Putting My Self First
One of the most difficult things about being a freelance creative is that you’re basically always on the clock. Sure, you can wait for inspiration to strike, but in my experience, you’ll end up waiting more than making. As Chuck Close famously said, “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.” While I understand what he’s saying, and may even agree with it to an extent, sometimes it’s not that easy. I think there’s a middle ground where instead of simply waiting for inspiration to strike, we can think about the purpose and intention we want to bring to our work before embarking on the uncertain journey of making it. Regardless of your particular pursuit, the pressure to constantly be creating is exhausting. And as if the making isn’t exhausting enough, you also have the promotion to look forward to—crafting catchy captions on multiple social media platforms, each with their own specs and limitations, all in the hope of being the signal amidst the noise.
A few weeks ago, I was talking to my friend Maarten Rots, who is one of the most consistently creative people I know. Even during lockdown, when so many of us were really having a hard time staying motivated to make, his creative output actually increased—and what he shared online was only a portion of what he was making. I asked him how he managed to stay so creative and he said that he got to a point where he had to just stop trying so hard to be creative. Instead of worrying about what and how much he was making, he made a list of simple daily tasks that put his mental and physical health and wellbeing ahead of anything else. The list included eating a healthy breakfast, taking walks, and exercising, reading, and meditating. He found that as he finished his daily tasks and subsequently checked them off the list, he felt a sense of accomplishment which often created the space he needed to make. He also shifted his approach away from a results- or outcome-driven model and instead gave himself permission to pursue different types of projects that would allow him to experience a variety of processes, many of which offered little connection to the creative work he was doing. But by allowing the process to inform the outcome, he was able to let go of some of the rigidity around what he “should” be doing and instead just do.
I found myself hugely inspired by our conversation and hearing what a game-changer it had been for Maarten, so I decided to adopt a similar daily routine as an experiment for myself. For the month of June, there are only four items on my daily to-do list—which I keep track of in a Field Notes journal—and none of them are directly connected to creativity. Breakfast, exercise, read, and meditate or do yoga. That’s it. Anything else that happens is a bonus. Today is the 8th of June, which means that I’m a week in, and while I haven’t been as creative as I would have liked—at least in terms of finished work—my sleep has been better, my mood has been noticeably better—about a 7 out of 10, which for me is a win since most days I’m somewhere between 4 and 6—and I’ve made some terrific notes/journal entries around ideas for future projects. Full disclosure, I’ve also had a couple off days where I felt anxious (read:guilty) for not spending the day in the studio or not sharing what I was working on on Twitter or Instagram. But to be fair, the last few months have been creatively very frustrating for me, so making changes that put self-care ahead of self-promotion is probably a good thing anyway.
Coincidentally, I started reading The Practice by Seth Godin, which is a terrific book that talks about trusting and putting energy into engaging with the process or practice of creativity rather than fixating on the final product. “Focusing on outcomes at the expense of process,” he writes, “is a shortcut that will destroy your work.” I’ve highlighted dozens of passages in the book that really resonate with me, including a few that parallel my talk with Maarten, specifically around placing effort and value in the process, even when it doesn’t work. Learning what doesn’t work puts us that much closer to discovering what does. As Seth also writes, “Art is the work we do where there is no right answer—and yet the journey is worth the effort”
I don’t know what to expect from this experiment, other than hopefully establishing some new habits that make my mental and physical health more of a priority. As for my creative practice, I’m only a week in but I can already feel myself making more space for the process to go where it wants to go, rather than where I think it should go. And for that, I’m both grateful and excited. Part of the lesson or takeaway in all of this is that not only is art a journey and a practice, so is self-care.
What self-care practices have helped you be more creative?
Another book you might enjoy is Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Pixar co-founder and president Ed Catmull. It’s more focused on creative teams, rather than individuals, but it’s filled with terrific stories and I really enjoyed it.
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