Mostly this metaphor is so I can post this photo of a nearby park. The metaphor is the work that seems so confining always has another vista beyond what’s in front of us.
But there’s something else, too. Before I took that photo, a couple and their two dogs were running around on the grass in the fading sunlight. We can’t forget that life goes on around us, and sometimes we need to enjoy the grass, friends, and sunshine before it’s gone. It’s good to keep working, but life feeds the work.
I do these periodic posts about the habit—making a daily or near-daily creative practice part of your routine—as much for myself as for you. Because I’m not trying to teach or prescribe formula from on high or by edict, I’m just as crabby and fallible about getting to work as anyone. We all try, we all fail. There are times, and they come more than once, when you feel you don’t have the strength to make stuff.
It’s only in those moments you have to fall back on tricks and training to push through the wall. The daily habit gets you through because you’re used to it, and it’s too uncomfortable to not do a thing.
“Just do it,” Nike’s simple and best slogan, can work for easy dark moods. For worse blocks, there’s the 5 Minute Rule. You tell yourself you’ll just work on art for 5 minutes, and usually it kicks you into gear. It can’t fail, because even if you drop it after 5 minutes, you’ve worked on your thing that day. You win.
Give it a shot, and get used to denying your inner denier.
Today was full of ups and downs. While any random day could fit that same description, I mean it. Today was exhausting.
The day job was its own rollercoaster. After work, I needed to finish editing the show. Podcasts are fun, but the post-production takes time. In this case, I spent a good while carefully cutting levels where I was careless recording with the A/C blasting. Music and pop culture clips are a big part of the show, and there were quite a few this time.
I finally finished the edit, and then mistakenly closed the wrong window without saving it.
Losing hours of work due to a dumb mistake is disheartening, but the thought of doing it all over again was almost too much. It reminded me of when my cousin would run into something similar, occasionally. His solution was to shut everything down and just go to bed early.
There’s wisdom in that approach. It’s draining and stressful to work through a disaster. Sometimes you have no choice. But when you do, I say go to bed. Things look better in the morning. You’ll be rested. It will probably be easier to start. Maybe, just maybe, you can laugh at it all.
Despondency and resignation are old friends. It feels as if, now and then, I either have a million subjects to discuss or I can’t think of a single meaningful reason to write some things. Or draw them. And so I start to wonder if doing something else is more worthwhile to spend time on.
But the words never really run out. Every day, I find things to talk about with people around me, and something new occurs to me, or is shown to me, or I discover just by looking and listening to the things of the world.
Likewise the images are always potentially there to make, thoughts made into forms I can see. But to get back to this realization from despair—if you like—I have to let go and give up trying. In this way, I somehow gain access to the creative center, a trove filled with all those things I could and sometimes do say or think every day. The ideas don’t have to all be amazing. They just have to be there, and continuing to put them into the world means, eventually, some of them will be amazing.
It started to become clear to me earlier in the week that I was due for a downturn in demeanor, questioning the very idea of being and wallowing just a bit in the absurdity of human endeavor. These things come and they go, but it can be annoying and occasionally incapacitating.
I try to remember Camus and embrace the dumb doom, but there’s a new thing gettign in the way of despair, and that’s this blog. At some point the posting became a habit, and I have to write another thing and usually make a picture to go with it, disconnected though they are. It’s strange, but also nice to have such a thing to fall back on in moments when it seems things aren’t worth doing, or that I don’t have any motivation.
It’s a good time to revisit the value of a daily habit, then. Because as I go to bed, and when I get up the next day, I’ll have done a small act of creation, and absurd as that is in the face of a vast and uncaring and impossibly old universe, it feels good to push the rock up the hill just a little bit.
Sometimes it’s not easy. I feel tired, cranky, wishing I could get back home to keep working on projects, or more likely, reading a ton of articles and playing Minecraft. But these things are indulgent acts of self-comfort which, while soothing, aren’t very fulfilling.
Does that make sense? Acts that punch my dopamine button are addictive, and the feeling is a habit my monkey mind wants to keep getting. They’re easy, like getting drunk But the stuff that uplifts me more deeply, that gives me an abiding sense of satisfaction and accomplishment are hard. At least, they’re hard to start.
Similarly, withdrawing into my thoughts and flying on the autopilot of well-worn routines at work is easy. Engaging and supporting people around me is hard. But the former just leads to despair and ongoing dislike of my job. The latter can sustain me through a difficult shift and beyond.
It’s just like working on your creative thing: distraction is easy and a quick path to fun, but it doesn’t nourish you. It’s often harder to start working on creative work, but it nourishes you deeply.
There’s a very popular trope that gets thrown around all the time—without qualification—that
you, a prospective artist, have 10,000 bad drawings in you, and until you get them out, you won’t be good.
But I’m here to tell you that you can always make a bad drawing. Or song. Or film.
It isn’t that artists are just good one day, after climbing the mountain of practice and forever rolling greatness down its slopes. You get to a place where you’re used to how it feels to be in flow, how your muscles work in concert to get things composed in a pleasing (or at least intentionally specific) way, and you know better when to stop.
But you can always, and will occasionally, make a crummy drawing. That’s perfectly fine, you can always make another. No one has to see the bad one.
This matters to know, because if you make a lame piece of work, and you think you’re past such stumbles, you’ll get discouraged and depressed, and it’ll be harder to make the next thing. Don’t worry about getting past your bad drawings. Just keep making things at all, and they’ll be few.
On its own, change isn’t good or bad. It’s just inevitable. Time does, indeed, march on, and the bell tolls for thee. We don’t have a say in whether there will be change, in the world or in us.
But our choice is how to approach that existential reality. We can despair and give up—or become apathetic—but we can learn to value changes that are coming. There’s something different that’s going to happen. It means there is always something new to work with and incorporate.
We’re getting pretty good at fake-scaring ourselves. Movies and series and books that terrorize us, temporarily.
But being scared of bigger things is kind of helpful. At least, it can be to your practice. Helplessness, stagnation, despair, apathy—I think these are worthy of our fear, if it leads to our doing something against those. Your practice is your expression of your humanity. It brings a part of your essence into being. Into the world comes a new thing, and we need it.
Nothing matters, everything is ultimately meaningless, all art is pointless effort.
So says a really powerful voice in my head that shows up with annoying frequency. I’m not going to tell you how to defeat that voice for good. I do not know.
But there’s a way out of any kind of defeatist spiral, and that is to understand that the opposite reaction is strangely as valid. It’s very human to observe and to create. It makes us who we are, in part. If it doesn’t matter whether or not we make art, we might as well keep making it because it speaks to our existential core.
It might be the case that the universe doesn’t care about our work. To be fair and frank, it almost certainly doesn’t, at all. But even if it doesn’t matter in an ultimate sense, it matters in the moment. It matters to us. And since we’re the ones who like it and are inspired by it, art has an arbitrary present value for both its creators and its experiencers.
About the Author
Marcus is a maker of things and thoughts. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.