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.
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.
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.
I took this photo for other purposes. But I’ve been staring at it, wondering if there’s a message to be extracted. Exit and entrance are the same opening. It’s the same size and appearance for both, nothing is different except which side you use.
Is art the same? Existence? Work, consumerism, relationships, comedy, water? I’m not sure. We can only interpret for ourselves and keep moving forward. If it means it’s time to turn around and go out the way we came, we’re still working on the journey, and still not giving up.
What I haven’t done much, here, is talk about what I’m doing. I think—and feel, double emphasis there—that the thumbnail doodles at the top of many posts aren’t really an indicator of ongoing process tracking, so there should be some balance to the endless advice and prescriptive know-hows I seem to have in endless supply.
One of the things I’m working on—s l o w w w l y y—is a series of 11 small paintings I pledged to people over a year ago. Be fair, year-and-a-half.
It’s a bit strange to go back and forth from analog to digital. Some things are easier in physical media: texture, random surprises, depth, the subtle wonder of a unique object. Some things are harder: development time, corrections—oh for an ‘undo’ when I smear or put too much of something on a canvas—and precision.
Here’s hoping I won’t be too much longer finishing and can finally notch off this project and start the next.
Lots has been said about getting started in a creative habit, or a creative project. Plenty has been written about finishing what you start and what happens after you get something done. What about how you do the middle bits?
It seems trite to say you just keep going. That’s obvious but logical, only there’s more to it. There’s understanding that the feeling of being in the middle of a thing vacillates back and forth between flow and floundering.
Flow is the state of losing yourself in the work. It’s being “in the zone.” Stephen King, in Misery, calls it falling through “the hole in the paper.” What you’re after is to recognize that feeling and try to find it as often as you can. It’s a weird kind of addiction, but constructive, not destructive. It’s something that sustains us through the middle bit.
Floundering is the opposite feeling. It’s anxiety, overthinking, awareness of what you’re doing. It’s a state where you’re unsure and searching. It’s actually potentially useful, because it’s where you can take in the big picture and see where you’ve been and where you might want to go. Nothing is all or nothing where creative work is concerned. It’s constantly moving and changing.
I mean, deal with it. And enjoy this part, because it’s where you spend the most time. The journey isn’t just the reward, it’s the part of life where you’re living.
Marking a significant life event is only natural. It’s uniquely human. Birthdays, anniversaries, achievements. It’s that last one that can seem arbitrary or trivial, sometimes.
But an arbitrary milestone can make you feel inspired or motivated. Picking something small and celebrating it bestows importance. That’s what you want as you make your artistic practice an essential part of your life. It should feel important. Modesty is rarely a bad instinct, in a social sense. If you trivialize your work early on, however, who’s there to counter that disparaging voice? The last thing you need is less impetus to keep working on your stuff.
So here’s a small, arbitrary milestone: this post makes 100 in a row since I missed in late January, just a bit before I was due to hit the first 100 in a row. Yay! Woo! I couldn’t have done it without you, truly.
The million things that pull at our attention like a three-year-old at our pants leg are bad enough. But life itself can often be just as distracting.
And sometimes that’s necessary. The work we do isn’t always the most important thing, rarely the most urgent thing. Emergencies arise. Which makes it sound as if they begin to slowly appear, like sunrise or flowers. But in truth they’re usually huge and right in front of you like a delivery truck around a blind corner in the wrong lane.
You have to deal with emergencies. But you also have to deal with less harrowing urgencies, too. Deadlines at work, kids’ recitals, mom’s birthday, trips to the airport.
A few things I’m learning, because school is never completely over while you can breathe, are as follows:
Despite ambition, drive, ideas aplenty, and opportunity, I am still very, very, very good at procrastinating. If I could market that skill, I’d be CEO of I’ll Do It In A Minute Just As Soon As I Look At This One Thing, LLC. (Market cap: $1.4B)
But two things are helpful in overcoming that trait—Pomodoros and doing the hard stuff first.
If you aren’t familiar with the Pomodoro Technique, here’s a short overview. Basically, you work on tasks in 25(ish) minute chunks and take a 5(ish) minute break in-between, then a long break after 4 of those cycles, of 15–30(ish) minutes. Use a timer. This helps keep you focused during work periods and builds in a recess. Our minds need both concentration and free play to make connections and build memories efficiently. It’s the same with bodies, working out needs sufficient rest to build and strengthen. For me, at least, it helps to know there are breaks coming at specific intervals so I can trick myself into starting and staying at a particular task. One note: I’ve tried to do this just watching the clock, no timer, but I end up going way outside the time blocks. Usually with breaks. Timer.
Making a to-do list before bedtime is working well for the getting more stuff done, and for keeping up with the blog, particularly. Getting started on the hard bits first, I’m noticing better attitude, less sulking, and less angst when I’m not working on things.
And sleep really is, really is, the best component of physical and mental health. If you’re in school, it’s extraordinarily difficult to get your 7.5 hours, I know. But keep it at the forefront of any health concerns. No more midnight oil burning outside of major research papers and final projects, seriously. Putting everything to the side for bedtime has been better for remembering what I’m learning and improving the stuff I’m making.
About the Author
Marcus is a maker of things and thoughts. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.