New Year, Same You, but Remember the Power You Have to Remake Yourself in Every Moment

Say goodbye to 2018, and hello to a shiny new 2019. But in the end, it’s just another day in winter (or summer, if you’re south of the equator).

Every day is a new chance to create. Piggyback on the enthusiasm of the world’s love of arbitrary starting and end points. That can get you going on a daily habit or further toward a creative goal. But keep in mind that it doesn’t matter if you fail. Stumbles are part of life.

You always have a new year to start, every day, what matters is that you do start. And also celebrate. Putting new things into the world is a worthy goal and a benefit to you and to us.

The Habit of a Daily Thing, and How to Overcome Your Own Resistance

I’ve been working my way through Jerry Saltz’s “How to Be an Artist.” It’s full of good things to carry away, in typically acerbic Saltz-style. There’s plenty to think about—and things to do!—within his 33 rules.

One of his early rules is just to work. You have to work to be an artist. You don’t have to be great, or even very good. But if you aren’t creating. . . something, you’re not what you say you want to be. The habit is one way to keep creating, to make it just part of your routines, the stuff you just have to do every day.

And here’s to overcoming fear to become what you want to be. It’s intimidating, starting out. Its also worth the cost in time and energy.

The Recursion of Second Guessing When You Hesitate

Not all instances—and certainly not in art—lend themselves to quick decisions, but most often, forging ahead with decisions and paths is the best.

Hesitation and too much thinking about choices and potential outcomes can easily spiral inward in a disappointing and never-ending lack of finishing. Gut feeling doesn’t always work, but it does get you started.

Switching Tasks

Lots of advice on learning a new language (programming and foreign) or medium or instrument says you should just pick one and stick with it, not give it up and move to something else after the initial bout of getting the basics down. I’m not a big fan of this.

Life is short enough, and there are worse things than trying out several possibilities in a row. Sometimes you have to give something a shot to know it isn’t for you.

Or even that it’s not for you right this minute. In order to give learning something as complicated and slowly-progressing as language or the piano, you’ve got to have a connection to it. There needs to be a spark between it and you in order to make the tough middle part of the journey seem worth your time and occasional frustrated energy. Sometimes you don’t find it right away and you have to try a few different things.

After you’ve learned German or C++, you’ll often want to learn something else, and earlier experiences trying a little JavaScript or Spanish or oil paints will clue you as to the thing you want to put your heart and soul into. Or you dive even deeper into your experience.

But you won’t get chastised by me for abandoning things at the beginner stage because it doesn’t feel right, right now.

A Little From Uncle Paul

In my productive activity, every time a type grows beyond the stage of its genesis, and I have about reached the goal, the intensity gets lost very quickly, and I have to look for new ways. It is precisely the way which is productive—this is the essential thing; becoming is more important than being.

— Paul Klee, Diaries, 1914

Get Small

Problem: You have no freaking idea what to write, to play, to paint. The canvas or page is an ocean of white nothingness, and it’s frightening, frankly.

So it’s time to change scale. Whatever surface—or time period, to relate it to music—you’ve got, put it aside and get something much smaller. An index card, Post-It Note, a single mono track. Use one tool, one color, one instrument. You can fill that space a lot easier than a big one, and break the starting barrier, the hardest part of creating.

Once you feel yourself starting to drop into the flow/zone/zen, you can generate an idea or three and move back to a larger space when you’re finished. Or before, if the spark is there.

Late Starters

Alpha-Chartreusei (Detail) by Marka Harwell-Bentley

Thinking about starting something over, or starting some big new thing, after 50—which, full disclosure, I am post-half-century—is sometimes scary. I try to remember my mom, who started being a fiber artist considerably later than that. Maybe even a decade later, around 60. She was probably scared, too, at some point. But she was also excited and fulfilled by it.

She didn’t stop working a day job for several years, and kept up her work with humbling tenacity. She worked on it every day, at least a little, sometimes many hours. I wish her work ethic had been one of the many amazing things I was just lucky to inherit or that lodged themselves into my brain by osmosis or repetition.

Lessons learned at the closest point:

  • Don’t worry how old you are, you’re the youngest you’ll ever be right now.
  • Working as a daily habit is better and inexorably builds on itself.
  • If you despair at your progress, remember the joy of working with your tools and materials. And a corollary, if you can’t be joyful, maybe you need to switch mediums?

Mistake Faster

There’s a longtime meme circulating in the business world, to the effect that one should fail fast, because we grow and learn more from failure than from success. At least, from early failure, or in many cases, testing raw ideas and methods. In creative  circles, this has been labeled “fail faster.” It means we shouldn’t try to make things perfect up front, we should try out ideas and concepts to see what will best fit. The quicker we weed through our early failures, the more likely it is we’ll find the best elements of the thing we’re working on and succeed with the final version.

If the idea seems at first counterintuitive, there’s some other research suggesting why. Researchers published a paper last December that links social anxiety with a preoccupation of making mistakes. If further research holds this up, we have insight into the fear. Some of us don’t want to interact with each other because we’re afraid we’ll do or say the wrong thing.

But in art, there isn’t much that’s “the wrong thing.” You need to be better at trying new things, different things, crazy things than you were the day before. It’s openness to experimentation that knocks work into a new realm, a higher level. Make mistakes. Make them faster.

And if you fail, so what? That thing needed failing. It means you’ve got a clearer path to the work that will, well, work.