I was reading some things about a sort of contemporary prescriptive thinker, who’s become a guru, in a way, for people who want to see the world as needing more structure and rules of tradition. I won’t link there, no. It’s not for me to say it’s objectively wrong, or bad, either. But it’s not the way I think I want to live, nor the way I want to help shape the world—at least my corner of it. I like the descriptive approach to society, and even to life.
I was thinking myself that making art is better served in a similar way by being always open to new or individual methods of discovery and structure. We need to overturn, question, eschew traditional ways of creation. We need, desperately, to avoid perfection.
In order to make something good, something different and true and compelling, I need to give myself the space to mess up. And then I need to mess up.
I have to flub. I need to blow it. I’ve got to fail, to crash and burn, to slip up, to be wrong, to ruin, to miss the mark,
I need to fuck up.
That’s the way you find not only new ways of making stuff, but totally new types of it, things no one has seen before, strange work that builds on the art of the past but at the same time is new.
Our mistakes lead to change and new paths. Not our perfected customs.
Sleep deprivation. Satisfaction. Weariness. Lack of motivation. Minor disorientation. Relief for happy pets. Minor anxiety that one has spent too much money, didn’t read as much as one imagined, complained once too often instead of enjoyed the moment, you know, in-the-moment.
There’s a noticeable lack of disdain for fellow humans, a live-and-let-live undercurrent to encountering others. It’s possible that Oscar Wilde—via the little squib—was right.
So here we are, and there’s a habit to keep on track, and it was pleasant to have the routine both there and back again.
The end of any journey comes with mixed feelings. Ask Joseph Campbell. It also comes with new knowledge. We’ve learned things about our companions we never knew, maybe good things, maybe not, but more. If we’re lucky, we know ourselves better.
Mentally, we’re abuzz with information and ideas and experience to process. Emotionally and physically, we’re drained. This internal tussle can leave us befuddled and even quiet. We reflect. We look at our familiar things with new eyes.
Apply these things to the artist’s journey, making a new piece. I’m kinda too tired to do it.
We do get into grooves. Some might say ruts, if they’re feeling grumpy, or cruel. But while the advantage of a groove is feeling the flow or at least extra productive, the downside is feeling removed or shallow.
What might help is a trick that’s helped me in the past: change the tools you use for your creation. Different implements and even methods of making can kick you out of the same well-worn track.
Switch it up. Play guitar left-handed for a day if you’re a righty. Use a pencil and notepad if you usually write on a laptop. If you paint, do what an insightful professor made me do when he saw I was being way too careful and timid applying paint and brushstrokes: paint an entire portrait using only a 2-inch brush.
New ways of physical making can spark new insights and ideas. Stay out of the ruts.
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.
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.
The same old dull routine. It makes you crave a change, tired of the stuff you’ve made that’s become regular, overly familiar. When habit has become tedious, it might be time to let it go for a day.
Change is good, and taking a break from monotonous behavior of any kind can reinvigorate you, re-energize you. It might be a relief to break out of a rigid structure of rules, even when you’re the one who’s set them.
Let the routine go for once, laze around, do nothing, think about a new direction, explore your surroundings. Everything is fodder for a new making. Indulge.
Just don’t go more than a day. Be back to the habit soon to put the new fire into the old coals.
“We were talking about heroes,” said Lynn. She was still standing in the water, small waves oscillating into her legs, making her sway every few seconds. Hakim didn’t look at her. He stared ahead, at the horizon, an imaginary line where sea met sky. The infinite, transparent above and the deep unknown below.
“I thought this would be the catalyst for me, I thought it’d be where I did my work and played with my friends. It doesn’t feel like a place for me, any more. Maybe it’s too big and I need something small to figure things out from. Maybe I can only figure out those answers away from here.”
She went on. “My favorite ones were all ordinary people who felt something. Maybe they’d always felt it. They didn’t necessarily want to answer the call, they just had to.”
“So, this makes you a hero?” He was smiling just a little as he said it.
She grinned, but then stood up straight in the water. “Yes,” she said. “You’re damn right it does.”
They laughed, and looked at each other, and walked back out of the water.
About the Author
Marcus is a maker of things and thoughts. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.