It feels like something needs to change. And that’s after everything changed for me. If there’s one thing moving is good for, it’s taking over every other concern in your life with its alarm bells and insistent stress.
It’s easy to separate professional and personal lives, and day job from artistic practice, but you really only have one life. It flows with time, always moving forward, not giving a damn about our attempts to compartmentalize and section it off. It’s useful to organize time that way, don’t get me wrong. But ultimately it all runs together and is affected by every other part of a life.
So, when you feel restless, that things have stagnated, that wheels are spinning in place, it’s good to remind yourself to slow down and just keep working. There’s just one downside: you can get lazy and stop altogether. Careful of that. It’s easy to put off the stuff you’re supposed to be doing.
The tortoise can be tempted by naps, too.
You Can Be on a Journey and Not Know Where You’re Going, and Your Work Is the Same
Paul McCartney’s slightly vertigo-inducing video for “I Don’t Know” is one of my favorite tracks on his new album, Egypt Station. It’s not a great album, and could have used some trimming, I think, but there are gems, and this is one. Paul often gets dismissed for, well, silly love songs—specifically by John Lennon, there—but mostly by those who consider he’s forever cranking out sunny fluff. But he’s got a darker side, his share of gloom, and those songs are found throughout his oeuvre.
It seems a piece with some of his later work where he addresses being older, having a sense of his own mortality. Self-examination is important for all of us, especially those of us making things. We put our hearts into the work, and without knowing the dark side as well as the light, we aren’t approaching it with our complete selves.
It’s pokes fun at a pervasive kind of internet pseudointellectual herald that often turns out to be, well, sound and fury, signifying nothing. There’s a serious side of it, that we can waste a lot of time getting caught up in artificial enthusiasm for a new thing, or in the piece, the idea that we can become smarter than everyone else by consuming the perfect information.
It’s kind of a cliche for this blog at this point, but what matters is your work. Not that it’s genius or ingeniously sourced, just that it’s deeply yours. Distraction is everywhere, useful information is rare.
Distraction in your work is a problem. Distraction from your stressors can be a boon, and get you to the metaphorical table more often.
Usually, in any given moment, we aren’t fully present we’re not so good at—wait for iiit—being mindful of our surroundings, we’re thinking about a million things. Walking down a street like that isn’t such a big deal. Making art like that is a path to so-so work.
One corollary I noticed while packing all my earthly belongings this past few weeks is that rather than viewing a full move as a terrible weight to bear, it’s a chance to strip away some of the raw stuff that weighs us down. Marie Kondo is the current rage of the organizing aficionados, of course. She advocates organizing by keeping only what you truly want, not throwing out, donating, or selling what you don’t.
It seems a bit backward or inverse, but it’s very like artists who work in media like ink and stone do: chip and cut and scratch the raw stuff to reveal an essence. The focus isn’t on what you don’t want, contrary to the myth, it’s on what you do.
It’s helped make this particular process much easier for me, by transforming my idea of what it means.
Take Care, It’s Something Your Work Needs in Large Quantity
The value of working a retail job at some point in your life as an artist is valuable. The insight into commerce, the feeling of working in service to others—even if only as a raw exchange of goods and services for money, and a camaraderie with people in the same position alongside you are all vital to reaching a deeper understanding of humans in contemporary society. If your art isn’t touching other people in some way, if it’s too . . . deep? It won’t have the power to find and keep an audience or fanbase.
I’ve watched dozens of people I knew over the years find some measure of success with their work, and I’ve come to know a smidgen of it myself. What I’ve noticed about my day jobs, in interacting with customers and clients, is that the amount of care I take with all of them—in craft, in concern that the thing they’re buying is what they want, in appreciation of patronage of all kinds—reflects in a lot of ways in my work.
I’m not sure you can not give a shit at your job and turn contempt around in your art. Probably some geniuses can, but very few of us indeed are those.
If the World Seems Like It’s Speeding Up, Keep Slowing Down Your Work
I mean your creative work, the stuff you’re making and thinking about outside the job that occupies your work day. And I don’t mean to the point of not doing it, no. That’s too slow.
Artwork, art-work, art –> work is different than other tasks. It’s the hole in the paper. It’s flow. It’s a time warp. The world around us is bursting with improvements in media tech and a lot of it messes with our attention spans and focus. It’s how it’s being designed. The cure, or at least palliative, is creation. It forces us to both slow down and to focus.
Art isn’t just a pleasant way to pass the time. It’s a vital human pursuit.
NBC News, of all places, posted this article on books, which is somewhat related to this post. It’s one of those mid-length articles so jammed with links it feels meticulously researched, even if many of the links point right back to NBC itself. I agree with a lot of the points, though, and can’t say it better than this header:
STORIES ABOUT OTHER PEOPLE TEACH US TO BE THE TYPES OF PEOPLE WE WANT TO BE
There Are Times When It Feels Like Nothing Is Happening
If you’re a working artist, it probably doesn’t happen often to you. Go away and make more stuff, we need that. But if you haven’t established a clientele, or audience, or patronage, there are times when it feels like you’re getting nowhere.
If you feel like your work is the same, it’s time to step back—metaphorically—and realign your hands and mind.
If you feel like things are stagnating, be sure you know what you want first. You can’t head in a direction before you know where you’re going. In small ways, that can be good! It’s exciting to start a work with only a vague idea of where you’ll end up. But I’m talking about a bigger picture (no pun intended).
You have to know what kind of work you’re going to be making. It’s better to have structure for your ideas before you start trying to sell—or give—them to the world. This helps with procrastination, too. It’s really easy to indulge in cat videos and Twitter memes when you’re not sure where you’re going, because the brilliant coders at every social media company can more easily capture your eyes and ears. It’s hard to creatively wander with no goal or structure.
It’s fine to feel this frustration. You’re recognizing you’re not where you want to be, showing self-awareness. Stop flailing, think deeply about what you want to be and do. Once you have a direction you can start a path.
Then you can meander around while you’re headed east or sideways.
Trying to Look at Familiar Things With New Eyes (And Ears) Is Difficult, But It Works Your Creative Muscles
It’s a part of most retail jobs that employees have to do certain chores that may be gross or filthy. Cleaning bathrooms and floors, dealing with trash, wiping down fixtures and windows. These can seem demeaning, and I’ve thought so on more than one occasion.
They aren’t, though.
I was thinking about their place in work of all kinds, and it’s not just that you have to do them, I think they contribute, weirdly, to a bigger picture.
They’re small cogs in a larger machine, just like you, if you’re one of those workers. But you have to do the same kind of maintenance at your own house, and there’s no shortage of cleanup in art, either. These tasks relate.
They also interrelate. An attitude of reverence toward your tools and tasks carries over to the important work, the art itself. Working a job is valuable training in maintaining the harmony of everything unseen in the art you make. It supports and frames it. It makes it possible to forget about everything but the art itself.