When you finish a piece, it’ll almost always be a little rough, in need of some polish or alterations. In school, this was taken care of by critiques, and advice from my professors and fellow students alike on how I did and what I might think about to make a piece better. What do we do out here in the real world?
Imagine there’s a person waiting at the end of your process to check out your work. They’re objective as any person can be, but they’re on your side, they want you to be your best. They’re nice, but firm. If there is a real person waiting to experience your work, that’s a win! They’ll be much better than your imagination at seeing things you overlooked. Whether they’re a friend, a colleague, or a professional curator/producer/editor. But it still can work if they’re imaginary.
Because what we’re striving at, if we’re still not hitting a daily habit level of working, a reason to keep working on our stuff. Someone waiting for you to get done might be a little scary, but it’s also a potential motivator to keep going. You might not need anyone. But if you do, and even if they’re imaginary, you can take their role yourself and try to see your work with new eyes. This is best done, I think, by listening to longstanding advice to writers: put the thing away in a drawer for a few weeks so you aren’t so close to it. It’ll be easier to see it from new perspectives once it cools from your red hot fingertips dancing it into existence.
Today’s was the first post in a long time I didn’t feel like writing when it popped up as any kind of obligation or to-do item in my mind. That happens on any long-term project, from time to time, so it’s not surprising. But since my usual bent is to think of some way out of that reluctance, I’m just going to do the opposite and leave it.
It feels a little ugly. There are plenty of moments in your creative life where some spiraling emotion or other takes over for a while. We’re taught to resist them. We’re told to replace them with positive ones. We’re expected to overcome them with nice thoughts about ourselves and the potential of our work. Because . . . why?
I think the thinking goes that since depression is bad, and despair is bad, and disappointment is awful, we should do all we can to crush them like a Marvel™ villain, lest they drag us to our dooms with them.
But they’re just feelings.
That’s weird, I know, and not a little paradoxical. Our feelings are the foundation of why we work hard at a creative life in the first place, and we risk making things without heart or spirit without them.
Giving too much power to their influence over us, on the other hand, especially when so-called negative emotions are looming, is a path to overindulgence and, eventually, empty work or worse: no work.
And feeling sullen or down about your work is fine. Really. So long as you keep doing it and being honest in it. They’re just feelings and it’s only human to feel them all.
Repetition is good. Repetition is bad. Both things are true, depending on specific values of “Repetition”.
- Having to listen to the same playlist of thirty songs because the soundtrack where you work never changes
- Initiating patterns of compulsive, destructive behavior in every relationship
- Racial/sexist/homophobic slurs learned from parents blurted in public
- Obsessively checking your social media feeds for the dopamine loop hit
- Playing a beloved song over and over until you know every line and every note by heart
- Saying a poem to yourself until you can recite it by memory
- Lifting weights in sets so as to increase strength
- Working on a daily creative habit
Might have fudged the last one, there. But it isn’t what you create, it’s how you get it done, and it is a kind of repetition. Mindless, habitual, until you forget about motivation and stamina and working yourself up to forge ahead—you just do the thing.
Putting Johnny Dangerously aside, it’s easy to have opinions. And it’s just as easy to set them aside as a meaningful part of who you are. In the act of creation, it’s a bit like ice fishing—you spend considerable time around the hole in the ice with a line in the water, waiting to catch something.
But your opinion about what you’ll catch, how good it is when it comes up, what the best thing to bring up from the little hole you cut? It’s really irrelevant to what really shows up. You can’t work with how you feel about the hole in the ice, you can only make something of what you catch.
You have to be out there fishing, actively trying to get something, and maybe that means showing up every day and being cold, because you never know what’s going to hit the line. Easy lesson: eventually, if there are fish to be had at all in the lake, one will bite.
Here’s another thing the daily habit will get you: an opportunity to catch the fire when it flickers into being under your nose.
Waiting for inspiration is a recipe to never do any work. You might wait till doomsday, who knows? But keeping a steady creative pace means you’ve got a flow going. There are insights and truths within that flow. The funny thing is, you might let them loose in your work and not see them at first. They’re a spark and fluff of flame at the edge of your vision. Ignore it and you keep rooting out tinder and kindling in another direction on another day.
Finding a fire doesn’t necessarily mean you have a bonfire coming, but it can light the way to one if you’re ready for it.
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.
Fear is almost always going to make a guest appearance now and then in your life. When you make a big change, start a new piece, finish an old piece, or put your work and yourself out into the world, in general.
What matters isn’t tamping down the emotion. It’s primal, and with us since long before we became mammals, even. The feeling comes, and it’s okay to feel it. But do more: embrace it, examine it, see what it does to you physically.
After that, you can more easily push it aside and do the thing you have to do. Denying it or avoiding it only turns it into something monstrous at the edge of your sight. But, it’s just fear, one emotion among many.
Fear can help us get moving or keep working. You can use the energy—the thrill, even—that rises up in it to your advantage and your work’s benefit. You don’t have to shove it aside, you can make it your ally. If it’s going to be there anyway—and it is, you’re only human—better to embrace it fully than try to ignore it. Like pre-performance stage jitters, a little nervous energy imbues your work with oomph.
Trying to run from fear is pointless—it’s attached to us like a kick-me sign taped to our backs. Try to get away from it and it flaps away with every step. Calmly reach around and accept it and you might be able to pull it off.
Really, it’s “what’s important?”
The question is yours to answer, we’ll all have a different list, sometimes several things, sometimes one.
But as social feeds get better at gaming your very human instincts and desires, it’s ever more incumbent to decide how much time is too much to spend with them. To that end, writing down the one or three things you view as “important” could be a useful reminder to spend most of your free time on them, and not digital minutiae.
Title: “What’s Important?”
And then use that to focus your attention and daily habit.
Sometimes you feel destined to win, and pull out all the stops to do so. Including becoming a receiver when your title is quarterback.
And sometimes you do your best and just don’t make the play.
The thing to remember is there’s almost always another game to play. Your work doesn’t end with the winning point, it’s part of the whole of what you do.
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.