I took a long time getting to—and through—the Bojack Horseman episode “Stupid Piece of Shit,” S04E06. It’s a deep, devastating examination of the central character’s self-loathing as seen through his own internal dialogue. And it’s hard to watch.
We can be so hard on ourselves, so much of the time. It’s easy to forget we’re as much in charge of the voice that gently comforts as we are of the voice that berates and excoriates us from within. It’s better to keep countering that voice with the first.
It’s almost instinctual to listen harder to the negative voice. But neither inner voice is real. We can only control so much. If we are forthright, if we are even steady and habitual, the positive counteracting voice is there, as well, to tell us “good job!,” “well done,” and other helpful notes.
And if both voices exist within us, they aren’t both equally helpful, nor healthy. It’s better in the long run to give more weight to the voice that encourages, that supports, that’s delighted we did a thing. Things that keep hope alive and up lead us to make better and more things for the world. As you keep up the daily habit, you can acknowledge both sides of your inner self.
You are forced to listen to the voice telling you you’re a piece of shit. But you don’t have to accept its opinion of you and your worth any more than some random person on the street. You have an alternative. You have a voice that lifts you up and strengthens your resolve, too. Consider the other voice.
Nothing proceeds in a straight line forever. There will be plenty of times things are going well and fast, and others when they drag into the quicksand of the afternoon. The long, dark tea-time of the soul, as it were.
This is obvious, probably, and I’m sure I’ve written about it before. I will likely write about it again, because it’s good to remind ourselves of the tough realities of creating things along with the pep talks and fun inspiring ones.
This up-ing and down-ing of inspiration, motivation, and energy are part of a natural flow. And if new age mystic wannabes can co-opt science for their own metaphors, we certainly can, too.
The only certainty is change: what goes well can—and will—go poorly. For a while. But I take comfort in knowing that the curve always goes back up, and in the meantime it’s simply getting work done that keeps it moving at all.
What makes a difference between what matters and what doesn’t is caring. Seems like a small thing, perhaps. Caring that your work is worth doing, that you can make a difference in the world, and that existence has meaning lead you to be engaged in things that matter.
Subjectivity aside, as long as the work is done, the substance of it is a lesser consideration. It will be imbued with your own unique world view and passions. Does it matter? I’d say if you care, it does, and I’m not sure how you create anything for very long without doing so.
We have limited resources. Worthy causes abound. Just as we can only devote so much to helping those in need, we can only give so much to our creative work. We have to choose.
I’d say that it matters less what path or what form that work takes and more that we care about it. Keep caring.
I’ve got a lot of books. They’re in the bedroom, they’re in the living room, they’re in the garage because I ran out of shelves to put them on and need to donate or give away some. I love them, and I love their form.
But they’re bulky. They weigh me down as I move through my day and across town. I forget them upstairs, and forget to put them in my bag when I head off to work. E-books have changed those (very small) problems. I have dozens of them in iBooks, and they more or less sync up my current page across devices. I can read them on my laptop, I can continue on my phone at the coffee shop. I have a mini-library in my pocket.
But. They have no presence. Or, rather, their presence is entirely ephemeral.
After I finished several e-books and audiobooks in a row, I decided to read my mom’s old copy of A Wizard of Earthsea, printed in mass market paperback form in 1980. The difference is stunning.
I’m 28 pages in, and completely enchanted, having a tangible object to read. It’s been months since I felt pages under my fingers. And the smell. Good lord, this thing is decades old and its dark perfume is giving me nostril orgasms.
There are distinct advantages to digital art, I’m fully on board with that. But we can’t forget the sensory power of physical things. It’ll be there so long as we have nerves to sense with.
Here’s another thing the daily habit will get you: an opportunity to catch the fire when it flickers into being under your nose.
Waiting for inspiration is a recipe to never do any work. You might wait till doomsday, who knows? But keeping a steady creative pace means you’ve got a flow going. There are insights and truths within that flow. The funny thing is, you might let them loose in your work and not see them at first. They’re a spark and fluff of flame at the edge of your vision. Ignore it and you keep rooting out tinder and kindling in another direction on another day.
Finding a fire doesn’t necessarily mean you have a bonfire coming, but it can light the way to one if you’re ready for it.
Almost 50 years ago, Blood, Sweat & Tears released a song about how culture goes in cycles like a wheel, swinging left to right and back again. It’s natural to feel stuck, sometimes. It’s harder to know at those dark moments that I won’t be there forever. It’s a big picture perspective that serves me well, when I can remember it.
Another idea I’ve tried to keep in mind is that of Taoist or Zen balance, that what may seem good or bad or fortunate or tragic today can easily become the opposite tomorrow. So it isn’t worth the emotional capital it takes to dwell too intensely on any particular event in our lives.
Of course, we’re only human, and not very good at a wide or long perspective on existence. It’s easy to become roiled by life, politics, and customers.
We need these little reminders that life is never on rails, nor traveling in one direction, forever.
Always the same, at least at first.
The sun painting the sky as it falls. Yellow, green, orange, peach, magenta, lavender. Crickets. Frogs. Distant wheels on the highway it was too loud to hear before.
And the dread. Feeling like the day has slipped out of my grasp, wriggling impatiently as I try to hold on and stroke it to calm, hoping to soothe its restlessness and need to go. That fails.
But after the dread, trepidation, unease—the dark thickly envelops it all, real and almost tangible. Then it feel safe, calm, secure, sure.
The darkest moment returns me to center, and I can go forward again.
Fear is almost always going to make a guest appearance now and then in your life. When you make a big change, start a new piece, finish an old piece, or put your work and yourself out into the world, in general.
What matters isn’t tamping down the emotion. It’s primal, and with us since long before we became mammals, even. The feeling comes, and it’s okay to feel it. But do more: embrace it, examine it, see what it does to you physically.
After that, you can more easily push it aside and do the thing you have to do. Denying it or avoiding it only turns it into something monstrous at the edge of your sight. But, it’s just fear, one emotion among many.
Fear can help us get moving or keep working. You can use the energy—the thrill, even—that rises up in it to your advantage and your work’s benefit. You don’t have to shove it aside, you can make it your ally. If it’s going to be there anyway—and it is, you’re only human—better to embrace it fully than try to ignore it. Like pre-performance stage jitters, a little nervous energy imbues your work with oomph.
Trying to run from fear is pointless—it’s attached to us like a kick-me sign taped to our backs. Try to get away from it and it flaps away with every step. Calmly reach around and accept it and you might be able to pull it off.
Sometimes you feel destined to win, and pull out all the stops to do so. Including becoming a receiver when your title is quarterback.
And sometimes you do your best and just don’t make the play.
The thing to remember is there’s almost always another game to play. Your work doesn’t end with the winning point, it’s part of the whole of what you do.
The status quo bias is real. It can stop us from making any changes at all, even though we tend to overestimate the effect of losses and underestimate the effect of gains. Put another way, we hesitate to make a life change because we focus on the bad possibilities even when things are currently bad. We’re also poor judges of changes that turn out better. It’s true that change is sometimes worse than what we have now. But nothing stops us from changing again, if it turns out a change is suboptimal.
As artists, we have an advantage: we’re trained—even if we’re self-taught—to seek out the new. To quote Captain Picard, we crave “…to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.”
Okay, maybe that’s hyperbolic. The thing to keep in mind is that we often get in our own way when opportunity presents itself. Go ahead and make the leap.