There are two pieces of media I think about when I ponder city life. there’s Rush’s “The Camera Eye,” where Neil Peart writes about how there’s
… a quality of light unique to every city’s streets
and this is strangely true, and clearer the more I’ve traveled. Each city has a familiar rhythm and skeleton, but the light and the way it falls on everything is its own.
The other is Sesame Street. No place I’ve ever lived has generated as many parallel thoughts and connections to it as Portland, but there have always been some connections in every city I’ve called home.
The connections circle back to art and creation. We find inspiration in the work of others now more than ever, because of social media and the Internet itself. But there’s endless possibility right there on my street, in the ordinary stuff I encounter every day. The people, animals, vehicles, trees, buildings, sky, shadows. It’s easy to get overly familiar. But around the corner is some Snuffleupagus or Oscar the Grouch, a big, chunky letter A, that I haven’t really looked at before to see what makes it worthy of attention.
It’s a bit like those mysterious lit windows across the street. I can’t help looking. They’re beckoning, portentous, strange, compelling. I want to know what’s in there, who’s in there, what are they making?
The never ending feed of information is available to look at like that all the time. It’s not easy to stop once I start. But if I can turn my back on it, just long enough to start a drawing or a painting, maybe, I can give myself over to the much more satisfying process of creation.
There’s always going to be more tweets and upvoted posts. The trick is distracting from the distraction.
Because they’re not red hot, gettit? Cheese aside, there’s an advantage to working on several things in parallel. I’m not against extreme focus, but if you’re the type to be scattered, scheduling creative stuff in blocks—or just picking up where you left off when you notice the thing—there are a couple advantages to it and you don’t have to apologize or despair for this habit.
People asking what your thing is might want a pat answer. Sometimes, there isn’t one: you do a lot because you’re interested in a lot. You’re a Carl Sagan of art. Sagan was an astronomer. But he also wrote books. He hosted and co-wrote a popular tv series. That series spanned geology, physics, and chemistry, among many other things, as well as astronomy.
Having many creative loves, or many ideas that demand you work on them now, is perfectly fine. Maybe you could finish a thing sooner if you focus on that one thing. But would you have as much fun?
You’re making art. You get sucked in. You forget the universe outside the one you’re making.
It happens, and you don’t have to feel bad about it. Sometimes if you’ve fallen into the work, and there is no time—for a blissful, weird micro-infinite period—its the best moment you could hope for, and a good reason to keep trying to regain a foothold in that pocket universe of your own creation.
There’s always a shift when I start searching for something new to make, but most of the time, it comes back to observational drawing & painting. It’s a comfortable place to get some interpretive ideas happening and also keep skills in a semblance of shape.
It’s one of our oldest art traditions, and therefore a bit primal. Drawing or painting the things you see links a kinship to those earliest artists drawing bison and horses in the dark.
There’s a focus and feeling of connection that nothing else can boast. Even though first sketches are often crude, pieces of them have power.
It’s a simple equation, but not necessarily an easy one. You do your best work in any given situation—except when you exceed your expectations, or utterly fail to meet them.
What matters is that you dig dee enough to lose yourself in the creating. Flow will take care of both uncertainty and evaluating the past work. If you try to make something “great,” or similar superlatives, it’s a distraction. What you’re aiming for is to melt away judgment and doubt. That happens when you have a habit of falling into a piece and finding its soul, for lack of a more real term.
This takes time and practice. But it’s a common and easily understood phenomenon for creators of all types. You know when you’ve reached the point when you’re on the other side of it.
Sometimes it’s obvious. If you’ve spent some time building ideas and skills, you understand how deeply enjoyable and satisfying it is to exercise your creative muscles. But the barrier between that and getting started on any project or practice is often high and wide. We aren’t helping shrink it by making and consuming ever more targeted ways of distraction and passive entertainment.
Those things are plenty satisfying and enjoyable too. If they weren’t, we wouldn’t be so attracted to them. But they’re a different level of satisfaction and reward. They’re rarely deep, and sometimes frustratingly addictive. Creation, making, crafting are fulfilling and supportive in essential ways, but it can be hard to see that from the other side of the work.
It can help to keep that in mind before we start any specific activity that is inherently distracting. What seems hard in the beginning melts into satisfaction and flow as we do it. The things that are easy indulgences up front quickly become draining and even regrettable, sometimes. Try to remember that just starting a project or your daily practice is often enough to get over the hump, up the metaphorical stairs to a fulfilling place beyond. That’s worth upholding as a critical moment in your day.
I talked about it on the most recent podcast, but a new study published by Lancaster University seems to show a significant detrimental effect on creativity while listening to music (here’s the link).
This is hard to take, especially since I use music to feel as if I’m focusing on the task, whether painting or writing. I’ll have to make an effort to keep the silence going—provided I don’t need to drown out something more distracting around me.
But in a Pollyannic sense, this is good if it gets me treating music more significantly as a medium, rather than something I use as backdrop for other things. It’s not that music can’t enhance an experience, but creation seems to be a different territory, and better left to explore without soundtrack.
There’s a tendency for the organized—even slightly organized—to spend lots of time designing the plan for a project or schedule. It can be really satisfying to see a detailed layout of your time, and how it’s supposed to get used.
But life is tricksy, and tends to defy our expectations and demands. The detailed scheme is like an oil painting you spent weeks on, perfecting the details and carefully mixing colors and layering. It’s sometimes fulfilling and valuable to make something with the full force of your skill and intention. But the plan isn’t that time.
The plan benefits from a little flexibility, like a charcoal sketch you can erase and blend as you go. Unless you’ve got a trust fund and a studio and all the time in the world to yourself, life inevitably throws curve balls and monkey wrenches into the works with regularity.
Adaptability and an openness to small changes in the plan means you can keep the main effort for your work, and your time spent where it’ll be most satisfying.
There are things that matter to our emotional selves as relics of our own past. They are reminders of who we were and how far we’ve come, and sometimes of how others saw us.
There’s a lot of memento clutter, though, with things being saved as treasures that are really just footprints—they don’t have much intrinsic meaning and they’re everywhere.
Consider there are a few things worth holding on to, and see if you can let the footprints go: old text messages, emails, social media posts. You have memories of vital things, and probably some things to uphold the best moments of your life. Keeping most stuff as memories let’s you focus and care for the best.
About the Author
Marcus is a maker of things and thoughts. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.