There’s a component of kids making art that isn’t always connected to adults doing it. We often see art making as work. Children just see it as play. Or, probably more accurately, they don’t think about it as anything, they just feel like creating stuff and do it.
It’s so easy to get in our own way, worrying about our skills or motivation. We fear the reception of the finished thing won’t be good. All that gets in the way. This is another case where focusing on process or praxis can help. You start something because you need to, and damn the finished thing that happens somewhere over there, beyond us, outside where we can see.
Once again, we may have a map: an outline, a sketch, a chord chart. But the path can always deviate, and you may or may not end up where you planned. It doesn’t matter. The hardest part is starting—the premise of Wonder Boys aside—and getting into kid mode might help you do it.
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.
I watched this amazing short bit featuring writer Siri Hustvedt talking about how reading literally possesses you. I can’t disagree, and since I believe books are food for more creativity, it’s worth sharing here, I think.
I hear you. I’ve felt the same. But we all have the same amount of hours, and beating ourselves up over seeing a few of them slip away is just eating up minutes. Once you get the initial anguish expressed, it’s time to shove it aside for a bit so you can get a little something done.
Or, if it’s truly—let’s just hypothetically say—almost midnight and you haven’t finished that blog post, maybe it’s time to shift the goal forward and go to bed so you can get up a tiny bit earlier tomorrow and work it out. This ties the “be kind to yourself” mantra together with the “begin again” trope. I hesitate to say, “start over,” because my larger goal is to think of your work (thanks, Austin) as a process, not any one object or finished thing.
It doesn’t matter that much that you missed a day. Life isn’t doled out in discrete packets, it’s a firehose of experience that’s aimed at your face, and rarely turned down. It’s cool, you’ve got something happening, get excited to pick it back up again when there’s a bit of daylight.
This doesn’t address the creeping small voice telling you to indulge feeling tired and worn out, that it doesn’t really matter, and what’s one more day of missed work on your creative thing—but that’s a different post I should get to at some point.
For now: it’s no big deal, you’re in the middle of the process. Begin again.
Losing it is a big deal for most of us, at least while we’re in the midst of it. Let’s talk a bit about it.
While failure is nothing to be ashamed of—I mean I’m in favor of it—and it’s only human, anyway, losing it is us coming to a compromising emotional state over it. Either we court it directly as an end in itself, because we’re despairing or self-destructive, among other things, or we obsess on it and bring ourselves to despair.
I’m not sure there’s an easy way to cure such a tendency long-term without professional guidance, should you find you’re a habitual self-sabotage, say. But there are two things that can mitigate it. Wait, three things.
Physical exercise: get out, away from your workspace into the outdoors. Walk around. Be brisk, breathe deeply. Stay out for a while.
Keep working. Just do the daily piece of whatever you do, even if it seems futile and terrible. Inevitably, creators who look back at what they’ve done can’t tell when the good days and the bad days are by what the stuff they made is like. Step #1 has an all-purpose steadier: breathe deeply, in. Out.
Be kind to yourself. Remember you have tomorrow and today’s piece is only a small part of the whole. As in #1, breathe.
Looking away to the future isn’t always bad. If we were only ever concerned about the present, we’d never follow a dream of a possible future. Or better, an impossible one.
It’s a matter of balance. One viewpoint throughout your life isn’t enough for making art. It requires changing perspective, shifting ground, opening up to the unknown, the void of ideas.
Be present when it matters. But that can’t be all the time. I’d argue that the act of creating is a prime example of losing oneself and the present. We can’t Be Here Now when we’re deep in the moment of making. It’s only when we look as far as we can that it all falls into place, comes together, melts, thaws, and resolves to a dew.
There is value in slowing down. It’s easy to get caught in the push to get faster, increase productivity, do more with less time. But time hasn’t sped up at all. It still passes at the rate of one second per second.
Slowing down allows time—and the universe around us—to coalesce a bit as we work with it. It becomes more real.
I’m the caretaker of a cat. It feels weird to call him “mine,” or “my pet,” because he generally does what he wants and I generally accommodate that. But sometimes his whims conflict with my own. Like at 5:00 a.m., when he meows loudly in the silence, or walks on my head, and I have no idea what’s happening or what he wants. Or he’ll be about to break something I care about or go somewhere I don’t want him to, such as the keyboard of my laptop or the shelf I’ve balanced a week’s worth of papers on. I tend to get angry, and because I am bigger than he is, and his cat brain can’t comprehend my mouth flapping around, I usually pick him up and drop him on the floor. Occasionally, I have been rather more forceful than was required. This despite the fact that I love him, in all his infuriating fuzzy aloofness. Why do I get so upset with someone I care about?
But lately I’ve been trying something else. I was despairing of social media, and the number of people I scroll past—I know, never read the comments, mea culpa—who say that the opposing political group is beyond reasoning with and they’ll never listen to them, because they’re [belittling epithet]. But humans are still humans. I tend to think most of them want the best for everyone, even if we disagree how best to live. Given that earnestness, it makes as much sense for me to try to see things from their point of view as it does to get angry about their position.
So with the cat, I’ve tried to put myself in his paws and imagine how things look from his point of view. He can’t get his own food, or scoop his own box, and he’s just up because he doesn’t have to deal with jobs and outside obligations. Because cat. It helped, a lot.
Synchronicitously, I clicked through some list of links to find Rebecca Knight’s article “How to Develop Empathy for Someone Who Annoys You” in the Harvard Business Review, of all things. It’s not long on scientific papers, but does have a lot to say about cultivating empathy. We probably could do well with a bit more in the world.
Part of my quest to keep good digital hygiene—which is frequently less than successful—is to continually re-examine my habits and compulsions with my devices and the stuff I use them to do. I finished reading an intense, stirring interview with Jaron Lanier about the state of social media (and the internet in general). That’s not unusual, his interviews are usually dense like that, and have been since the 90s. His forthcoming book will argue for ditching social media accounts entirely.
One other thought-provoking interview I came across was from backtracking through previous episodes of Jocelyn Glei’s podcast Hurry Slowly. In episode 15, Oliver Burkeman talks about the difficulty we have of doing anything for its own sake. Not for a goal, not for a higher purpose, not to make us better and faster at doing other things. It’s extremely hard not to ascribe a benefit to it, but sometimes we should get bored just to experience it.
Boredom is now a scarce commodity—at least for most of the digitally-networked. We have endless distractions available, many for free, so why let an unpleasant state like being bored get any foothold in our day? There are some distinct creative benefits to becoming bored. But, as hard as it is to avoid selling this idea using some, I’m advocating for becoming bored despite those benefits.
It’s good for us as people to do a little nothing every so often. If our predominant state is to be on-the-move, working, being productive, getting distracted, filling idle moments catching up on The Latest—then activity has become a monolith. It’s good to have perspective and also to experience different states of mind and being. It’s like an inverse meditation, putting aside every amusing distraction and indulging in stultification.
I prescribe 20 minutes, at first. Do it today or tonight, see how different it feels to have nothing to do. There’s no restriction on what you think about, but I’m trying to get into the same mindset I had as a kid. Kids are often experts at getting bored. They usually have fewer things they’re supposed to do, fewer responsibilities, fewer pressures churning our minds into a constant fret.
Go. You’re 10 years old. Nothing on TV, no friends available to play, internet a distant dream. Twenty minutes. This feels different. Good.
There are limits that we should place on our own nostalgia. Referencing our past can be a powerful element of our current world view, and therefore, work. But indulge that natural desire too much and we lose the connection to the present that makes looking ahead effective.
And there’s nothing explicitly wrong about making one’s work an examination of nostalgia, but I think it’s limited, a narrower box. You need some spark of the future to kick the work above the memory exercise alone.
Returning to our own past tickles some powerful neurons. But I’ve noticed that I crave reliving the original experience, and that isn’t possible. I’m not the same person I was. I have more experience, more understanding. More life.
We need to move with life, not spend so much time in the past or future. Here is all we have.
About the Author
Marcus is a maker of things and thoughts. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.