My first year in college, I signed up as a creative writing major. I thought that was what I wanted to do more than anything. I’m still not sure that’s not true, but I have vacillated, all my life, between wanting to write, to draw & paint, and to play music (it’s interesting that the act of making images and words have their own singular verbs, “draw/paint” and “write,” likewise “dance,” and “photograph,” but music doesn’t, somehow).
One of the best things I found when I was devouring “how to write” books, soon after I left my university, on academic probation and disillusioned, was Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. In it, Goldberg lays out a daily ritualistic method for getting going, called writing practice. It’s meant to be a time of non-judgment, where the only goal is to keep your hand moving and words flowing. Content is irrelevant. It’s freeing and helpful for the more specific writing you’d otherwise do, and it doesn’t necessarily stay separate from that. I did it for a long time, before I changed creative course.
It’s been very hard to stick to any path for long, though I’ve made a steady go with visual art the longest. But often, I still have trouble starting, and with keeping a sustained habit. I don’t have an easy answer or advice to fix that. I do that often enough, here. The idea that there’s a secret or trick to making art has too much traction, I think. Sometimes you should just ponder and try things out.
Many of us have a tendency to shorten names of things. Nicknames are a staple trope of parody, from Rich, the office nicknamer on Saturday Night Live in the 90s (played by Rob Schneider) to any number of frat boy stereotypes on YouTube—usually prefixing the word, “bro”.
This can be affectionate or belittling. People have various reactions, I think, and I wouldn’t begrudge anyone their feelings when hit by one. What I would hesitate to validate is a tendency to shorten up the work you do. I watched other artists do it in school, and I see some of them doing the same now.
We’re under tremendous pressure as a society—Americans, specifically, but it crosses boundaries—to be continually more productive. We’re encouraged to get more done, quicker, in higher volume. I think we should avoid subjecting our art to that pressure.
Time is precious, but time is something art can luxuriate in. It takes as long as it takes. To be sure, we need to keep up the habit, keep going, strive for flow every day. But rushing is out. Productivity is out. As long as you’re showing up to make the thing, it should take as long as it needs to take, without pushing it into being. Take the weight off yourself, your work will unfold as it’s ready.
Substitute your particular flavor of work. No pressure. Just continuing to make the things.
No post actually got uploaded yesterday due to some network issues on my end at home. It does point out the challenges of a consistent daily posting scheme. I’m a bit at the mercy of the Internet gods.
But what’s important, of course, is creating every day, not what makes it to published stage. Cory Doctorow talks frequently about his discipline of a writing schedule. In retrospect, just as he can’t tell which days he felt like he was writing well and which he felt he was writing poorly, I doubt I or anyone else could tell which posts were dashed off very late or after an outage when looked at without dates. The muse and our deftness comes and goes, so we might as well keep the routine internally.
Now, whether getting a lot of art happening means any of it is stuff you like is another matter, but it does seem to hold true that if you make a lot, you get better and you end up with plenty of good stuff. I do apologize for using such generic language on the site. I’m trying to think of art in multimedia ways—not the 90s sense of web-based video and motion graphics presentations, but the literal multiple media—to include my friends who are musicians and writers, as well as visual artists.
But in reference to the title above, I’ve found starting things is almost always harder than continuing things. It’s much better to have a thing I worked on yesterday and can do a bit more of today than to think about planning, conceptualizing, choosing materials, and facing a blank canvas/screen/page. Like, ugh.
One more trick that has worked in the past, born of being handed projects in art school: starting another iron warming before you have to pull the first one out of the fire may be the low-anxiety method of choice.
Also, following up on yesterday’s post: more people than I’d have thought understand what a minor existential crisis contains. I appreciate those people more than they know.
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.
The more you resist the urge to stop, the easier it is to keep finding your path. And maybe that path wanders a lot, but you will feel at ease on it, more often than not.
Lots of people talk about making art. Most don’t. Most who start making it at some point quit, or just dip into it now and then. If you aren’t one of them, you’re making things to put into the world, beautiful, affecting, amazing things. New things, that haven’t been experienced before. That’s the important part. It isn’t how brilliant everyone else thinks they are. That’s nice if it happens, but if it doesn’t, you’ll still feel a connection to your being in a powerful way.
That and staying mostly off social media. The never-ending feed of friends, family, enemies, and annoying friends-of-enemies can throw you off balance and out of whack, emotionally and mentally.
But you always have your thing, remember. You can always return to your center, your place of zen. The creative well is always available, whether we think it’s bringing up anything good or not. We’re not always the best judge of what’s good in the moment. If you keep at it, there will be good stuff you can build on and savor.
I’ve found it a bit pat when people say things like, “get to work!” But it’s just the simplest way to say all the foregoing. Keep a creative habit, do your thing, and the work will be good enough, often enough, to keep moving forward and—in the most renewable ways—detoxify you.