It’s always hard to work my routines into such a big anxiety- and stress-inducing event as moving house, but I’ll still be giving it a shot. There’s value and relief in hanging onto whatever steadiness can be had on a metaphorically stormy sea.
One of the reasons for keeping a sketchbook on you at all times (or whatever notebook you’re drawn to—ha! Drawn!—for your medium and your thing) is to be ready to work on creation or making when its time. Not just when inspiration strikes, but to order.
It’s well demonstrated that creativity can be made to order by habitual attempts. Even when your best equipment is all boxed up, a moment to get out of the world and into your vision is good for you.
Because they’re not red hot, gettit? Cheese aside, there’s an advantage to working on several things in parallel. I’m not against extreme focus, but if you’re the type to be scattered, scheduling creative stuff in blocks—or just picking up where you left off when you notice the thing—there are a couple advantages to it and you don’t have to apologize or despair for this habit.
People asking what your thing is might want a pat answer. Sometimes, there isn’t one: you do a lot because you’re interested in a lot. You’re a Carl Sagan of art. Sagan was an astronomer. But he also wrote books. He hosted and co-wrote a popular tv series. That series spanned geology, physics, and chemistry, among many other things, as well as astronomy.
Having many creative loves, or many ideas that demand you work on them now, is perfectly fine. Maybe you could finish a thing sooner if you focus on that one thing. But would you have as much fun?
For weird, synchronistic and untraceable reasons, I got Flesh for Fantasy, above, there, stuck in my mental earholes earlier in the day. When it was released, I was in high school, and had eclectic taste even then. But though I respected Idol’s presence and abilities as a songwriter and singer, it didn’t seem particularly special.
Now, through a lens of 35 more years of listening to music, it’s scintillating. There are beautiful tones and colors on guitar and guitar synthesizer both. The song is very dynamic, rolling from the sneering shouts of the chorus, to the soft whispers of verses. It’s not characteristic of much music then or now, when so much production isn’t allowed to breathe and rest, it’s balls-to-the-wall sound and—if you’re lucky—silence.
An advantage of age often mentioned but not appreciated, maybe, is wisdom. Along with that is a sense of perspective. Things look different through a lens of decades. Art of all kinds can be reassessed like this. Sometimes things you thought were great turn out to be paper thin. And—if you’re lucky—some things turn out to have great depth.
By the above, I mean profit creatively, not financially. One reason to keep old work around is that it not only gives you benchmarks for where you’ve been, it also informs your present work. Sometimes it’s inspiration, a kind of creation recycling that sparks new ideas from old. Some of the time, it steers you away from habitual mistakes. These things are worth experiencing and knowing.
Sketchbooks are the main thing artists keep. But as much as you have room for isn’t a bad thing to hang onto. Dominic Cretara, my main life painting professor, used to say we shouldn’t throw out anything for at least three years. By that time, you’ve progressed—if you’ve kept working, of course—and gained perspective and new skill.
Don’t look too soon at the bottom of the pile, but do look.
For a huge portion of those online—and in my experience, many outside of it—the notion of getting together to do something is often usurped by claims of being too busy. And far be it from me to call out anyone using that as an excuse for not exposing one’s social anxiety to crowds. That’s valid, and I do that.
Having kids used to be a reason people gave for not being able to do things beyond basic work and home activities. But fewer people (at least in the West) are having kids, and even endless new tools of tech simplifying creativity seemingly aren’t enough. Many of us are feeling overwhelmed. A never-ending string of stuff we gotta do is hovering over us at all times, demanding we pay attention.
Have we agreed to do too much? Or are we just indulging the feeling? The world expects more from artists, from a robust social media presence to constantly evolving work. Or at least constant churning.
I’m trying to give myself permission to step aside, now and then. To let the stream scroll on when I’m searching for something new to say. It’s all right to be quiet and watch, the world will always be moving.
If it’s never too late to start, it’s never too late to restart.
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.
There’s one thing especially aesthetically appealing about the rooftop superheroes—Batman, Spider-Man, Daredevil, The Tick—to me: it’s a different perspective to see the world from.
This is valuable for your work, especially because it’s so easy to get stuck in routines and forget to keep trying to find new ways to look. It’s easy when you’re a kid: it’s all new and different. Once you’ve seen a bunch of the world, your internal imagery is mostly settled.
Getting on the rooftops, though, is weird and scary and strange, looking every direction. The sky seems close, the ground is all strange angles and squashed perspective, the other buildings are flattened. It’s new imagery, and that means a chance to see things in a while new way for a while. Maybe the rooftop superheroes aren’t just trying to look for criminals. Maybe they’re onto something.
When I was a kid [tangent: I rather liked being called a kid when I was young. Han Solo called Luke “kid” most of the time, and I loved it. I devoured Robert Asprin’s Myth Adventures series and longed for a scaly green demon mentor to call me that. We need some kind of old person endearment to match. “Elder” is just gross], I had a few blocks and other building toys, but the prize was always Lego and its knockoffs. Infinite possibility of form was its promise, and like fumbling apprentices, my brother, cousins, and I got pretty good at making the things we tried to make.
Small, simple pieces iterated over made up a big, more-or-less recognizable thing. Sometimes they were just evocative and expressive sculptures. It was art, of course. Art is created from repeated iterations of little things.
The marks of pencil and charcoal, the strokes of paint, the bits of pixels. Alone, they mean nothing. But what keeps us practicing and returning to make stuff again is that magic of transforming it all. I think we lose sight of that easily, in harsh criticism of the thing that’s made, how imperfect and unlike our vision it often turns out to be. But the magic part is borne out of the small things, and in the moment its there to be felt and reveled in, if we let it be.
You know the paper mazes on every child activity placemat and cereal box? And also the ones in big books of them made of tiny lines barely big enough to fit a pencil point?
The little ones are easy, you can usually see the way to the end by sight, without ever putting pen to paper. They practically solve themselves. The big ones seem like they’ll take a week, testing out pathways, backtracking, trying a new opening.
The metaphor speaks for itself. The only thing is that you don’t necessarily know which kind you’re working through when you start. You just have to trust that there really is an end, somewhere, and start working it.
What do we do with all these things we’re noticing? If we start paying attention to both sides of things, we’re seeing details we overlook. We’re noticing how they fit into a larger context: the big picture. What’s after getting these new thoughts and images?
The things we take for granted, things we think are routine and familiar are full of life and fractalised components of being. But you don’t have to consciously apply the stuff you perceive to any creative thing you’re working on.
This act of trying to see deeply applies itself.
I would argue—and I do argue—that there’s a magic connection to your work, if you’re doing both things together. “Magic” not in a mystical sense, but in an ineffable I-don’t-know-how-this-works-but-it-happens sense. Making and creating is enhanced and enriched by your changing the way you move through familiar environments. And the fact that you’re working on art of some kind enlivens your mundane perceptions.
You don’t have to try. We can overthink the work very easily. I think a better way to improve and hone the thing you do is to carry the feelings and careful way of seeing (or listening) outside the place you make that thing.
Consider not boxing in your work. See if you can open the sense of flow throughout the rest of your day.
About the Author
Marcus is a maker of things and thoughts. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.