Just a periodic reminder and pep talk, here, to say you can get started on your thing at any time without judgment or expectation. Your art is your own, and starting work is the hardest bit. Once you’re going, it gets easier.
Give it a solid five minutes, that’s all. Anyone can do five minutes on a project. The trick is that five minutes is hard to cut off. Once you’re even a little into the work, you can often keep at it for an hour.
But any creation is good. The important thing is to start.
There are a many small things that keep me from doing things i want—or in some cases, need—to do. One is looking foolish to others, and I’ve overcome that in large part. Another is worrying I’m not adequate to the task. And that one’s a bit harder to deal with.
Feeling “not good enough,” or imposter syndrome, or any other inferiority fear is common, and for artists it seems to afflict even masters. There’s something to be said for humility. There’s also failing to start or finish projects because of this fear, and that won’t do.
What’s seemed to help me is to not fight the fear when it comes. But also not to immediately distract myself with something else it avoid it. Just exist with it for a bit and tell myself it’s okay to fail. It’s okay to try. What matters is that a thing is brought into the world, not that it’s great. Usually I can start, at that point.
There it is. I was hoping, when I found the booklet with all my classmates’ drawings alongside mine, there’d be something I could point to and say, “see? It was obvious I should be making art from the beginning.
But I look at that mass of scribbled black and have to say I don’t think it’s particularly telling. It’s weird, I suppose there’s that. But here’s something else: it goes to show that very few of us start any creative path with any shred of expertise. We learn, we try, we fail, we slowly slowly slowly improve.
Because I ran out of day getting into this little drawing. The pull of Flow, the siren song of getting lost in creation is the best drug, truly. It’s just tough to get started on the trail after so much self doubt and hesitation.
We all have it, or nearly all. You just need to keep reminding yourself to start, to give the blank page a little chance. Most of the time, you get something you can flow into, for a time.
Indulging your distractions can be a comfort, especially if anxiety or fear is creeping up on you. But since it can easily turn into an additive substitute for doing difficult things, I’m trying to balance my fears and my determination this year.
I’ll allow myself a bit of distraction, but only if I’ve started something: drawing, writing, class work. Usually, if I’ve started, my fear melts and I tend to keep working for a while.
This goes back to the notion that we need to be making amazing things. No. We just need to make things, and some will have the opportunity to become amazing. We need to give ourselves permission to do some bad work, and let time do the rest. Make some terrible drawings, call on that kid energy, when it didn’t matter a damn you didn’t know what you were doing. Make the work, balance the fear, keep moving.
There are plenty of places to go to get advice on overcoming procrastination, and that’s nice to have. We do need to get work finished. But I think we sometimes casually accept a rather oppressive standard for making things, or getting stuff done. That’s the metaphorical idea that if you start riding, and you fall off the horse, you need to get back on ASAP and start riding again.
And so there’s a value in that idea, specifically that it tries to get us not to give up easily, and further that it’s easier to start again or keep going on a thing or a task if you immediately try again. That’s probably true. But maybe unnecessarily demanding. We aren’t given much room for having missed targets, or just plain failing.
I’ll propose a preliminary action: give yourself a minute. It’s really easy to beat yourself up for failing, for missing, for not quite getting to the goal you set. It’s okay that you didn’t. You don’t have to feel bad about it, or try to push aside your emotions. Feel your feelings. Pause for a sec.
I think it makes it a bit easier to do the necessary thing and start again.
There’s always a shift when I start searching for something new to make, but most of the time, it comes back to observational drawing & painting. It’s a comfortable place to get some interpretive ideas happening and also keep skills in a semblance of shape.
It’s one of our oldest art traditions, and therefore a bit primal. Drawing or painting the things you see links a kinship to those earliest artists drawing bison and horses in the dark.
There’s a focus and feeling of connection that nothing else can boast. Even though first sketches are often crude, pieces of them have power.
It’s sort of secret because it’s not talked about much. Artists who are just beginning to learn how to do what they want to do usually have periods of elation and frustration as they practice and discover. The funny—or scary?—thing is that experienced artists still have those phases when they try new directions.
Novelists, painters, musicians: if they’re beginning a new book, series, album, go through that push and pull of feelings, too, even though they might have done it many times.
The fear of the unknown isn’t just fear of failure. It’s primal. Creating truly new things than you’ve made before puts us into a weird and vulnerable state. That’s okay to feel, it’s normal. Just something to be aware of, that we all have those stages of growth. If we’re lucky—and willing to expose ourselves all over again.
It’s easy to think you’ll be overlooked if you’re no longer young, the stars of the art world mostly fawned and obsessed over in their 20s. But cheer up, most of us will be overlooked! But if you’re thinking you might be past it, Sheila Hicks is 84. She’s a fiber artist making some of the best work of her life. Yes, she started younger. As Mayer Hawthorne said: You’ll never be as young as you are today. It really makes no difference. The sooner you start, the sooner we get your work.
Sheila’s is beautiful, gloriously saturated, and it makes me feel like I should let my eyes take a nap from experiencing so much visual joy.
We aren’t making art to be a star. That might be a nice bonus, and have fun if you get that. But it’s in human DNA to make art, and if you’re alive you’ve got some of that. Do it. Sheila will be.
It’s not pretty, this idea you should try to fail. Our culture in the U.S. in particular hammers the meme they everyone should desire materialistic success. It’s pervasive. We’re urged to be ambitious and driven, that modest desires aren’t enough, that hard work is the key to success. And so, get used to failing, embrace failing! You’ll find success quicker, goes the trope.
But I think that loses sight of what made us want to try at all. Failure isn’t fun.
I agree it’s important to try again, but not just because you weren’t successful. More so because it’s both not a big deal to fail, and because success comes in bits, almost never all at once, in blinding flashes of glory. The glory is piecemeal, the gilding takes years to apply, the lightning builds on itself until it seems like it’s always been intense.
Little victories are sometimes all you need. If you love creating, what matters is that you have enough ambition to continue. What matters is that you start again if you fall. The path is still where you spend all your time. Not the pedestal or the victory stage.
About the Author
Marcus is a maker of things and thoughts. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.