Losing it is a big deal for most of us, at least while we’re in the midst of it. Let’s talk a bit about it.
While failure is nothing to be ashamed of—I mean I’m in favor of it—and it’s only human, anyway, losing it is us coming to a compromising emotional state over it. Either we court it directly as an end in itself, because we’re despairing or self-destructive, among other things, or we obsess on it and bring ourselves to despair.
I’m not sure there’s an easy way to cure such a tendency long-term without professional guidance, should you find you’re a habitual self-sabotage, say. But there are two things that can mitigate it. Wait, three things.
Physical exercise: get out, away from your workspace into the outdoors. Walk around. Be brisk, breathe deeply. Stay out for a while.
Keep working. Just do the daily piece of whatever you do, even if it seems futile and terrible. Inevitably, creators who look back at what they’ve done can’t tell when the good days and the bad days are by what the stuff they made is like. Step #1 has an all-purpose steadier: breathe deeply, in. Out.
Be kind to yourself. Remember you have tomorrow and today’s piece is only a small part of the whole. As in #1, breathe.
To make things is to become emotionally involved. I’m not sure it’s possible to be dispassionate and produce things that are worth a damn. But my main concern with losing it is to find ways beyond or out of that state.
Breathing is always good for centering. Centering is the practice of withdrawing your attention back inside yourself. When you feel scattered and stretched, if you can pull back emotionally, you’ll feel better able to cope. It’s an easy borrow from meditation: close your eyes, take a deep breath, hold it for a half-second, let out the breath, wait a couple seconds, open your eyes. Sometimes that’s literally all it takes to become calmer and more focused.
Don’t take my word for it, it’s classic Karate Kid!
John Green did a thoughtful Anthropocene Reviewed segment about the comparison of Mario Kart to life, musing over whether it’s more akin to “poker than chess,” and how that relates to “real life”—that is to say, the non-gaming part of existence. It set me thinking about not only the aptness of his parallel, but of what we both want and need from our games. The two things might be not both be compatible or possible.
It’s a perennial problem, that. Either you want to get a thing underway you’ve been half-dreaming about, or you’re itching to dive in and make . . . something. So why is it so hard to get going?
You have to have a specific idea in order to start, right? Well, no you don’t. However it shakes out for creative fields I’m not familiar with (glassblowing?), it’s very similar in two broadly major ones: painting/drawing and writing. I’ll use painting as an example, because I know that one. Probably it’ll translate, at least somewhat, to other media, but we’ll worry about that later.
You usually begin with a blank, white canvas. It’s clean and pure, almost holy—unless you’re not steeped in the Western European tradition, in which case that symbology starts to fall apart. But it is daunting, and voidlike. The way past this barrier is through it. How do you start? By putting something, anything, other than white on it. You can start by putting a tone on it: red, green, gray, or some wild eye-searing thing, like the orange I used on the detail of the blue-dominant painting up above.
There, you’ve started. One line, a new color, and you should be better able to build on what you have.
The same goes for the blank page. You start putting down the proverbial “I don’t know what to write, this is dumb, I can’t even,” and you have something to bounce off of. As long as you keep going, it isn’t long before you can drop into the flow and dig for something true. It’s in there.
No idea how I found it, but there was a long debate in The Comics Journal’s letters pages several years ago about what “craft” meant to comics creators and their work.
James Kochalka started with a column called, “Craft is [sic] the Enemy.” He holds to some unpopular opinions about not only what craft is, but why his definition of it is detrimental to creators.
I’m a bit in the middle on this concept. One one hand, I think artists should strive to take care with the materials of their work—whether physical or not—nearly the same way they care about the work. I think care in the presentation of work makes a difference, too, at the least conveying that if we care about that, we care about that, we likely care about the work itself. That’s part of craft.
It isn’t what things you make, that’s just medium or field. It does help you stand out if you care more for craft than others around you who don’t.
And yet, it isn’t the first consideration. If anyone thought there were gatekeepers to the arts worlds, they’re mistaken. Everyone can declare themselves in the game, and if you have something to say, I think you should start.
If you aren’t good enough, the only thing that will make it better is more work made and tenacity. But keeping work from the world until you reach some stage of objective readiness is depriving it and you of valuable feedback and growth.
I think we need to care for craft. But we don’t need to hesitate in starting.
You may think it’s a race. There’s a lot of pressure on us to perform and achieve and produce. You’re looked down on a bit if you aren’t concerned with improving your productivity. To see the flood of self-help business books is to know there’s a relentless push to get more done.
But there are two ways to approach the problem of not working on your thing, or finishing work. One is to let productivity gurus sell you on another system, new tricks to slash work time and grow the done pile. It’s fine if that appeals to you. But it’s stressful, and leads to burnout.
And it distracts you from just plainly doing the work, which is certainly what often suckers me into the shiny new system.
The other way is easy, because you need nothing extra: establish a daily habit of uninterrupted creation time and get a little further along finishing a project. It really does pile up faster than you think. It’s less stressful and unpretentious, but it lets you end a year with the done pile impressively high.
Looking away to the future isn’t always bad. If we were only ever concerned about the present, we’d never follow a dream of a possible future. Or better, an impossible one.
It’s a matter of balance. One viewpoint throughout your life isn’t enough for making art. It requires changing perspective, shifting ground, opening up to the unknown, the void of ideas.
Be present when it matters. But that can’t be all the time. I’d argue that the act of creating is a prime example of losing oneself and the present. We can’t Be Here Now when we’re deep in the moment of making. It’s only when we look as far as we can that it all falls into place, comes together, melts, thaws, and resolves to a dew.
Marking a significant life event is only natural. It’s uniquely human. Birthdays, anniversaries, achievements. It’s that last one that can seem arbitrary or trivial, sometimes.
But an arbitrary milestone can make you feel inspired or motivated. Picking something small and celebrating it bestows importance. That’s what you want as you make your artistic practice an essential part of your life. It should feel important. Modesty is rarely a bad instinct, in a social sense. If you trivialize your work early on, however, who’s there to counter that disparaging voice? The last thing you need is less impetus to keep working on your stuff.
So here’s a small, arbitrary milestone: this post makes 100 in a row since I missed in late January, just a bit before I was due to hit the first 100 in a row. Yay! Woo! I couldn’t have done it without you, truly.
There is value in slowing down. It’s easy to get caught in the push to get faster, increase productivity, do more with less time. But time hasn’t sped up at all. It still passes at the rate of one second per second.
Slowing down allows time—and the universe around us—to coalesce a bit as we work with it. It becomes more real.
I’m the caretaker of a cat. It feels weird to call him “mine,” or “my pet,” because he generally does what he wants and I generally accommodate that. But sometimes his whims conflict with my own. Like at 5:00 a.m., when he meows loudly in the silence, or walks on my head, and I have no idea what’s happening or what he wants. Or he’ll be about to break something I care about or go somewhere I don’t want him to, such as the keyboard of my laptop or the shelf I’ve balanced a week’s worth of papers on. I tend to get angry, and because I am bigger than he is, and his cat brain can’t comprehend my mouth flapping around, I usually pick him up and drop him on the floor. Occasionally, I have been rather more forceful than was required. This despite the fact that I love him, in all his infuriating fuzzy aloofness. Why do I get so upset with someone I care about?
But lately I’ve been trying something else. I was despairing of social media, and the number of people I scroll past—I know, never read the comments, mea culpa—who say that the opposing political group is beyond reasoning with and they’ll never listen to them, because they’re [belittling epithet]. But humans are still humans. I tend to think most of them want the best for everyone, even if we disagree how best to live. Given that earnestness, it makes as much sense for me to try to see things from their point of view as it does to get angry about their position.
So with the cat, I’ve tried to put myself in his paws and imagine how things look from his point of view. He can’t get his own food, or scoop his own box, and he’s just up because he doesn’t have to deal with jobs and outside obligations. Because cat. It helped, a lot.
Synchronicitously, I clicked through some list of links to find Rebecca Knight’s article “How to Develop Empathy for Someone Who Annoys You” in the Harvard Business Review, of all things. It’s not long on scientific papers, but does have a lot to say about cultivating empathy. We probably could do well with a bit more in the world.