It’s not the easiest thing, these days. Most of our attention—most of us, most of the time—is pulled a dozen different ways every second. We have our phones, we have high speed internet connections, TV, podcasts, and friends who are deeply connected to those things, even if we aren’t.
But I’ve been trying to take time, whenever I think of it, to do two things: 5 deep breaths, and just noticing the view.
For the latter, “noticing” means stopping whatever is occupying my time and looking & listening in a single direction for a few minutes. I watch what moves, what the colors are like, how it sounds, and if I’m really present, what is not there.
Taking these moments is a way to pull out of the neverending algorithmic tendrils that yank on our attention every moment. Break those bonds when you can.
It does seem like the cycles of life are unsteady, randomly faster and slower. The days are indeed long, and the years are, truly, short. One of the consequences of growing older is a sense of perspective. Looking back is a vast open field of texture and color. Looking forward is a shrinking window of potential.
A regular patron at my work place was on his way home this evening, when I happened to notice him collapse onto the sidewalk as he was being helped across the street. The shift lead on duty, expected to deal with emergencies of this kind went to see about helping him while I took care of the shop, though I’d have rushed along without hesitation. The man is someone I’ve know since coming to Portland. He’s quite old, rather frail, and I know his name and what he likes to eat and drink. I still don’t know if he made it. After the paramedics came, there was nothing else either of us could do.
These incidents remind us of life’s fragility. We will all die some day. If we’re lucky, it’ll be later rather than sooner, excepting some incapacitating or degenerative condition. The time we have, though, is all we have. Even granting reincarnation means a new cycle wipes the slate of memory—and along with it, experience, knowledge, and that hard-won sense of perspective.
It can sometimes seem art is not so important, given our tiny lives, burning through a spark of existence on a little blue marble swirling through the void. But it’s part of our attempts to make sense of the world, of death, of our search for meaning. It is, in the end, as important as everything else.
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.
The words of John Bender (he bends the rules! Get it?) in The Breakfast Club come up when I think of either the word “social” or the word “demented.” I’m not in the general habit of enshrining John Hughes lines, but sometimes they stick like duct tape to butt cheeks.
One thing about the city, you don’t lack for activity. Not all of it is good to participate in, to be sure. But there are things to do. That is, things to do outside one’s home.
Something about artists and never ending projects: either we’re working on them, or we’re talking about working on them. Procrastinating is it’s own art form, and Things To Do™ are sometimes the barrier, rather than the path.
With none of this in mind, I attended two social events this past week, rather than my preferred zero. It’s not that I don’t have a good time while I’m in them, it’s that I know I’ll want to leave to go back home to read or study or create sooner than most of the people in attendance.
The other drawback is I can’t leave things like this blog to the last minute, because I’ll likely be home very late and need to work the day job the next day. So being social takes over the art stuff. It’s a strange paradox, wanting to do the former even though it means pushing aside the latter. More of the fear coming through. The best course is to work the rule of 5 ASAP, and get even a little done. That’s the goal for the next social event, and if I remember, I’ll report how successful (or demented) it was.
I do these periodic posts about the habit—making a daily or near-daily creative practice part of your routine—as much for myself as for you. Because I’m not trying to teach or prescribe formula from on high or by edict, I’m just as crabby and fallible about getting to work as anyone. We all try, we all fail. There are times, and they come more than once, when you feel you don’t have the strength to make stuff.
It’s only in those moments you have to fall back on tricks and training to push through the wall. The daily habit gets you through because you’re used to it, and it’s too uncomfortable to not do a thing.
“Just do it,” Nike’s simple and best slogan, can work for easy dark moods. For worse blocks, there’s the 5 Minute Rule. You tell yourself you’ll just work on art for 5 minutes, and usually it kicks you into gear. It can’t fail, because even if you drop it after 5 minutes, you’ve worked on your thing that day. You win.
Give it a shot, and get used to denying your inner denier.
For weird, synchronistic and untraceable reasons, I got Flesh for Fantasy, above, there, stuck in my mental earholes earlier in the day. When it was released, I was in high school, and had eclectic taste even then. But though I respected Idol’s presence and abilities as a songwriter and singer, it didn’t seem particularly special.
Now, through a lens of 35 more years of listening to music, it’s scintillating. There are beautiful tones and colors on guitar and guitar synthesizer both. The song is very dynamic, rolling from the sneering shouts of the chorus, to the soft whispers of verses. It’s not characteristic of much music then or now, when so much production isn’t allowed to breathe and rest, it’s balls-to-the-wall sound and—if you’re lucky—silence.
An advantage of age often mentioned but not appreciated, maybe, is wisdom. Along with that is a sense of perspective. Things look different through a lens of decades. Art of all kinds can be reassessed like this. Sometimes things you thought were great turn out to be paper thin. And—if you’re lucky—some things turn out to have great depth.
By the above, I mean profit creatively, not financially. One reason to keep old work around is that it not only gives you benchmarks for where you’ve been, it also informs your present work. Sometimes it’s inspiration, a kind of creation recycling that sparks new ideas from old. Some of the time, it steers you away from habitual mistakes. These things are worth experiencing and knowing.
Sketchbooks are the main thing artists keep. But as much as you have room for isn’t a bad thing to hang onto. Dominic Cretara, my main life painting professor, used to say we shouldn’t throw out anything for at least three years. By that time, you’ve progressed—if you’ve kept working, of course—and gained perspective and new skill.
Don’t look too soon at the bottom of the pile, but do look.
When you make art isn’t as important as the fact that you do it. And, if you aren’t doing things, you slip past being an artist. We only exist in the moment, so what we do is—in a metaphorical but existential way—what we are.
Of course, I can’t just make art in the eternal now. I have to feed and wash myself. I have to feed the cat. I have to go to the job. But as cool as it is to have made stuff, it’s the momentum that keeps me going the longest. My title doesn’t mean much if I’m not doing what I call myself.
We’re all stuck with time. Like relatives, it’s just there, and you don’t have a tremendous amount of say in how much you get. You choose your work as you choose your friends, what you do, how much you make.
These abstract labels are good for stepping up, for declaring oneself in the game. You can’t wait for someone to anoint you into the club. But it’s the down and dirty of what you chose to do today, or are doing right now that feeds your craft, your sense of self, and your mental health.
Broken record time: when I feel like I’m not getting enough done, I sometimes slow down even further. I break ideas into smaller chunks to deal with. This is a way of doing something daily but still contributing to a big project.
One ant can’t haul much or dig a deep tunnel alone. Ten thousand ants can do huge jobs in hours. Ten thousand marks or paint strokes is an entire piece. It looks the same when it’s finished.
About the Author
Marcus is a maker of things and thoughts. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.