I read articles to procrastinate more than any other activity. It’s cheap, time-consuming, and allows me to justify it—with no actual verity—by telling myself it’s research of some kind. Just today a few things I read were
Whether the game “Chinese whispers,” as “telephone” is known in the U.K., is racist (people were mostly unsure, but it is)
The Wikipedia page for the Tom Servo character on MST3K
…and several other things.
It’s definitely a problem. But possibly a problem I can get a handle on by being more aware of the habit. Chipping away at procrastination is an ongoing practice of reminding my monkey mind trivia can wait for breaks.
It’s not often the artist’s journey™ feels like a short walk to success town. Usually it’s a Frodo-level exhausting slog, that nonetheless comes with many rewarding stops.
But you can’t see a long journey ahead unless you’ve been working on things for a while. And when you feel overwhelmed with how far there is to go, there’s a good bit of stuff you’ve already done. In reality, there isn’t a place to end, there’s always somewhere new to travel to, further along your particular road. In that sense, you’re always at the same place looking forward, but looking at how far you’ve come will build for as long as you make art.
You can’t always tell if the path you’re walking—metaphorically, as usual—is productive or even really going somewhere. But sometimes it’s clearer. Ironically, the paths that get darker are often dead ends, you should be seeing some light approaching.
I’m not against the white light on the road to Damascus, or lightning strikes of epiphany, but they just don’t happen very often and not to very many of us. Most of the time, your creative journey is downright confusing and hard to see. It’s usually hardest to see at the beginning, though. If things are getting murkier, harder to interpret (for you, forget about explaining your work to others for this), or circular, it’s probably time to abandon it.
It seems counter-intuitive, because we’re often told we should stick it out in life. Successful people talk about the hard work that got them where they are, and how only losers quit. But you’ll know most of the time whether the road you’re on is getting you somewhere. You’ll be able to see, feel, and/or hear it. It’s not necessarily that things should be becoming easier. Just about everything worthwhile takes a lot of effort. But there are very few artistic gems that sparkle suddenly from a confusing and muddy place.
Don’t be afraid to start again. That’s your secret weapon as an artist: you can jump off the current path to a new one any time you want. You try things with as little fear as you can muster, but similarly you should feel free to walk a new road when you hit a dead end.
‘Ey, clever, huh? What I mean by the title is that we all have crises of confidence, and they aren’t limited or even able to be headed off. But your value and contribution aren’t limited to what the rest of the world notices. It seems like the human condition to doubt. I’ve written about confidence and your work before, more than once, and I think it’s interesting how this blog is becoming a little less dogmatic over time.
It’s my hope to be wise, but beyond that to be a sympathetic and understanding teacher of—well, something. We tend to listen to the voice of success, that is, the voices of the famous and those who sell a lot of work. But everyone who’s been doing their work for a long time has valuable and insightful things to say about how to do it and why you should.
I think it’s a common human good to make art and put it into the world. I think it expresses and enhances our collective humanity and enriches and informs your own life.
What you’re doing, whatever form of art it is, has value, and I hope you find ways to keep doing it.
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.
That’s an old trope, made prominent by some New Age guru types. “It’s when you feel you aren’t making any progress that you’re growing the most!” It’s a good thing to tell yourself, especially when you’re feeling down about how slowly your work is going, or how terrible it all seems, right now. Conversely, it’s good to stay a bit humble about it when you think it’s brilliant (and I hope you do, sometimes!). An even temperament is the machine that drives a steady flow.
And there’s some truth to the trope, in my experience, but I’d say it’s more true that you don’t know how well your work is progressing in the time you make it. Look back on last year’s work and you can see good stuff and not-so-good.
But we are poor judges of today’s work, yesterday’s work, even last week’s work. It’s not important how you feel about what you just made. Remind yourself that future you gets to evaluate. Present you has one job: keep making it.
When I was little, a sick day meant I stayed in bed and slept as much as possible. It seemed like it was all or nothing, either incapacitated and miserable or some sniffles. I’m still incapacitated now and then, but most days I’m sick I can still work or do things around the apartment. Just more slowly and painfully.
It’s worth working on your thing, whatever it is, and if that involves a studio across town, maybe it’s sketch time or a writing session. Getting something created, something made, feeds into the deep satisfaction and fulfillment we’re cultivating. It’s not medicine, but it will help you feel better.
Rather, I got busy, with a changing schedule that finally caught up with me post-holidays. So I missed a daily post yesterday after a rare night shift. But that’s as may be. Life isn’t a factory where you set up processes and systems and they run on a timetable. Bits of it, maybe, but not everything.
Your art is the same. You’ve got goals, ideals, and maybe you’ve made resolutions to create more stuff in the new year. And—maybe—you’ve stumbled or missed. It’s okay. This is a year to be kinder to yourself about your work.
One of my goals in 2019 is to gently encourage, rather than berate, myself about mistakes and dropping various balls. Positive reinforcement is a hedge against so much toxicity and anger out there beyond your skin. C’mon. It’s time to be your own kindest critic, at least for a while.
We need time to think. Time to ponder and choose directions. It’s easy to put on earbuds and get lost in sound, or binge a few series in our off time from work.
But you’ll benefit for knowing where you want to go next, both in life and your work. And you can’t hear your own thoughts about that if you don’t just sit with them, alone. I used to do this on drives, my commute was 30–45 minutes. Now that it’s 15 minutes at most, often shorter on the bus, I do it while walking. Doesn’t have to be a big thing, but it’s good to have a direction and finalized decision-making.
About the Author
Marcus is a maker of things and thoughts. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.