This is weird, but with winter, the shifts outside in temperature and severe weather can be like those inside.
The cold can be bracing, even exciting, provided we have someplace to be and to warm up again. Starting a creative project can be similar. If we have an idea of the end, of where we might be going, what it looks like to be done, the work can be a thrill.
Going in completely blind is really rare, and scary. We can shut down before we know it. We don’t need a road map, but we also don’t want a completely open-ended journey where we could be gone for a day or for 20 years. We lose patience and enthusiasm with a random wandering. Deciding on some kind of end is as good as knowing there’s a fire at home after the long walk from the bus stop.
Don’t forget that breaks are your work’s second-best friend, next to habit. Before inspiration, before beauty, before structure.
If you don’t have time to step back and consider, or time to absorb new ideas from elsewhere, there’s going to be too much intensity or not enough—something.
You can fix things later, and there’s almost always time to, after the thing is finished, but you’ll have a better base and scheme for whatever it is if you’ve given consideration to a little rest between work sessions.
It seems like it’s become fashionable to make the amount of work we spend on a project the important part. If we’ve burned the midnight oil through and finished in one go, so much the better! But my experience is that a steady pace with time off between chunks of making is better for both artist and art.
Seems simple, but rare enough for those of us who are still trying to reach master status.
Keep to the things you can’t let go of, the obsessions you latch onto. The music, the films, the art—the fragments on any one of those or something else, that live and passion for some aspect of the creative work of others gives you chunks of raw material to mix into your own work.
This is where work comes from. It’s the seeds of inspiration that always wait, whether we feel like working or not, whether we’re ready or not, whether we think we’re good enough or not.
I haven’t finished this post until now because I got so into the Yes song “Starship Trooper” that I had to listen, not just to the whole thing, but specifically the section after “/Disillusion,” really just a cascading series of “aahs” that Anderson, Squire, and whomever decided to haunt me with. I have no idea how it’ll come through, but it will, somewhere.
Don’t resist your artistic obsessions, enjoy them as deeply as you can. They fertilize and feed your own stuff.
Artists have little to be smug about. There’s nothing inherently so different about art that means it can only ever be done by humans. Maybe by definition that’s the dividing line: artificial creation vs. art, but in time the bots will get better by steps both small and large, and they have nothing but time. Or, at least, in theory they do. For now, we have to keep running and building them, but what’s the point of art at all if no humans can experience it?
From the illustrious kottke.org comes this bit, by Tim Carmody:
How long will it be until Robin’s “California Corpus” is writing novels of its own, when every book is a jazzy cover of a medley of novels we’ve liked before? When writers still get hired, but just to produce enough snippets to keep the synthesizing machines fed? The answer is… probably a very long time. But maybe not long enough.
The thrust of it is that remixing is appealing because it’s giving us things we already like, remixed, and AIs will become good enough eventually to produce art we want to experience, in abundance, instantly.
The thing is, art isn’t far from that now. We’ve always taken the stuff of the past and remixed it in different and new ways. Technology and shared knowledge adds a little to it now and then, but essentially we are all creative DJs. What matters, for as long as it can matter, then, is that we make things with as much humanity as we can muster. Emotional, often irrational, impulsive, desirous, loving humans. The more like ourselves, individually, we can be in our work, the longer it’ll be before bots can match it.
The difference is stark. You matter, and so does your voice. I’m struck by a line from Chris Baty, NaNoWriMo founder:
The world needs your novel!
And, for sure, there’s plenty to unpack surrounding the word, “needs,” because in a strictly survivalist sense, the word doesn’t.
But that statement is a passionate entreaty to start creating. It says your views and thoughts and your own passions matter, and they have something to contribute to humanity at large.
Until and unless you have followers and fans of your work, it’s going to seem a bit lonely, like your voice is mighty small in a very dark and enormous void. You aren’t useless, you’re working, making, creating. You do matter. You’re ineffectual, as far as the outside world is concerned. But that isn’t the important thing. What’s important is that you press on, say what you must say, and give that work to the world.
Because we need it, and we cannot know what effect it will have before it’s out there.
It’s very easy to get caught up in rock start aesthetic, superstar mythos, where we dream of rich hedonism and a life above the humdrum, creating at will and to great acclaim. This is America.
But that vision isn’t real, and the humdrum is just life in general. It’s where we are most of the time, and it feeds and sustains our practice. Ukeles asked maintenance workers to consider part of their work during the day as art, and complied her worker-artist subjects in a grid of fellow creators, not merely portrait sitters. These are lessons we should pass on and ponder. Everyone can make art, it’s for us all.
If you’re a painter or calligrapher, say, this is an easy one to practice. If you’re a musician or dancer, it’s harder. But there are ways to keep looking at your stuff, even if it’s a song or a performance.
You’re not doing this to leave a work in place forever. You’re doing a little study. It’s a personal gallery visit, and the assignment is to analyze this one work. It just happens to be yours, this time.
What you’re looking for is anything that keeps the work from being perfect and anything that helps it along the way. That’s a little hyperbolic–nothing is perfect—but perfection should be striven for, not achieved. And it’s nebulous: the main thing is how closely it came to the vision in your head. But you need some perspective, a little objectivity, a little time for it to breathe and live before you can see the little things.
You already probably see the mistakes you made and other choices you thought about but didn’t implement. Next time you’ll know they could have helped improve it, and some things to keep that went well.
This approach works better if you have just a little difficulty or a slight embarrassment when examining your own work than if you either want to puke from thinking it’s terrible or you think it’s brilliant, but I think those cases are rare.
More often, the art you made took a long time and you’ve spent hours, days, or weeks getting it honed, chopping it into shape. You know it well. You also can overlook the obvious.
So as you make more things, keep a fresh one handy to listen to or look at to see it as plainly as you can, to learn one more lesson from a finished thing.
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 seems like we get put down for carrying on a brief obsession with something, but it can be a reason to get familiar with something new or to experience something familiar with new eyes and ears.
My current is above, of course. The bass sound is gorgeously full, the slapback echo on the vocal is almost haunting, but still charming, and the melody and lyrics themselves are fun and earwormy. I hear something new almost ever re-listen, which is amazing. Now. How to apply this obsession to something I’m doing.
About the Author
Marcus is a maker of things and thoughts. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.