One of the advantages of the new year being in the winter is that is encouraged slowing down. The wild outdoors, so alive and encouraging in summer, is more asleep than any other time, especially the further toward the poles you go.
It’s good for you, the artist—the maker and creator—to slow down with it. Got some resolutions to uphold? They’re probably internal to your own psyche or stuff you’ll do inside, mostly. So let winter slow down your approach and process. Roll with the season and see how much easier it is to be deliberate and steady. You’re making progress and it’s fun, eh?
When it warms up and things around you come alive, it’ll be time to make a big, arcing dive into stuff. But for now, relish the world’s encouragement to stay inside and slowly build up a habitual head of steam.
Meet the New Resolutions, Same as the Old Resolutions
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.
The Creative Life is Lonely, Sort Of, but Not in Any Serious Way
I’ve had friends and cow-orkers muse to me—in that way that makes it clear they’re probing for confirmation, but don’t want to seem obvious about it—that if you want to be an artist, you must be okay being alone with your work. I mean, yes and no.
There are obvious pursuits like writing, where you can, if you choose, work in a busy coffee shop or the park. There’s music where, except for one-human-band types who do everything themselves and never perform, you tend to work with others in a band or during production.
Visual art is made mostly on your own. But that doesn’t make it a lonely life. The part you’re already striving to get is the state of flow, or zen, or harmony, or whatever label you give to the sensation of losing your self, your awareness of time, and your self-doubt chatter while you do the work.
Without an idea of time, it doesn’t matter so much that you’re alone. Further, here’s a bonus: any creative work you do has access to this feeling. Aloneness without loneliness is your goal, not something to prevent.
Getting Centered Again When You Feel Scattered by Working on Your Thing
If you’re new, your “thing” on this blog is your creative process, your practice. It’s not any one work, rather the way you make art on an—ideally—ongoing basis.
Life tends to scatter and distract us. It’s not anything nefarious, just how humans have evolved. We’re built to favor the shiny things that keep popping up, like a new season of Bojack, or suddenly-released Prince archives.
I start to feel unfocused and anxious after a lot of that, though, and you may, too. What helps is knowing I have this thing to work on, that sustains me just a bit through creation. It’s the best kind of tired, the most satisfying reward, and it helps me feel—for lack of a non-mystical term, centered. Basically, the opposite of scattered. I’m calm and open to experience.
No artificial colors, additives, or flavors needed, it’s just you and the work and feeling a moment of zen.
I know, it sounds convoluted to me, too. What I’m pondering is how the mindset we have when we encounter something, “an art,” affects how we experience it.
From personal anecdata, pushing aside as much as I can any preconceptions about it. I’d like to think we experience an elevated state from accepting and examining a work, in other words giving it a chance to be its best.
This probably deserves fleshing out further, later.
Sometimes You Need to Go Slowly to Connect With Your Work
Social media is a huge element in the struggle to keep on top of your time. You only have so much in a day, and algorithms are very, very good at sucking it away in chunks. I’m certainly not excluding myself from the phenomenon.
Some things, many that are invigorating and fulfilling, take time to pay off. Regarding the internet, some of those things aren’t even particularly lengthy, at least in terms of a whole day’s worth of minutes.
I listened to a piece from This American Life that illustrates the point. It’s about how Teller—of (in)famous magic duo Penn & Teller—crafted and incorporated a brand new trick into his act from a very old source. I listened from a web page. I couldn’t speed up the sound, I couldn’t scan the transcript. I had to wait 28 minutes for the payoff, a little less than halfway through the segment. It was well worth the time, and I think we can say the same thing about art. Drawing, painting, writing, composing—they all take a lot of time to make, far more than it takes to consume. But when things do take so much longer than a tweet or a quick video to reach their peak, I think it’s insightful. It’s a window to the reasons we make things. It’s a new level of contentment, a moment of pleasure that measures up to happiness.
If you’re a working artist, it probably doesn’t happen often to you. Go away and make more stuff, we need that. But if you haven’t established a clientele, or audience, or patronage, there are times when it feels like you’re getting nowhere.
If you feel like your work is the same, it’s time to step back—metaphorically—and realign your hands and mind.
If you feel like things are stagnating, be sure you know what you want first. You can’t head in a direction before you know where you’re going. In small ways, that can be good! It’s exciting to start a work with only a vague idea of where you’ll end up. But I’m talking about a bigger picture (no pun intended).
You have to know what kind of work you’re going to be making. It’s better to have structure for your ideas before you start trying to sell—or give—them to the world. This helps with procrastination, too. It’s really easy to indulge in cat videos and Twitter memes when you’re not sure where you’re going, because the brilliant coders at every social media company can more easily capture your eyes and ears. It’s hard to creatively wander with no goal or structure.
It’s fine to feel this frustration. You’re recognizing you’re not where you want to be, showing self-awareness. Stop flailing, think deeply about what you want to be and do. Once you have a direction you can start a path.
Then you can meander around while you’re headed east or sideways.
We don’t do things in whole pieces, most of the time. Our work, like our lives, is done in bits, chunks, sections. It’s the accumulation of the small things that emerge as a recognizable cohesive one. Any one piece is probably unrecognizable or representative. It’s a stroke at a time, one line and then another.
So art, like life, is meta. In order to make something, you have to think of it as a distinct entity or concept. Maybe not at first, if you’re an artist who likes to create from a spontaneous start. But if you never focus or decide on a unifying whole, you’re left with a pile of pieces. Lego blocks scattered around vs. a castle or spaceship or robot or truck.
All it takes for something to come into focus is dedication to small things every day. Real time work isn’t grand, but it’s the only way for grand to gestate and come into being.