I do these periodic posts about the habit—making a daily or near-daily creative practice part of your routine—as much for myself as for you. Because I’m not trying to teach or prescribe formula from on high or by edict, I’m just as crabby and fallible about getting to work as anyone. We all try, we all fail. There are times, and they come more than once, when you feel you don’t have the strength to make stuff.
It’s only in those moments you have to fall back on tricks and training to push through the wall. The daily habit gets you through because you’re used to it, and it’s too uncomfortable to not do a thing.
“Just do it,” Nike’s simple and best slogan, can work for easy dark moods. For worse blocks, there’s the 5 Minute Rule. You tell yourself you’ll just work on art for 5 minutes, and usually it kicks you into gear. It can’t fail, because even if you drop it after 5 minutes, you’ve worked on your thing that day. You win.
Give it a shot, and get used to denying your inner denier.
There are times when I don’t feel like working, and times when I don’t feel like what I make is working. It’s important to remember that you aren’t necessarily the best judge of what’s “good” in your work while you’re making it. Often it takes time to be objective. We can’t often see clearly right away. We can be too attached or too dismissive.
Your scintillating prose, deft brushwork, catchy melody can look amazing or awful in the moment, and the opposite later. Or vice versa: things you thought were coming out so-so can be brilliant on re-examination.
What matters is doing things, creating art, on a regular, or better yet, daily basis. Once you have a pile of things is when you can be judgy. Don’t bother as you make it up.
I don’t think I’ve written about how much I love Budgie, but they formed an essential part of my musical identity as a young person. They were technically still a band when I discovered them, but only the bass player/vocalist remained, and the best stuff—in my opinion, of course—was behind them.
I bought Bandolier, which I consider their finest, on a whim at a Tower Records and it was the best blind music purchase I ever made. The title above comes from the opening track, “Breaking All the House Rules and Learning All the House Rules.” (Later shortened. Budgie were notorious for ridiculously long titles.)
I learned you could be both silly and serious from that band. That you could create with practice and precision but still be a little wild. They brought into sharper focus that the rules were good for structure, but now and then breaking them wasn’t so bad.
I’ve been re-evaluating my habits, including the daily posting here, and why I’m doing it. Considering what I’m working towards and the way I want to get there. This is advice I would give to artists: be disciplined, make your habit a daily practice.
And, also, don’t make me the arbiter of how you create. Break all the house rules now and then.
The phone, the TV, and the news of the world, as Chrissie Hynde said. The outside will always press in on our sacred spaces, taking beloved things away and pushing unwanted things in. What to do about it?
I think one of the best skills to cultivate is simplification. If you know how to draw, you’ll always be able to work on something if you have a pencil and some paper. If you’re a musician, you can sing, or drum with your hands. Dancers already have basically their own bodies to work with.
This isn’t the only way most people will want to make art—though for some, it’s their stock in trade—but I notice it’s easy to become discouraged when I’ve been working with more involved tools, oil paints or digital surfaces, when those aren’t available.
When circumstances take those tools away (you’re on a plane, there’s a power outage), do the simplest version of your practice at your regular or habitual work time. I bet you’ll get some new ideas out of it as well as keeping up the momentum and rhythm of your thing.
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.
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.
About the Author
Marcus is a maker of things and thoughts. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.