Sometimes, when life matters become overwhelming, it helps—for a time—to indulge in some intense trifles to distract ourselves with stories, music, video, memes. As long as we don’t let that go on too long. Scott Thompson, as his Buddy Cole character in The Kids in the Hall, said in a sketch, “I believe in moderation. Within reason!”
Indulge completely and work completely. Too much of either can burn you out or waste time that shouldn’t be wasted. Once you’ve wasted some and fed the furnace with either energy of inspiration, it’s time to undistract.
Fighting Nihilism May Be a Neverending Battle With Yourself and the World
Nothing matters, everything is ultimately meaningless, all art is pointless effort.
So says a really powerful voice in my head that shows up with annoying frequency. I’m not going to tell you how to defeat that voice for good. I do not know.
But there’s a way out of any kind of defeatist spiral, and that is to understand that the opposite reaction is strangely as valid. It’s very human to observe and to create. It makes us who we are, in part. If it doesn’t matter whether or not we make art, we might as well keep making it because it speaks to our existential core.
It might be the case that the universe doesn’t care about our work. To be fair and frank, it almost certainly doesn’t, at all. But even if it doesn’t matter in an ultimate sense, it matters in the moment. It matters to us. And since we’re the ones who like it and are inspired by it, art has an arbitrary present value for both its creators and its experiencers.
There’s Feeling Ineffectual, and Then There’s Feeling Useless
The difference is stark. You matter, and so does your voice. I’m struck by a line from Chris Baty, NaNoWriMo founder:
The world needs your novel!
And, for sure, there’s plenty to unpack surrounding the word, “needs,” because in a strictly survivalist sense, the word doesn’t.
But that statement is a passionate entreaty to start creating. It says your views and thoughts and your own passions matter, and they have something to contribute to humanity at large.
Until and unless you have followers and fans of your work, it’s going to seem a bit lonely, like your voice is mighty small in a very dark and enormous void. You aren’t useless, you’re working, making, creating. You do matter. You’re ineffectual, as far as the outside world is concerned. But that isn’t the important thing. What’s important is that you press on, say what you must say, and give that work to the world.
Because we need it, and we cannot know what effect it will have before it’s out there.
The Creative Life is Lonely, Sort Of, but Not in Any Serious Way
I’ve had friends and cow-orkers muse to me—in that way that makes it clear they’re probing for confirmation, but don’t want to seem obvious about it—that if you want to be an artist, you must be okay being alone with your work. I mean, yes and no.
There are obvious pursuits like writing, where you can, if you choose, work in a busy coffee shop or the park. There’s music where, except for one-human-band types who do everything themselves and never perform, you tend to work with others in a band or during production.
Visual art is made mostly on your own. But that doesn’t make it a lonely life. The part you’re already striving to get is the state of flow, or zen, or harmony, or whatever label you give to the sensation of losing your self, your awareness of time, and your self-doubt chatter while you do the work.
Without an idea of time, it doesn’t matter so much that you’re alone. Further, here’s a bonus: any creative work you do has access to this feeling. Aloneness without loneliness is your goal, not something to prevent.
Into Every Artist a Little Self-Absorption Must Fall, So You Can See More Clearly When It Has Gone
That’s my attempt to be quotable. Without sassy characters spouting this stuff, we’re left with titles. This one should be the retort of Jen, the younger sister of a cynical, burned-out musician named Josh. Hm.
Hold on, let me just write down this pitch for a show.
What I’m talking about, though, is making sure you have enough fuel to burn. Never mind inspiration, you need stuff to steal from. As much art as you can handle stuffed in you so it mixes into a stew with all the other art you see and hear.
Go to galleries, web sites, shows, concerts, forums, colleges, museums, streaming TV, magazines, libraries.
And then? I don’t know how or why, but unless you’re trying yo be like one specific person, your things come out different. Art magic.
The Boring Reasons Get More Done and Further the Journey Better Than Desire and Dreams
Desire is the tool most of us use to motivate ourselves into creating, whether it’s an experience or a thing, your thing. We want something and that moves us to try to get it. But desire can be deceptive and distracting.
That’s because desire isn’t real. I mean, yes, it’s real for us inside our heads and hearts. But it isn’t reality, the stuff outside our private thoughts and feelings. Sometimes we’re lucky and what we desire syncs with what we feel. And often it doesn’t, or doesn’t quite.
Here’s when two vaguely Buddhist ideals come in handy. First, ignoring or casting off desires as unimportant can help get over things like wistfulness and hesitation. Those are roadblocks to creation. Fantasy is always easier than boring, cold reality, after all. But nothing happens if we spend too much time in dreams—cue that Dumbledore quotation that was such a key moment for me.
Second, the crazy simple Zen notion that plain, ordinary work—not noble aims, not high ideals, and not really backbreaking work, just work—gets us a little closer to the end of whatever we need to work on. And that’s the habit, see? The daily thing, a chunk chipped off of the big block. It’s enough.
Doing Is Being, and Other Vague Aphorisms Used in Place of Ordinary Explanations
There’s another approach to a daily work habit, and I thought of Yoda again—as any decent Gen X geek does—but specifically of putting a twist on a popular worn-out phrase:
Do, or do not. There is no try.
Which is kind of bullshit. Of course you have to try. Doing is a process and an observation, post-completion of a task. Once you finish a thing, you can say, “I’ve done that.” It’s logically impossible before you start. All too often, that phrase above is implemented as a substitute for any number of lazy coaching slogans, Vince Lombardi style: “everybody’s got to give 110%!” These logical impossibilities are supposed to manufacture confidence and assuage doubt. Yoda was doing this to Luke, who was too headstrong and impetuous to hear something more subtle.
But I think confidence is overrated, up front. Tricking yourself into it might be okay sometimes, say, when you’re going into a firefight (or even an actual fire). But for making art, it’ll come later. At first, all you need is to trust your own discipline. If you can get yourself to start, and then do that again tomorrow, and then again and again, day-after-day, you’re doing it. And doing is being: you’re the title you seek, artist/musician/writer/actor/dancer. Doubt is irrelevant, which is good, because there’s usually going to be a lot of it while you get started. This is normal. The work is what’s important, getting it going is the main goal. Then finishing. You should finish things.
So, the twist? I think I’d rather say, stepping in for a much wiser and shorter and older person, “there is only try. And the same again tomorrow.”