You know the paper mazes on every child activity placemat and cereal box? And also the ones in big books of them made of tiny lines barely big enough to fit a pencil point?
The little ones are easy, you can usually see the way to the end by sight, without ever putting pen to paper. They practically solve themselves. The big ones seem like they’ll take a week, testing out pathways, backtracking, trying a new opening.
The metaphor speaks for itself. The only thing is that you don’t necessarily know which kind you’re working through when you start. You just have to trust that there really is an end, somewhere, and start working it.
Sometimes you just get obsessed. Sometimes this is flow, the zen state, in the zone, and your work is going well. But sometimes it might just be fascination and the puzzle of whatever you’re focused on, but that doesn’t get you anywhere. It’s a long thread on social media that keeps going in circles. It’s day-to-day coverage of politics.
It’s rarely necessary, but it’s addictive. If it keeps you from working on your thing, it’s probably better to treat it like a momentary thought in meditation practice. Notice, then let it go.
It does sound easier than it seems. The secret to meditation practice, though, is that you aren’t judging the distraction. You’re just noticing it exists. It’s okay that it comes back. We’re patient.
Acknowledge the obsession, then turn back to the thing you make. Repeat as needed.
This is another for the double category of “You Already Know How to Do This,” and “It’s Automatic.” Which I find funny, but isn’t useful to anyone else. Unless…
Unless it’s a way to recognize that people who try to sell you “how-to” instruction don’t always—often?—know how to create a system for doing these things. General advice is fine, but it tends to get bogged down in unique details, mainly the ultra-specific “well, here’s how I did it, this one time, anway.”
But systems have drawbacks, and a big one is the shift to someone else’s concept of how to make art. A little of that can be useful. A lot is a recipe to imitate for longer than it takes to learn a new skill.
When we learn to draw, or write stories and essays, or play instruments, or dance, we usually begin by imitating our heroes, copying the thing we love because we suck at the thing and it’s disheartening. But as we get better, we believe in our abilities, and the more seriously we take it, the more we begin to look inside for our own voices and expressions of unique self.
The more that happens, the easier it is to fashion memorable moments, and meaning, and a new voice. What becomes memorable is the connection we make by deeply engaging with ourselves. And because we are more like each other than different beings, those deep resonances automatically draw viewers and listeners in. We don’t have to follow any system or trick.
Opinion it is, but in my experience there’s no shortcut to memorability.
What do we do with all these things we’re noticing? If we start paying attention to both sides of things, we’re seeing details we overlook. We’re noticing how they fit into a larger context: the big picture. What’s after getting these new thoughts and images?
The things we take for granted, things we think are routine and familiar are full of life and fractalised components of being. But you don’t have to consciously apply the stuff you perceive to any creative thing you’re working on.
This act of trying to see deeply applies itself.
I would argue—and I do argue—that there’s a magic connection to your work, if you’re doing both things together. “Magic” not in a mystical sense, but in an ineffable I-don’t-know-how-this-works-but-it-happens sense. Making and creating is enhanced and enriched by your changing the way you move through familiar environments. And the fact that you’re working on art of some kind enlivens your mundane perceptions.
You don’t have to try. We can overthink the work very easily. I think a better way to improve and hone the thing you do is to carry the feelings and careful way of seeing (or listening) outside the place you make that thing.
Consider not boxing in your work. See if you can open the sense of flow throughout the rest of your day.
Something I’ve noticed I get really irritated by is articles with an intriguing headline that take several paragraphs of build-up to get to the point or the method of the thing. I’ll try to respect your time, gentle/radical reader, as you knew I would, eh?
Because the basics of noticing are pretty much in your grasp. If you’re old enough to read this, you’ve got plenty of experience.
First, what I’m talking about is deeper seeing. Artists begin to formally learn to do this in beginning drawing. But most of them know the feeling already. It’s a sense of connection to what they’re looking at, a sharpness of perception where every line and color is in focus. It happens to us all in life: we look at our parents, our lovers, our children, trees, flowers, a rainstorm—noticing details about stuff we may never have seen before.
All we’re trying to do in drawing class (or insert your beginning art medium of choice) is to apply that focus and perception to the work.
And it will benefit you and your work, alike, if you begin to practice it while you’re waking around outside the studio or workshop. Look—and listen—hard, and consciously, and with purpose. You’ll notice they feeling arise again when you do.
One of the things about being an artist that separates you is the quality of noticing things others overlook. Seeing unusual things or ordinary things in unusual ways is a key principle in most creativity. So how do you start?
First attempts: slow and steady. Any regular route you take-to work, regular errands, family houses—tends to blur into sameness over time. We get used to the sights and sounds and stop looking, seeing what’s there.
So start with your regular route somewhere. Start expanding what you notice. Small things. Out-of-the-way things. Write them down, somewhere.
I think it’s safe to say we wouldn’t be making art if we didn’t love it. Maybe there’s some tortured genius out there who’s just ambivalent about art in general, but keeps making it because she’s really good at it. But probably not.
It doesn’t follow that because we’re fascinated and enamored by a few or thousands of artists that we appreciate our own. Artists as their own worst critic is more true than not, in my experience, and that can easily extend to bald hatred of their own work.
I’m here to ask you to go easy on yourself. Making art—creating at all, really—is hard. Our visions of what could be don’t match what comes out in the physical world. But there’s tremendous value in giving of yourself so deeply. Pulling the viscera of your inner being out into daylight is brave and revealing. You deserve gentle adulation just for that.
It’s a perennial trope that working hard is the only way to get ahead, or be successful—whatever that means in a hundred variations. But some people work hard for a little while and not after, yet still maintain a success rate. Some just get lucky. Some keep working hard no matter how successful they get.
If we never get lucky (enough), what then?
I think it’s important—or rather, it’s meaningful to keep working. But how hard you work is relative. I think what matters most is that you do it. You can always adjust the effort to suit. Because how can you adjust nothing, or get cosmic dice rolling on an empty set?
Work some. We can discuss how hard that needs to be.
My first year in college, I signed up as a creative writing major. I thought that was what I wanted to do more than anything. I’m still not sure that’s not true, but I have vacillated, all my life, between wanting to write, to draw & paint, and to play music (it’s interesting that the act of making images and words have their own singular verbs, “draw/paint” and “write,” likewise “dance,” and “photograph,” but music doesn’t, somehow).
One of the best things I found when I was devouring “how to write” books, soon after I left my university, on academic probation and disillusioned, was Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. In it, Goldberg lays out a daily ritualistic method for getting going, called writing practice. It’s meant to be a time of non-judgment, where the only goal is to keep your hand moving and words flowing. Content is irrelevant. It’s freeing and helpful for the more specific writing you’d otherwise do, and it doesn’t necessarily stay separate from that. I did it for a long time, before I changed creative course.
It’s been very hard to stick to any path for long, though I’ve made a steady go with visual art the longest. But often, I still have trouble starting, and with keeping a sustained habit. I don’t have an easy answer or advice to fix that. I do that often enough, here. The idea that there’s a secret or trick to making art has too much traction, I think. Sometimes you should just ponder and try things out.
One of the strangest elements of going to sleep is losing consciousness. The person we are seems to just go away for a while. The person who wakes up isn’t quite the same consciousness. So are we the same person we were the day before?
Whether this holds true as we study the way consciousness works is, to me, irrelevant to the application of it to art and to making. It may be useful to think of ourselves as always renewing, always arising with the potential and promise of a new person—who still holds pretty much the same ways of thinking, goals, and student loan debt.
It’s easy to get caught in the quicksand of self-doubt and worry, of course. The negative “what-ifs” that catalog all the things that can go wrong. The critic telling us we’re not good.
But we also can decide to think of ourselves as new beings, and there are all the things that can go right. Maybe you’re not the same person: you’re someone else stepping into the place of the one who was in your place yesterday. Someone who has the memories, but doesn’t have to take on the baggage of yesterday
Tomorrow, we are different people. We can start our making again, and maybe not beat ourselves up about how good it is because, well, we’re new.
About the Author
Marcus is a maker of things and thoughts. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.