that humility, rather, is something to be cultivated and kept in mind while working on anything we make. Nobody does this work alone, we all need help, at times. What makes art universal is its basic humanity, the connection to common experience: our emotions, our fears, our triumphs. We should strive to respect and understand those traits, rather than downplay them.
I don’t believe in much. But as often as it can seem like the world is full of selfish assholes, I believe most of us want the best for others, most are willing to help, most have the capacity to love and to give. Those are things to celebrate and encourage, and they’re compelling and engaging. I refuse to believe everything is shit just because life is hard and sometimes we’re horrible to each other. We can be so brave and charitable, too.
There’s a coda: Peart changed again over time, and a new maturity—post terrible tragedy and grief—crept back into his work, culminating in some really tender and heartfelt songs, encouraging and affecting stuff I was and still am proud to enjoy. I can’t deny it—even if I have new favorite musicians, I do still love that band.
I went to the memorial exhibition of one of my professors tonight. Most of my work was abstract through art school, but he was a figurative painter, and his classes were all working from life. He taught me more about observational painting than anyone else, and I can still hear his curmudgeonly admonitions to me, gently but firmly steering me to better, more confident work.
This is the other gift of art—not the one we give to the world, but the one teachers give to their students. It’s a special kind of gradual magic to watch your abilities grow right in front of you. The best teachers don’t let you tell them your limits, they keep pushing you against them, asking more. The best students trust teachers to show how to seek their own path ever farther along. Slowly but surely, we improve, even if we get worse in the beginning. New paths are like that, at first—it’s the easy road that hardly ever gets you to an end.
The painting above was one where I finally saw my work improving significantly, as my professor gradually limited our color palettes and we figured out how to do more with less. He taught me better than most that there is freedom in working within limits: freedom to show more with less, freedom to get started because my choices were limited.
I was proud of a few things I made in his classes. But I’m more proud of the ‘A’ he marked on the back of that little 8 x 10 oil still life. I miss you already, Domenic.
I watched this amazing short bit featuring writer Siri Hustvedt talking about how reading literally possesses you. I can’t disagree, and since I believe books are food for more creativity, it’s worth sharing here, I think.
Robert Indiana died yesterday. His depiction of the word “love,” reproduced up there in sketch form, was both commercial and personal. Its cheesy, but sentimental. It’s a command, and also a concept.
To make something so iconic is a dream most of us have. But this thing, the Indiana Love piece, possessing so many contradictions and overtones and ideas, is just something you stumble upon and get lucky for having tripped.
Robert Indiana did a ton of other work, Google up his name and switch to viewing images for more. His was a great artistic arc.
I’m reading a book consisting of letters, supposedly written by the author to someone back home from the places she’s traveling to, around Italy. It’s a strange way to construct a novel, because the plot forms slowly, in pieces, and can be patchwork or incomplete. I’ve enjoyed collections of letters by famous literary figures—my mom allowed me unfettered access to her sizable shelves of the same growing up—for their own merits, and they’re glimpses into the real thoughts, fears, and hopes of people who did amazing work.
They might be real, these letters. I can’t tell. But it doesn’t even matter whether they are or not. They still have the power to hand you insight.
The somewhat rambling form of handwritten letters is charming, but also more meaningful than email, which the author discusses in her letters now and again. And meaning is always gold in your creative work.
Anyone can make something beautiful. If you then add truth and meaning, you’ve stepped above the ordinary into the extraordinary.
About the Author
Marcus is a maker of things and thoughts. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.