Nostalgia can be good. I’ve written a bit about it before. It can drag you into rabbit holes, too. This is usually one of its aspects we’re warned about.
But it can help your present life. It just matters how much time and effort you put into it. You shouldn’t live in the past. It’s gone.
But neither should you disdain the wonderful things that got you where you are, any more than forgetting the painful things that shaped you. The important thing is that you keep moving forward. We live in the present, always, but it helps to look where we’re about to step, too.
Getting nothing done on a day off is often frustrating. It means I didn’t get enough done I was supposed to.
But deliberately doing nothing is good for your soul—metaphorically. It’s a delicious oasis amidst a chaotic project or work week. It’s a defiant middle finger to the productivity gods.
We need replenishment regularly, different states of mind than focusing on tasking, and one way to do it is to shove everything aside and try to get none of it done on purpose. Tomorrow, you’ll get to work. But just every so often, break the rules.
Everybody Talks About Rest, But You’ve Still Got to Do It
Don’t forget that breaks are your work’s second-best friend, next to habit. Before inspiration, before beauty, before structure.
If you don’t have time to step back and consider, or time to absorb new ideas from elsewhere, there’s going to be too much intensity or not enough—something.
You can fix things later, and there’s almost always time to, after the thing is finished, but you’ll have a better base and scheme for whatever it is if you’ve given consideration to a little rest between work sessions.
It seems like it’s become fashionable to make the amount of work we spend on a project the important part. If we’ve burned the midnight oil through and finished in one go, so much the better! But my experience is that a steady pace with time off between chunks of making is better for both artist and art.
Seems simple, but rare enough for those of us who are still trying to reach master status.
It comes out of nowhere, looming like a tidal wave. Or, less dramatically, the wistful reminiscences of your past. Either way, it’s only so good for so long. Too much nostalgia isn’t doing any of us any good.
It’s calming and sometimes inspirational to indulge our love of nostalgia. Memory is completely necessary to move forward in any way, not least of which is knowing your influences and which bits to steal from them. But keep turning to the past and it stalls us, makes us hesitate trying the new thing, because it’s not the way it was done. Indulgence in nostalgia is a bit of a sand pit.
Balance is the obvious key. Older and wiser, we can draw on a larger set of warm and influential memories to work with. It doesn’t matter that we feel nostalgic, but it does matter that we incorporate it into today.
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!
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.
Part of my quest to keep good digital hygiene—which is frequently less than successful—is to continually re-examine my habits and compulsions with my devices and the stuff I use them to do. I finished reading an intense, stirring interview with Jaron Lanier about the state of social media (and the internet in general). That’s not unusual, his interviews are usually dense like that, and have been since the 90s. His forthcoming book will argue for ditching social media accounts entirely.
One other thought-provoking interview I came across was from backtracking through previous episodes of Jocelyn Glei’s podcast Hurry Slowly. In episode 15, Oliver Burkeman talks about the difficulty we have of doing anything for its own sake. Not for a goal, not for a higher purpose, not to make us better and faster at doing other things. It’s extremely hard not to ascribe a benefit to it, but sometimes we should get bored just to experience it.
Boredom is now a scarce commodity—at least for most of the digitally-networked. We have endless distractions available, many for free, so why let an unpleasant state like being bored get any foothold in our day? There are some distinct creative benefits to becoming bored. But, as hard as it is to avoid selling this idea using some, I’m advocating for becoming bored despite those benefits.
It’s good for us as people to do a little nothing every so often. If our predominant state is to be on-the-move, working, being productive, getting distracted, filling idle moments catching up on The Latest—then activity has become a monolith. It’s good to have perspective and also to experience different states of mind and being. It’s like an inverse meditation, putting aside every amusing distraction and indulging in stultification.
I prescribe 20 minutes, at first. Do it today or tonight, see how different it feels to have nothing to do. There’s no restriction on what you think about, but I’m trying to get into the same mindset I had as a kid. Kids are often experts at getting bored. They usually have fewer things they’re supposed to do, fewer responsibilities, fewer pressures churning our minds into a constant fret.
Go. You’re 10 years old. Nothing on TV, no friends available to play, internet a distant dream. Twenty minutes. This feels different. Good.
It’s not easy to pull pranks in blog form, not without some long traditions, probably, and claims that one is quitting or some such invariably fall flat. It is good, however, to play games. With oneself, with family, with your friends. The resurgence of tabletop gaming is heartening, because it means we’re perhaps more serious about play, and that’s a good thing. In the U.S., we tend to value work above all else, the career and job milestones are often primary. But life is bigger, and our minds need balance.
It’s the difference between concentration and wandering. You get better at each by doing one, then the other. They feed off each other, these disparate parts of our brains. Not as simple as left vs. right, either, the myth that one type of thinking comes from one half. The brain, like the people who house it, uses balance to do its best work.
Seize the opportunity to be a bit of a fool. We probably need more days to do so.
It’s counterintuitive perhaps, but organizing is potentially both good and bad for creation. It depends how you approach it. A lot of clutter in your workspace is mentally taxing. You have to fight through the visual chaos to find things, you’re distracted by (metaphorically) shiny objects, and you bog down in the face of these things. I know this because I’m the king of clutter.
But organizing can be a distraction in itself. It’s an anal-retentive procrastinator’s dream. You tell yourself you need to get your studio or desk or files in shape so you can work distraction-free. But de-cluttering can take time, if things are a swirling soup of stuff. You can easily spend a day or more moving piles, scheduling things, sifting through neglected mail, reshelving supplies and books.
Most tasks are best handled in chunks. And nothing starts your day in triumph like getting a couple of creative things happening before you do anything else. The two practices can balance each other very well, as long as you keep them to discrete slices of time, say, 30 minutes to an hour. A little right brain, a little left. It’s not intensity that gets you a hundred pages written or a big canvas filled, it’s the day-to-day, bit-by-bit daily habit over time.
More on the Yoda metaphor front: reality isn’t always what it seems. We see mostly the surface of everything, membranes of stuff our senses feed on. So it follows that we shouldn’t make too many assumptions about what’s beneath.
The opposite is true of our creative work. We make everything from the inside out, that is, starting with the idea and moving outward until the surface is whole and complete.
So, on the one hand, you need the structure of a piece to be solid, strong, interlocking, hidden. On the other, the skin is where life is most present: moving, shifting, full of color and texture.
You need balance, as in most of existence. Can’t focus only on one side of reality.