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.
Nothing proceeds in a straight line forever. There will be plenty of times things are going well and fast, and others when they drag into the quicksand of the afternoon. The long, dark tea-time of the soul, as it were.
This is obvious, probably, and I’m sure I’ve written about it before. I will likely write about it again, because it’s good to remind ourselves of the tough realities of creating things along with the pep talks and fun inspiring ones.
This up-ing and down-ing of inspiration, motivation, and energy are part of a natural flow. And if new age mystic wannabes can co-opt science for their own metaphors, we certainly can, too.
The only certainty is change: what goes well can—and will—go poorly. For a while. But I take comfort in knowing that the curve always goes back up, and in the meantime it’s simply getting work done that keeps it moving at all.
In many cases, you love the things you’ve made, at least at the time you’re in the process. These are your children, so how could you not? Not just individual pieces, either, but within any one work there are elements you could consider as separate entities, and you love them. There are just some things, now and then, some children who are brats.
These jerks are full of spirit, but in ways you don’t want. They’re too bold or too sassy or too angry or too difficult in their own way.
But we have to love them anyway, in the ways we would love a kid we’d brought into the world, even though they tire us, and frustrate us. The ideas and concepts we put out there that cause us problems and exhaust our tolerance are our troubled kids. We don’t abandon them—necessarily . . . there are some metaphorical difference, of course—we try to figure out what’s going wrong for them, to help them figure out where and what they need to be. We love them because they’re ours, and they can put the rest of our lives and work into perspective, to torture the metaphor just a bit.
Love those problems just as much and see if you can’t adjust to the things they’re showing you.
Almost 50 years ago, Blood, Sweat & Tears released a song about how culture goes in cycles like a wheel, swinging left to right and back again. It’s natural to feel stuck, sometimes. It’s harder to know at those dark moments that I won’t be there forever. It’s a big picture perspective that serves me well, when I can remember it.
Another idea I’ve tried to keep in mind is that of Taoist or Zen balance, that what may seem good or bad or fortunate or tragic today can easily become the opposite tomorrow. So it isn’t worth the emotional capital it takes to dwell too intensely on any particular event in our lives.
Of course, we’re only human, and not very good at a wide or long perspective on existence. It’s easy to become roiled by life, politics, and customers.
We need these little reminders that life is never on rails, nor traveling in one direction, forever.
As I expected. Mary Poppins. Practically perfect in every way.
Speaking of Mary Poppins, I was thinking about that film, and how much I missed when I first saw it as a kid. Two scenes are the heart of it, and Julie Andrews isn’t in either one. It is, of course, the not-so-perfect people Mary spit-spots among who are the emotional center of the movie.
Once you get past Dick Van Dyke’s awful accent—which may not have been his fault—it’s a series of moments in which a generous, simple, kind man who knows what’s important 1) brings two children to a new understanding of their father, and 2) gently coaxes the opposite for their father who finds he was wrong about what he thought was important.
Never heavy-handed nor confrontational, Van Dyke nonetheless shows the Banks kids the only-too-human side of their father.
Dick Van Dyke eases off the ham for his scene with Mr. Banks, and David Tomlinson, nearly entirely by expression showing a man’s heart rending with the realization, acts the veritable shit out of it:
The slow walk to the bank and his certain doom, followed by a return to goofballery—albeit still really enjoyable—is almost an afterthought for me. The heart of the film is really Mr. Banks beside the fireplace and his slow epiphany over what has real meaning in his life.
So, I woke up to find yesterday’s post didn’t get through the publish cycle, it just stayed in the drafts pile. Things fall apart.
Lessons again, always lessons. It matters that your work gets done, not that it publishes to the world, clocklike, or that you always make the deadline—although plenty of editors will love you for that—and get eyeballs on each daily bit.
Practice, and the habit, isn’t just to get creating. It’s also to act as a bulwark for your soul, so that when it does all go horribly wrong, somehow, it won’t matter in the grand scheme. I mean, you’ll have a grand scheme of some kind to keep it all in perspective. Looking back, you can see that a little gap in the pieces you’ve laid out doesn’t change the overall path.
The news will always fly fast and ever more furiously. The world isn’t slowing down.
We have to do it ourselves.
I’m not against being well-informed, nor against taking action when your politics and principles demand it. But something I’ve tried to be—buzzword alert—mindful of the past few months is of what’s important to my life. The most important need to take precedence over the most urgent or loudly attention-seeking. Because the most important things endure and matter in the long run.
Here’s where I could get deeper into a discussion of chronic vs. acute pain and how it parallels similar ideas in creative work. But I’ll have to save that for the future. For now, I’m saying we needn’t ignore things like campaign work or #resistance or news. But being mindful of what’s most important to you as an artist means that you don’t push aside your work for anything but emergencies, because the work is your long term creative health in action, made manifest.
Write a note to yourself if you need to be reminded, amidst the chaos of sensationalism and outrage, to keep the habit going, to do your daily work. Stick it where you’ll see it and slow down when you’re feeling rushed or overwhelmed.
Creative work as regular practice takes on a sort of agricultural ethos. Instead of “making a thing,” you start to think of an ongoing group of things you’re growing over time.
It doesn’t look like much at first, but at some point you see things are as big as you are. Then they get bigger, as you add to them. A bit like Lego or Minecraft, piling element on top of element until something takes shape.
It’s easy to get caught in the thought that we aren’t really doing art, but it all grows if we keep steadily feeding—and watering—the ground.