“Whatever you do – or dream you can do – begin it. Boldness has genius and power and magic in it.” -Goethe
It has almost been a year since my last blog post. What better time than now to contemplate why too often my creative process is fettered to my own penchant for procrastination?
I am not only talking about writing music and poetry. I am also referring to almost every aspect of my life.
For example: a bucket of paint sat at the top of the stairs for six months literally collecting dust.
I noticed it every morning as I descended the steps; I noticed it every evening as I returned to bed. Not only did the can become a familiar object in my household but it also became slightly less noticeable because the lightbulbs in the upstairs hallways burned out. (Another problem that took me months to remedy.)
The slippery moment between initial inspiration and eventual action is an elusive flash that too often goes unrecognized. One day, I am sitting on the couch and I remember the paint can. This is reason enough to believe that my reluctance to move this paint has been taking up precious vacancy in my brain. (An organized room makes for an organized mind.) So, I realize that the can has to be moved and that I am physically able to get up and move it. But then a familiar voice chimes in: The paint can has already been there for half a year so it obviously will not inconvenience anyone if it remains there for a few more days.
This voice is not a voice I want living in my head any longer. This voice is not my friend. But if I am going to ask it to leave, I first need to confront it. And just like a troublesome roommate, it is probably necessary to first acknowledge the good times we have had and then try and see things from his perspective. (More on confronting this voice later in the post.)
I get up. I move the can into the basement. The whole process takes a minute and a half tops.
Why did it take me so long to move the can? The easiest answer: I am pretty lazy. You can blame it on all the television I watched as a child. (This is probably not true, but we construct our own personal narratives anyways, right?.) But if I dig deeper, I realize that I am often distracted by my grandiose thinking (probably more like delusions of grandeur). I think big and this is a good thing, but I will too often avoid the small details and then make excuses for myself, saying that I had more important things to do or ponder. I want the grand execution without the requisite nitty-gritty that a big project involves.
This past week, my best friend Walter sent me a video with Ira Glass’s (This American Life) thoughts on creativity:
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
Just begin—because you have a lot of work ahead of you.
When you begin, you want to exercise some self-love while not sacrificing the same critical lens that made you gravitate towards your preferred method of creative output. You have to get something on the page. The sooner you start the sooner you can survive what Anne Lamott calls the “shitty first draft” and then move forward towards more effective, clearer manifestations of the idea you had in your head.
But this is what happens to me. I sit down and I try to start building my environment around an ideal work condition. I clean my desk (sometimes). Make a cup of tea. I tell myself that if I answer those three pesky emails that were present in my mind when I woke up then I will clear my brain for optimal creative potential. My email reminds me that I have an unread message on Facebook. Then four hours later, I am mindlessly scrolling through a digital feed eventually not even reading content, just a boneheaded shell of a man walking spellbound through a blue-lighted forest of words and images that make me feel like I am missing out on something or that I should change the shape of my body just so that advertisers can monitor my activity and try to sell me garbage that I don’t need that will inevitably make me feel …. and all of this because we are afraid of death.
Me: Why brain, why?!
Brain: Because I love you and I don’t want you to feel bad. And after spending almost thirty years with you, I know that writing is difficult and can make you feel bad and that television is easy and it makes you feel good. I am really just serving you based off habitual patterns that you have set over time. I love you. Please give me white sugar. If I don’t get sugar, I will die. Please, give me white sugar.
Me: Ok, brain. I love you, too. Thanks for making sure I don’t walk into traffic. And thanks for looking out for me. Let’s work together on this. I don’t want to fight anymore.
Brain: Also, please stop watching American Horror Story before bed. You keep blaming your nightmares on me and there seems to be a clear connection between the content you watch and what you dream at night.
The fear and anxiety that keeps from beginning will not disappear with well-wishing, the best rated Nootropic Supplement or divine intervention. I will just have to stop resisting that fear and confront it and courageously work through it. I may even learn to love that voice of fear and let it stick around for a little while as long as it stops taking the wheel all the time. But first: just begin.
Move the paint can.
Write a really terrible paragraph. Return to it, reduce it to one or two words if you have to. And keep going.
Record a “voice memo” that you will inevitably delete an hour later. Return to it. Work with it.
(I am tell myself this^)
I would like to think that eventually beginning becomes a habit and that I can sit down and just let the ideas flow. Unfortunately, I do not know many creative people who would say that this is true. (Who knows? Some people figure out a system and become prolific artists even while disrupting their own procedural approach time after time.) It probably gets easier. Or maybe you get better. Or at least maybe you become a more effective writer at conveying or performing your ideas. But you continue to engage with the creative process.
And difficulty is good. You may have to be patient with your brain as it embraces difficulty and uncertainty. Your brain helps keep you alive, it is set for survival. It tends to favor certainty. (Thank you, brain! / Oh no, brain!) And difficulty is necessary. Just think: perhaps an antidote to narrowmindedness and inflexible thinking might be safe and open places where complexity can be contemplated.
I have questions about what a blog can do. And what a blog is. (Did you know the word comes from weblog? I had no idea.)
I do not want to write an advice blog, because I am very comfortable with the fact that I know basically nothing. Any thoughts I have on creativity and productivity and things that I am writing here so that I can believe them. I am trying to be my best cheerleader.
I want this blog to be a place where the band and I can exist beyond a few photos, songs and facebook updates. The ratio of work to output in music is relatively low. What’s the average? A 10-12 song record every 2-3 years? That’s not a lot of information.
I want this blog to be about being open to process and open to a community of listeners. I am uncomfortable with the idea of blogging. But I keep looking at the post-it note above my computer and for once I will listen to it. In my terrible handwriting it reads: Just begin.
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