Just a periodic reminder and pep talk, here, to say you can get started on your thing at any time without judgment or expectation. Your art is your own, and starting work is the hardest bit. Once you’re going, it gets easier.
Give it a solid five minutes, that’s all. Anyone can do five minutes on a project. The trick is that five minutes is hard to cut off. Once you’re even a little into the work, you can often keep at it for an hour.
But any creation is good. The important thing is to start.
In the above photo, my friend, Chris, is playing a little Star Wars Battle Pod. Video games are a prime source these days for feeling accomplished—provided we have some sense of progression in skills and scores.
Making art has it built in. I just finished editing the 100th episode of my show (plug: available on Tunes and at itsjustcalledtwobrothers.com) and it seems impossible we produced even this simple podcast for a hundred straight weeks. But most of the things we make come embedded with some sense of accomplishment. This makes us proud, confident, and capable.
It can also make us anxious, wondering if we can pull off a thing in the future, thinking we’re hacks, and that what we’ve made isn’t as good as the stuff we admire. The only solid advice I’ve taken to heart that seems to work for getting past too much of either good or bad feelings is to eschew both extremes and start working on the next thing.
It’s a Zen or Taoist approach, to be sure. It’s nice to feel the good things. But if we indulge in them, it stops the work or leads us to second guessing ourselves. Humility is helpful. If we care less that the things we made aren’t pleasing everyone, we can keep moving to the next piece. And when we feel proud of the things we’ve made, it’s better if we simply move on sooner rather than later and let that feeling motivate us to make more.
Sometimes is failure. Sometimes is success. Usually more the former than the latter, but such is creation, maybe?
But one success you can count on is doing the work. Skipping out a day here and there is sometimes just life intervening in your best laid plans. But when we get lazy, hoo boy. Guilt and depression are my punishments, whatever my justifications.
But work now is a gift to future me. And motivation to push past anxiety and get something worked on is easier if I can remember how it feels to not do it. We remind ourselves what it felt like the last time we neglected the work.
On especially rough days, we can begin the Rule of 5: tricking monkey mind by promising we’ll just do 5 minutes on a project. The trick is that it’s never just 5 minutes, you feel the familiar pull of creation and the bliss of flow just a short reach away. Bam, you’re making again.
What’s the motivation to continue? Why go to the drawing table—real or metaphorical—and start a new thing or work away on the one already begun?
This isn’t really meant to be a motivational blog. I find those inadequate and not just a little glib, also. Because when I’m looking for things to tell myself when I want to be lazy or even stop entirely, the meme equivalent of “hang in there, baby!” doesn’t cut it.
What I do do is try not to make big decisions in the moment, when I’m supposed to be using my time to make art. I trick myself. The number one motivator when I’m sulky, tired, or frustrated with the work is to tell myself I’ll just give it a few minutes and see.
Any work done is a good thing, but it’s never just a few minutes: if I start at all, I get sucked in and keep going. Tricked brain = lazy artist doing stuff. Give it a shot.
Let there be light
Let there be moon
Let there be stars and let there be you
Let there be monsters, let there be pain
Let us begin to live again
The video is a bit distracting, but I find the words a thrill, even as some make me laugh. This is a valuable, rare quality in art of any kind, and Devin is better than most at pulling it off.
It’s helpful to have a reserve of these kinds of messages, things to tell yourself that help you keep going. Discouragement is often part of making art, like frustration. There’s excitement and satisfaction, too, but those don’t need encouraging memes to return to work. Sometimes all I need is a simple nudge that it’s meaningful to be doing it.
I wonder sometimes what metaphors will fall out of use in the future. Most probably will, many have come and gone in the past. We’re (we in the West) reducing reliance on fossil fuels, and by consequence, the internal combustion engine, in general. Or vice versa, depending on how you view the push-pull of problem and solution. Time to really solve the big issues can seem short, indeed, at least to my sense of existential gloom.
“Gas” as a concept will likely go the way of the mammoth, and what then of phrases like, “man, I’m out of gas,” to mean, “I’ve run out of energy.”
That one struck me as I thought about the notion that we can feel burned out creatively. That we have no fuel, sometimes. Ideas are scarce or seem boring. Motivation to work something out is zilch. Time itself is leaking out at the seams when we need to get something made.
The difference is that we aren’t just machines. Not simple ones that operate on a no-fuel, no-run equation. There’s always something in reserve. If the gauge is truly empty, we cease to be, we are ex-parrots. But no, if you’re conscious, you can do something.
I like to keep reminding myself: something small is still something done, and many small things can add up to a big thing.
It’s easy to think you’ll be overlooked if you’re no longer young, the stars of the art world mostly fawned and obsessed over in their 20s. But cheer up, most of us will be overlooked! But if you’re thinking you might be past it, Sheila Hicks is 84. She’s a fiber artist making some of the best work of her life. Yes, she started younger. As Mayer Hawthorne said: You’ll never be as young as you are today. It really makes no difference. The sooner you start, the sooner we get your work.
Sheila’s is beautiful, gloriously saturated, and it makes me feel like I should let my eyes take a nap from experiencing so much visual joy.
We aren’t making art to be a star. That might be a nice bonus, and have fun if you get that. But it’s in human DNA to make art, and if you’re alive you’ve got some of that. Do it. Sheila will be.
Nostalgia can be good. I’ve written a bit about it before. It can drag you into rabbit holes, too. This is usually one of its aspects we’re warned about.
But it can help your present life. It just matters how much time and effort you put into it. You shouldn’t live in the past. It’s gone.
But neither should you disdain the wonderful things that got you where you are, any more than forgetting the painful things that shaped you. The important thing is that you keep moving forward. We live in the present, always, but it helps to look where we’re about to step, too.
If you want to get better at a thing—your thing, let’s say—you have to get out of any routine where you’re comfortable. It has to hurt a little, be annoying, a bit hard. The muscle metaphor is spread around a lot regarding this principle, by any number of experts in motivation or self-improvement: no pain, no gain.
But I’m not talking about being so sore you can hardly move. I just mean a small amount of discomfort. See, I don’t think you have to push your limits all the time. Steady progress can be had with the smallest nudge against your present abilities.
What matters is that you notice. That you recognize breaking out of easy routine, or you look ahead to where you’d like to be with your thing, your work. It can be discouraging to hurt a lot, even if you know the gains will come faster. I’m for whatever keeps moving you forward, and outside of the gym, it’s perfectly fine to go slow and get better in very small steps.
It’s still getting better.
About the Author
Marcus is a maker of things and thoughts. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.