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 you’re dead beat, there’s zero motivation to work on a project. It happens a lot after the day job for me. There’s not a lot you can do, but even a little effort can get you to the metaphorical—or actual—drawing board.
And that’s what you want. A page a day gets you a novel in a year. A line a day gets you several paintings, or a series, or a lot further along than you would be waiting for fresh energy, a full work day, or the lightning strike of inspiration.
A piece of something every day is you putting up a lightning rod.
That and staying mostly off social media. The never-ending feed of friends, family, enemies, and annoying friends-of-enemies can throw you off balance and out of whack, emotionally and mentally.
But you always have your thing, remember. You can always return to your center, your place of zen. The creative well is always available, whether we think it’s bringing up anything good or not. We’re not always the best judge of what’s good in the moment. If you keep at it, there will be good stuff you can build on and savor.
I’ve found it a bit pat when people say things like, “get to work!” But it’s just the simplest way to say all the foregoing. Keep a creative habit, do your thing, and the work will be good enough, often enough, to keep moving forward and—in the most renewable ways—detoxify you.
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.
One of the advantages of the new year being in the winter is that is encouraged slowing down. The wild outdoors, so alive and encouraging in summer, is more asleep than any other time, especially the further toward the poles you go.
It’s good for you, the artist—the maker and creator—to slow down with it. Got some resolutions to uphold? They’re probably internal to your own psyche or stuff you’ll do inside, mostly. So let winter slow down your approach and process. Roll with the season and see how much easier it is to be deliberate and steady. You’re making progress and it’s fun, eh?
When it warms up and things around you come alive, it’ll be time to make a big, arcing dive into stuff. But for now, relish the world’s encouragement to stay inside and slowly build up a habitual head of steam.
For the past couple days, all I can hear in my internal soundtrack is Kacey Musgraves’s “Slow Burn,” from Golden Hour.
It’s a terrific album, on many Best of 2018 lists, and for good reason. There isn’t a bad song on it. But this one in particular feels very close to me. Late bloomers and older artists can tend to get caught up in negative spirals of feeling like we aren’t getting anywhere, that our time has passed. But it’s always possible your time hasn’t yet come, at least where recognition or attention of some kind that will expose you to a new audience or group.
It’s a precious message: it’s okay to do you own thing and let whatever’s going to happen, well, happen in its own time.
The thing to concern yourself with in the moment is that you’re doing your best work and it’s filling some need within you. You need to be okay with slowly burning while you wait for the fire to spread.
Think of it like a generic writing practice: we’re told that we just need to keep writing. If that means writing the word “solo” over and over, so be it.
But that doesn’t last long. Thoughts come. Ideas meander. You feel like writing them down. It’s the same in other media. You can only doodle or play a C7 so many times before you’ll think how to change it. And that’s moving forward.
Getting sick is a strange sensation when it creeps up on you. I tend to run worst-case scenarios in my head, but almost always it’s not as bad as I think it might be.
Probably a lesson there for our creative lives, too. However bad we think our work is, there’s good in it, there’s effort and expression. That’s enough for a small piece of what you’re working to make and to be.
About the Author
Marcus is a maker of things and thoughts. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.