Desire is the tool most of us use to motivate ourselves into creating, whether it’s an experience or a thing, your thing. We want something and that moves us to try to get it. But desire can be deceptive and distracting.
That’s because desire isn’t real. I mean, yes, it’s real for us inside our heads and hearts. But it isn’t reality, the stuff outside our private thoughts and feelings. Sometimes we’re lucky and what we desire syncs with what we feel. And often it doesn’t, or doesn’t quite.
Here’s when two vaguely Buddhist ideals come in handy. First, ignoring or casting off desires as unimportant can help get over things like wistfulness and hesitation. Those are roadblocks to creation. Fantasy is always easier than boring, cold reality, after all. But nothing happens if we spend too much time in dreams—cue that Dumbledore quotation that was such a key moment for me.
Second, the crazy simple Zen notion that plain, ordinary work—not noble aims, not high ideals, and not really backbreaking work, just work—gets us a little closer to the end of whatever we need to work on. And that’s the habit, see? The daily thing, a chunk chipped off of the big block. It’s enough.
There’s another approach to a daily work habit, and I thought of Yoda again—as any decent Gen X geek does—but specifically of putting a twist on a popular worn-out phrase:
Do, or do not. There is no try.
Which is kind of bullshit. Of course you have to try. Doing is a process and an observation, post-completion of a task. Once you finish a thing, you can say, “I’ve done that.” It’s logically impossible before you start. All too often, that phrase above is implemented as a substitute for any number of lazy coaching slogans, Vince Lombardi style: “everybody’s got to give 110%!” These logical impossibilities are supposed to manufacture confidence and assuage doubt. Yoda was doing this to Luke, who was too headstrong and impetuous to hear something more subtle.
But I think confidence is overrated, up front. Tricking yourself into it might be okay sometimes, say, when you’re going into a firefight (or even an actual fire). But for making art, it’ll come later. At first, all you need is to trust your own discipline. If you can get yourself to start, and then do that again tomorrow, and then again and again, day-after-day, you’re doing it. And doing is being: you’re the title you seek, artist/musician/writer/actor/dancer. Doubt is irrelevant, which is good, because there’s usually going to be a lot of it while you get started. This is normal. The work is what’s important, getting it going is the main goal. Then finishing. You should finish things.
So, the twist? I think I’d rather say, stepping in for a much wiser and shorter and older person, “there is only try. And the same again tomorrow.”
It feels like something needs to change. And that’s after everything changed for me. If there’s one thing moving is good for, it’s taking over every other concern in your life with its alarm bells and insistent stress.
It’s easy to separate professional and personal lives, and day job from artistic practice, but you really only have one life. It flows with time, always moving forward, not giving a damn about our attempts to compartmentalize and section it off. It’s useful to organize time that way, don’t get me wrong. But ultimately it all runs together and is affected by every other part of a life.
So, when you feel restless, that things have stagnated, that wheels are spinning in place, it’s good to remind yourself to slow down and just keep working. There’s just one downside: you can get lazy and stop altogether. Careful of that. It’s easy to put off the stuff you’re supposed to be doing.
It was asking for it. I think my point was going to be that the thing(s) right in front of you are fine subjects to draw. It’s not enough to learn it once, you have to keep at it. As in, daily or near-daily practice.
It’s not much like riding a bike, honestly. It’s like going to the gym. And, unfortunately for my ego, I think my drawing muscles are pretty atrophied. Back to the gym.
Social media is a huge element in the struggle to keep on top of your time. You only have so much in a day, and algorithms are very, very good at sucking it away in chunks. I’m certainly not excluding myself from the phenomenon.
Some things, many that are invigorating and fulfilling, take time to pay off. Regarding the internet, some of those things aren’t even particularly lengthy, at least in terms of a whole day’s worth of minutes.
I listened to a piece from This American Life that illustrates the point. It’s about how Teller—of (in)famous magic duo Penn & Teller—crafted and incorporated a brand new trick into his act from a very old source. I listened from a web page. I couldn’t speed up the sound, I couldn’t scan the transcript. I had to wait 28 minutes for the payoff, a little less than halfway through the segment. It was well worth the time, and I think we can say the same thing about art. Drawing, painting, writing, composing—they all take a lot of time to make, far more than it takes to consume. But when things do take so much longer than a tweet or a quick video to reach their peak, I think it’s insightful. It’s a window to the reasons we make things. It’s a new level of contentment, a moment of pleasure that measures up to happiness.
I mean your creative work, the stuff you’re making and thinking about outside the job that occupies your work day. And I don’t mean to the point of not doing it, no. That’s too slow.
Artwork, art-work, art –> work is different than other tasks. It’s the hole in the paper. It’s flow. It’s a time warp. The world around us is bursting with improvements in media tech and a lot of it messes with our attention spans and focus. It’s how it’s being designed. The cure, or at least palliative, is creation. It forces us to both slow down and to focus.
Art isn’t just a pleasant way to pass the time. It’s a vital human pursuit.
NBC News, of all places, posted this article on books, which is somewhat related to this post. It’s one of those mid-length articles so jammed with links it feels meticulously researched, even if many of the links point right back to NBC itself. I agree with a lot of the points, though, and can’t say it better than this header:
STORIES ABOUT OTHER PEOPLE TEACH US TO BE THE TYPES OF PEOPLE WE WANT TO BE
I feel your pain, if you have to run a job and work on art during your free time. Jobs are exhausting, and the last thing you want to do, oftentimes, when you get home is more work, even if it’s fun and compelling, and, let’s face it, what you said you wanted to do.
This is where doing your thing as a daily habit works the best. I can only offer encouragement in a couple small ways. Here’s a list, because, as anyone who’s followed this blog for a while knows, I love those:
If you just don’t have the time to set up for your main project (maybe you’re working in, say, oil paint), do some work in the same medium. Plan another stage on paper, do a fast color sketch, write chord changes, do a test video with the script you’ve written. Little bits add up to big bits, and that includes the project minutiae.
Be easy on yourself. Be gentle. Be kind. Be furiously kind, for sure, but do not beat yourself up for not enough done. Some work is still work.
We don’t do things in whole pieces, most of the time. Our work, like our lives, is done in bits, chunks, sections. It’s the accumulation of the small things that emerge as a recognizable cohesive one. Any one piece is probably unrecognizable or representative. It’s a stroke at a time, one line and then another.
So art, like life, is meta. In order to make something, you have to think of it as a distinct entity or concept. Maybe not at first, if you’re an artist who likes to create from a spontaneous start. But if you never focus or decide on a unifying whole, you’re left with a pile of pieces. Lego blocks scattered around vs. a castle or spaceship or robot or truck.
All it takes for something to come into focus is dedication to small things every day. Real time work isn’t grand, but it’s the only way for grand to gestate and come into being.
The usual state of things as an artist is to be working on something or somethings. If we’re honest with ourselves, the exciting parts, the beginning of projects and their finish, only exist in a brief window relative to everything else. Most of our time is spent between, when process is all there is. As Austin Kleon makes clear, this is how we should be thinking of our work, in general.
What seems endless, sometimes tedious to us can be fascinating from outside. Weirdly, you can sometimes look at your own stuff that way yourself! It’s a way of being kind to yourself by checking yourself out with new eyes, outsider eyes.
It’s about showing how you do your thing, rather than what you did. And you also might create a new sense of excitement among the people who like what you do. They’re in on the secret part of the path, and you’re the person showing them the way. It’s cool to not hide how you do things. Not to mention, it keeps you honest and looking for new ways, and that’s probably necessary in the age of YouTube tutorials and Instagram galleries.
About the Author
Marcus is a maker of things and thoughts. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.