Desire is the tool most of us use to motivate ourselves into creating, whether it’s an experience or a thing, your thing. We want something and that moves us to try to get it. But desire can be deceptive and distracting.
That’s because desire isn’t real. I mean, yes, it’s real for us inside our heads and hearts. But it isn’t reality, the stuff outside our private thoughts and feelings. Sometimes we’re lucky and what we desire syncs with what we feel. And often it doesn’t, or doesn’t quite.
Here’s when two vaguely Buddhist ideals come in handy. First, ignoring or casting off desires as unimportant can help get over things like wistfulness and hesitation. Those are roadblocks to creation. Fantasy is always easier than boring, cold reality, after all. But nothing happens if we spend too much time in dreams—cue that Dumbledore quotation that was such a key moment for me.
Second, the crazy simple Zen notion that plain, ordinary work—not noble aims, not high ideals, and not really backbreaking work, just work—gets us a little closer to the end of whatever we need to work on. And that’s the habit, see? The daily thing, a chunk chipped off of the big block. It’s enough.
Doing Is Being, and Other Vague Aphorisms Used in Place of Ordinary Explanations
There’s another approach to a daily work habit, and I thought of Yoda again—as any decent Gen X geek does—but specifically of putting a twist on a popular worn-out phrase:
Do, or do not. There is no try.
Which is kind of bullshit. Of course you have to try. Doing is a process and an observation, post-completion of a task. Once you finish a thing, you can say, “I’ve done that.” It’s logically impossible before you start. All too often, that phrase above is implemented as a substitute for any number of lazy coaching slogans, Vince Lombardi style: “everybody’s got to give 110%!” These logical impossibilities are supposed to manufacture confidence and assuage doubt. Yoda was doing this to Luke, who was too headstrong and impetuous to hear something more subtle.
But I think confidence is overrated, up front. Tricking yourself into it might be okay sometimes, say, when you’re going into a firefight (or even an actual fire). But for making art, it’ll come later. At first, all you need is to trust your own discipline. If you can get yourself to start, and then do that again tomorrow, and then again and again, day-after-day, you’re doing it. And doing is being: you’re the title you seek, artist/musician/writer/actor/dancer. Doubt is irrelevant, which is good, because there’s usually going to be a lot of it while you get started. This is normal. The work is what’s important, getting it going is the main goal. Then finishing. You should finish things.
So, the twist? I think I’d rather say, stepping in for a much wiser and shorter and older person, “there is only try. And the same again tomorrow.”
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.
It was asking for it. I think my point was going to be that the thing(s) right in front of you are fine subjects to draw. It’s not enough to learn it once, you have to keep at it. As in, daily or near-daily practice.
It’s not much like riding a bike, honestly. It’s like going to the gym. And, unfortunately for my ego, I think my drawing muscles are pretty atrophied. Back to the gym.
The Power of Words in One Enduring Ad Campaign That’s Applicable to Your Work
Nike’s “JUST DO IT.” branding (written about before, here) was powerful at its inception and it’s still powerful today. At least, it is for me when I’m feeling lazy about working.
In addition to the daily habit principle, it’s really good at cutting through elaborate excuses I have about why I can’t work on anything. Basically, simply, the phrase allows your determination to overcome your fear, if you hit yourself in the ego with it.
Sometimes it seems trite. It still can help get at least a little work done, and that’s what matters, day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month. Whether it’s the same project or several, well, you know.
Finding Some Minutes in Any Given Day You Have to Work Is Hard
I feel your pain, if you have to run a job and work on art during your free time. Jobs are exhausting, and the last thing you want to do, oftentimes, when you get home is more work, even if it’s fun and compelling, and, let’s face it, what you said you wanted to do.
This is where doing your thing as a daily habit works the best. I can only offer encouragement in a couple small ways. Here’s a list, because, as anyone who’s followed this blog for a while knows, I love those:
If you just don’t have the time to set up for your main project (maybe you’re working in, say, oil paint), do some work in the same medium. Plan another stage on paper, do a fast color sketch, write chord changes, do a test video with the script you’ve written. Little bits add up to big bits, and that includes the project minutiae.
Be easy on yourself. Be gentle. Be kind. Be furiously kind, for sure, but do not beat yourself up for not enough done. Some work is still work.
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.
The weird thing about a daily habit, where you add something to whatever you’re in the process of making every day, is that you rarely have to start something, you just need to continue it.
What I find hard, though, is deciding on the next thing to do. There are a thousand possibilities, and one grand thing doesn’t necessarily present itself just because I’m ready for one. It might be a consequence of being generally scattered and disorganized, but it could be just something that naturally falls that way. I don’t have any prescriptions for this, all I can do is trust that the process can carry forward, that the need to do something outweighs the multiplicity of choice.
It’s possible this fear is overthinking how process can take over as a guiding principle. Without a focus on outcome—bearing in mind that finishing things is still important—all we have to deal with is one simple day at a time. Trick yourself, reward yourself, cajole yourself, as long as you get started in any small way, you’re back in it.
You’re still running out of time, but the culprit isn’t your motivation, it’s your schedule—how can you keep working on your thing if your work hours change every week? It happens to your humble chronicler, and has for years.
You’re going to have to schedule your creative time. Not at regular times, but around your job hours.
It’s best if you can get work in—and when I say “work” in this context it’s about the important stuff: art—before you head off to the job. Ideally the first thing you do when you get up in the morning. After the gym or morning exercise, if you do that, might be best, since I find I’m more lucid and motivated to get stuff happening then, rather than before when I’m still a bit groggy. Conversely, if you’re a poet, it might help the imagery to have the cobwebs of some dreaming hanging about. Try both.
An hour is great, two is better, but even 20 minutes a day is a couple hours a week, and it can pile up just like anything else. Get it on your calendar, shove your tantalizing social media and video services to the side for your work time. Tell yourself it’s just for a little while, you’ll get to it in just a bit.
This isn’t easy, but it can help establish a habit, and you can use the nagging itch to work on stuff to your advantage, because everything else in the world is conspiring—unwittingly—to distract, divert, and transfer your attention to literally everything else that seems easier and more fun. The world offers you endless ice cream. But your soul can’t survive on that, and in the long run, you get a lot more life out of the bread you bake yourself from scratch.