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.
Declaring your sovereignty is both a goal and a rite of passage in creative circles. But it’s not necessarily a better way to get your work done and out in the world than working adjunct to a job of any kind.
Institutions and employers offer support you can’t generate on your own. It’s always a good idea to try to discount biases in making any decision to set off on your own. Concepts like “freedom” and “independence” have deep roots in our psyches, especially for Americans. It can block or hinder us to assume being on your own is always better by default.
Assuming such grand and fundamental tropes are not the most important isn’t a bad course of action. We get in our own way far too often to shrug off questioning assumptions.
The spark for these thoughts is this article by Dylan Matt, questioning if the American Revolution was the best path to take, or a mistake that prolonged slavery and genocide.
We’re told—and often, by experts self-styled and acclaimed—that we need to keep doing our work and things will happen. Is that the goal? It seems a prescription, hoping for some tangible, recognizable event that tells us, “hey, you’ve made it, you’re now a success. Boom.” We tend to accept the advice from those who are famous or at the least, making rent from their work. Is it inevitable?
I’m not sure. What if, just suppose with me, here, that you never make a living from your art. Are you still willing to do it? Deciding that the dice won’t roll your way—not just that they might not, but they will not—does it seem worth it?
If not, why continue? Give yourself a few years to get discovered and have an exit plan. Easy peasy, little harm done to your well being and your life. But maybe you can’t handle that notion. Maybe you still need to get the work out.
If that’s the case, you’re in a different category, one where success has a different measure than popularity or wealth. It could well be self-defined, and you might not have the tools to quantify it, yet. That’s fine. I’m pretty sure I don’t have them, myself. I’m making it up as I go, trusting that my need to do the things I’m working on are enough to scratch the itch, to keep riding the wave of desire that an urge to create swells within. There are a couple things to keep in mind, I think.
Don’t discount the few eyeballs on you. They matter. It can seem like social media, particularly, is full of more views and likes than you’re getting. But even if you’ve only got friends’ views and listens to chalk up, they’re probably steady ones. It means someone is paying attention, and if they’re already your friend, they’re more loyal than the average casual viewer. Cultivate those views and appreciate that they keep liking the things you’re making. It’s good and humbling that they make the effort and take the time.
Also, always renew your sense of love for the work you’re making. If you don’t love it, it becomes tedious, like any other job in the world, unspecial. Your work needs to matter to you first. It’s what you alone can bring into the world that no one else can.
All these things mean we can switch from waiting for some outside force or entity to bestow success and meaning upon us to finding success and meaning in the everyday work as it happens. Keep doing the work and maintain the success and meaning. Boom.
I write a lot about our work, and ways to get started on your art things. Those are primary components of our lives as artists. But just as vital is our relation to others. We don’t create for the universe. We create to connect, to describe the human condition, to explore deep mysteries within ourselves, to craft meaning.
We aren’t just islands apart from each other. We share responsibility for what being human means. There is no objective goal or blueprint to follow. We create it every moment, days to weeks to years. Therefore, our generosity of spirit and kindness elevate our own humanity.
The least among us, the children, the marginalized, and the vulnerable are important to who we are. For one thing, all of us have been all of those things at some point in our lives. Some of us quickly move past those states, and some remain.
I hope it will always seem worth it to remember my way isn’t the right way, just mine. I hope I keep wanting to help my fellow humans, to stay open to possibility, to keep reaching out to those who remain open to teaching back. People can disappoint individually. I still believe in us together.
As you focus on process over end result, it’s good to remember to have an end in mind. You need a point on the map to head to, even if you change it midway through.
Lots of projects never gets done because there’s no specific point to shine the red dot of our attention on. Focus is good, and it helps get lots of things done. What’s less discussed is that you can always shift that focus.
Life is crazy sometimes. You never know what random chance will bring. It’s good to be able to seize opportunities when they present themselves. Sometimes that means starting over. But if the thing you’ve been working hard at isn’t coming together, move the dot, refocus, finish the thing now. Naturally, you can’t just do this for every whim. But sometimes you were wrong about what the work meant or what was important about it.
You won’t be able to tell, looking back, the days you were tired and the days you were energized. The days you felt organized and the days you felt scattered. The times you were uninspired, lost, unsure and the times you were abuzz, on-track, confident.
Just something every day, and it comes together in the end. Whatever it becomes, eventually, there’s no point in waiting to get that chunk of it done because the pieces don’t care how you feel in the transitory moment, they care how they fit with each other as a permanent whole.
I’m taking another retail gig. I was out of the last one for a couple months, and despite having an abundance of time to work on creative stuff, I didn’t end up doing much more than I was when I had my previous job. There’s something about the routine and structure of an occupation that supports doing your creative work around it.
Unpacking the word “occupation” a bit, its root is the Latin occupare, or “to seize, capture.” A job captures our attention, time, and energy while we do it. It’s funny left at that: your job seizes your life like an invading army captures a town—which is also why “occupy” can refer to military conquest. But there’s a potentially positive effect.
In her wonderful piece in the New York Times last month, Katy Waldman points out that celebrity artists who earn their living from their creative work are mostly a recent phenomenon. Even the superstars of the Renaissance got by largely on a few wealthy patrons’ commissions, not the free-flowing whims of their solitary musings.
[…] even the celebrity painters of the past half-century had to hustle at one point. As David Salle — who was financially insolvent at the time of his first show, held at the loft of a young dealer named Larry Gagosian in 1979 — admitted in a 2005 lecture, “It was common not to expect to be able to live from your art” in 1970s New York.
She further counters that having a day job can even be a boon to creation. Yes, many artists get jobs in related fields, like music production or session work, museum positions, or editing. However . . .
[…] there is another category of artists-with-jobs: people whose two professions play off each other in unexpected ways. For these creators, a trade isn’t just about paying the bills; it’s something that grounds them in reality. In 2017, a day job might perform the same replenishing ministries as sleep or a long run: relieving creative angst, restoring the artist to her body and to the texture of immediate experience. But this break is also fieldwork. For those who want to mine daily life for their art, a second job becomes an umbilical cord fastened to something vast and breathing. The alternate gig that lifts you out of your process also supplies fodder for when that process resumes. Lost time is regained as range and perspective, the artist acquiring yet one more mode of inhabiting the world.
And although it isn’t good to be too bored, if there’s just enough tedium or routine, your imagination creeps into the open cracks and begins to grow.
One thing about finding the passage back to the place I was before: it’s made me very tired.
Traveling is exhilarating, but it usually shreds your creative schedule. On the other hand, you’re feeding your mind, your heart, your soul with an overabundance of newness or—if you’re lucky—strangeness. The flood of sights sounds smells feelings ideas isn’t just intoxicating, it’s positively hangover-inducing. Once drunk on the new stuff, the return to home feels like the morning after.
It is worth it, though. Changing your point of view by completely changing your location has always been a fantastic source of new material, new blood, almost.
You awaken exhausted but renewed, disoriented but with a pack of vibrant memories. It all needs to be sorted through and labeled, but you can feel it: you’re changed, there’s more of you than there was before.
About the Author
Marcus is a maker of things and thoughts. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.