August 20, 2012
I’ve been busy redoing my home office of late: putting together furniture, organizing the closet and shelves, sorting through books and – overall – trying to create a space that both inspires and encourages creative productivity. It’s a sweaty task; the temps lately have been quite hot by our standards, and I’m without air conditioning. I hunker down on the floor with a fan blowing full blast, piles and piles of books around me, and spend hours alphabetizing, ordering, and placing each volume perfectly on its designated shelf.
I know this isn’t creativity in the traditional sense, but I can’t help but feel a great sense of accomplishment. In the first weekend, I put up all the major pieces. Mom, who was visiting from out of town, graciously gave of her time so I might finally rid myself of my cheap dormitory-style bookshelves for pieces that make me feel like a grown-up. We spent two full days working and when the weekend was over, breathed a sigh of relief because we had done all we could do.
That was Phase 1. Phase 2 occurred this past weekend, when I burned oodles of calories working alone. I bought the next bunch of shelves, put them together with much cursing, acquired more than a few nasty bruises, and finally, after all that to-do, filled them up only to discover I still needed more shelves. Gah! Back to the store I went!
This saga hasn’t ended, but at 10 PM last night, I stood in the doorway, surveyed my handiwork, and felt a great sense of pride for what I’d achieved. Yes, I still need more stuff. Because with all the stuff I already have, I need more stuff just to contain it. The irony isn’t lost on me, but let’s not get caught up in details, okay?
If you know me at all, then you know you should be laughing. Why? Because I am forever getting lost in the details. My office is not unlike my writing. I started with the broad strokes, put down the initial ideas, and did some basic organization to ensure there was proper flow. Then, I went a step further – added more pieces, took away items here and there, shuffled things around. Now, as I face the final phase, I’m about to be struck by tweakitis – a disease that drives me to perfect all those little details and basically prevents a project from ever being done. Once I get struck by tweakitis, I never want to let go. It’s a dangerous business, but a rewarding one (in its own way).
Luckily, tweakitis comes in waves, which means I might actually reach “perfection” and enjoy my little office for awhile – a few weeks, maybe even a few months. And then I’ll start itching for some tweaks here and there. A few new pieces of artwork … a new book sorting system … a reorganized closet …
The possibilities are endless.
One of my favorite books on writing is Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. It was the first book I picked up years ago when I decided to return to writing – back when graduate school and a full time job had resulted in mental paralysis. I couldn’t focus. I was burned out. Bereft of energy and enthusiasm for pretty much anything, I longed for release.
Writing Down the Bones was recommended by a friend of mine. I picked up a pocket size copy and took it with me to Starbucks. I had no journal, nothing to write with, no computer. I hadn’t any real belief that this book would get me back to writing, but I knew I had to start somewhere. So with a big dose of skepticism and an even greater dose of hope, I turned to the first page and began to read.
It took only a few paragraphs to hook me. Goldberg seemed to speak directly to me, and I realized that I was not alone. I felt excited again … and anxious to begin. No intimidation, no fear, no belief that I’m not good enough. Just the realization that one must start somewhere, and keep practicing. Whatever it takes. Whatever the result.
I went out that same evening and purchased a journal (my favorite kind – a lightweight moleskin with lined pages). I found a pen I loved to write with – one that rolled easily over the page without smudging,and felt easy in my hand. I held it loosely. Let it guide me.
Soon, words flowed from mind to hand to paper without any conscious thought on my part. I did not worry about grammar, style, punctuation. I ignored the lines, as Goldberg taught me. I wrote in large, swooping letters – sometimes filling a page with only a single sentence. It wasn’t poetry. It wasn’t technically perfect. But it was inspired. It was mine.
I can’t emphasize enough the importance of this process. Each time I get back to these basics, I’m surprised by what lurks in my depths – the creativity and emotion I’ve bottled up. It’s far from perfect … far from good … but there’s something freeing in knowing that what will emerge will be just that: not perfect. Not good. For the writer who is more editor than creator … who lives for the tweaking and fixing and correcting … this is a major departure. Ignoring the technical dos and don’ts, scrapping the formatting, the lines, the precision of typed words on a virtual page …
It’s comforting, in its way. It allows room for movement, for growth. It allows inspiration to flow without hindrance. And every now and then, from the muck my brain expunges in great, angry bursts, emerges a jewel of an idea. An image. A blossom. A rainbow.
I encourage all artists to try this. Take yourselves away from the computer (or your usual medium, whatever it may be). Focus on the basics. Don’t paint, sketch. Don’t sculpt, knead. Don’t act, improvise. Free yourself from the confines of your art. Don’t think about it. Just let it happen.
And keep practicing. Over and over and over.
You won’t regret it.
For more works by Natalie Goldberg, go her website: http://www.nataliegoldberg.com/
January 20, 2012
I recently read a list on Facebook – “How to be Miserable as an Artist”. I don’t know the original author of the post, and I can’t give credit where it’s due. But I do appreciate that so many people have shared it, because it really hit home. And at the risk of infringing on someone else’s copyright (take THAT, SOPA!), I thought I’d publish it here, as well.
- Constantly compare yourself to other artists.
- Talk to your family about what you do and expect them to cheer you on.
- Base the success of your entire career on one project.
- Stick with what you know.
- Undervalue your expertise.
- Let money dictate what you do.
- Bow to societal pressures.
- Only do work that your family would love.
- Do whatever the client/customers/gallery owner/patron/investor/*fan* asks. (I added that last one)
- Set unachievable/overwhelming goals, to be accomplished tomorrow.
The two most important lessons in this list – for me – are #1 and #10. I find that when I’m feeling the pressure … when the muse refuses to cooperate and all I produce is absolutely craptastic, I start comparing my work to other writers and identifying all the places where I’ve gone wrong. Why didn’t I come up with that turn of phrase? Why don’t I see the world that way? How did I miss this, that, or the other? There is nothing worse for your self esteem than to compare your work with others’ and berate yourself for being somehow … less … than they are.
I’m pretty lucky. I’m part of a group of fantastic writers who create within the same genre. I’m always learning from them. I’m always inspired by them. I get fantastic support, incredibly helpful editorial advice, and the belief that no matter how long it takes, I will get it done. But there are times when I have to remind myself that these amazing writers go through the same struggles as I: sometimes, inspiration just hits … and sometimes – often – they have to work for it. Instead of comparing myself to them, instead of identifying all the places where I fall short, I can look at the work of these artists and think, “Wow. I want to work harder. I want to do better. I want to feel about my work the way I feel about theirs.” And you know what? Eventually, I do. When I produce something I’m genuinely proud of, I know what it’s like to not be miserable. So … lesson learned. Use other artists as inspiring examples … but never compare yourself to them. Never try to be like them. Your art is yours. You are unique and different, and your voice deserves to be heard.
And that brings me to #10, which I’m pretty sure has plagued me since the day I started this blog (possibly before). Avoid setting goals that are unrealistic, unachievable, overwhelming … and expecting them to be done tomorrow. Life gets in the way. Careers matter, and bills, and kids, and spouses, and pets. Your commitments are important, and if you allow yourself to be derailed every time something else needs your attention, you’ll only beat yourself up when you don’t accomplish what you set out to do.
I’ve been working on the same story for almost four years (egads! FOUR YEARS!) … and so many times, I’ve had to step back because what was going on in the rest of my life took up my time, my fuel, my creative energy. I’m still working on this lesson, and many days it’s a major struggle. But it’s necessary to remember that, ultimately, we’re not creating for other people. When we start to do what others want or expect, when we produce for them instead of for ourselves … we lose sight of why we started in the first place. So what if it takes four months to write a craptastic chapter? And what if it takes another two or three months to turn into something wonderful? Well then, so be it! Don’t set unreasonable deadlines. Let the muse guide you. (I say this with a sheepish hint of irony, given that I set a New Year’s resolution to finish my story by year-end).
When all is said and done, the only pressure we artists really need to listen to is the one that comes from within … from the voice that says, “Make the time. Trudge ahead. Don’t give up. Keep practicing.”
So keep at it, friends. However long it takes. The work will always be there – it’s up to you to decide how you’ll approach it. Just remember to have fun with it! Laugh a little! Give the muse a good beating now and then! But never … NEVER … make yourself miserable doing it. If you’re miserable … then what’s the point?
Happy New Year!