Surprising to me, you see.
1. Do it all for the joy.
It’s okay and normal to enjoy and feel energized from validation and praise.
I actually think that trying too hard to rise above that totally human impulse can be a form of self-abuse. You’re not Siddhartha Gautama, and I don’t want you to be. I want you to be a flawed, insecure but lovable mortal like the rest of us.
But come back to the joy of making stuff, because it’s fun. Because it’s a great way to pass the time, just puttering about, you and your tools and your creativity.
Orienting yourself again and again to joy, like in a GPS.
“Recalculating. Recalculating. Recalculating.” Destination: the pleasure of making. Already there.
2. Constantly cringing at your work is a good thing.
I hate the essay I submitted to my editors this week. Though I worked on it for many hours, all I see is flaws.
I hate the drawing I did yesterday. I have such an exquisite passion for children’s illustration and my little effort seems like the utmost embarrassing amateur hour.
And I am no longer taking these as signs that I should put the fucking pen down.
Hating everything you’re doing is a great thing. Being aware of the gap between where you are right this second and where you want to be means you have good taste and are primed for learning. If you keep reminding yourself to not be impressed by the discomfort, I guarantee you will still be cringing 3 months from now, but you’ll be cringing at a higher level, about more advanced stuff.
And that’s what we want.
Ira Glass said this better, and his talk is worth revisiting again and again.
3. Follow your curiosity instead of fear.
I straight up took the tagline of Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, Big Magic, and made it a life motto. It encapsulates everything for me, and when I was finally able to truly internalize it, I became the real creator that I’d always been.
The absolute best way to work through fear is not to fight it or battle it or try to “overcome” it, but to totally turn my attention elsewhere — to the objects of my curiosity.
And there are so many things I’m curious about, always. Mushrooms. Cuba. How to draw animals. The fact that toilet water spins in the opposite direction in the southern hemisphere. Symbolism and dreams. Ancient animism and violence. And on and on.
One really useful question I’ve taught myself to ask: what does my fear want from me? 95% of the time, the answer comes down to, “STOP TRYING SHIT AND KEEP YOURSELF SMALL.”
That’s not useful. So I notice this, and without beating myself up, quietly re-orient to what I am curious about. Curiosity leads me home.
4. You’ll figure it out.
You’re a smart person with the cognitive capacity for processing new information.
You’ll figure it out.
I don’t know how to write good plots.
I don’t know how to do oil painting. Never done it before.
I don’t know how to write highly structured poetry.
I’m an intelligent grown-up human who can figure stuff out. I can follow a recipe. I can make associations. I can type shit into a search engine. I can develop muscle memory. I can take advice.
I’ll figure it out.
5. You don’t need to be schmoozing.
I think getting out of New York and its non-stop-schmooziness is one of the best things I did for my creative life.
(For my very specific life context. At this particular juncture of my life. Not generalizable.)
Freedom from influence can be a marvelously powerful thing. In solitude, your unique mindscape has the opportunity to reveal itself to you. You shed a lot of fears and false assumptions that never belonged to you in the first place, but which you accidentally picked up from other people, from the air. In my almost-complete, intentional isolation, the most unlikely and magical mentors and co-creators appeared, seemingly out of the blue.
But I know it’s not out of the blue. When I get clearer, muses and helpers can find me more easily. Solitude is the first ingredient in clarity.
(For me. At this juncture of life. Not generalizable.)
6. Make the thing you want to see in the world.
What do you wish existed in the world for you to consume?
To me, this means feminist coloring pages.
This means baroque, Old World style, fairytale children’s illustrations with a fresh twist.
This means fiction about deep ecumenical religious themes.
This means outrageously imaginative self-portraits.
This means book criticism that combines erudition, passion and humanity.
Visions of the things I want to consume propel me forward like nothing else.
7. Start from dialogue. Lean into conflict.
My friend, the writer Joe Loya, taught this to me.
Some of the best advice on writing I’d ever received. I said I don’t know where to begin writing a story, and he told me to start with the dialogue. Get into the heads of the people, make them say things out loud to each other. Make them real, not merely vehicles of ideas.
You know, this advice kinda translates to visual art, too.
What do I want a painting to say? Literally, if the painting were a person, what would the person be saying? Maybe it’s not one person saying something, but a dialogue. Then what would those words be?
How can I bring the conflict/irony way into the foreground, make that the focal point, instead of pussyfooting around it, trying to blur it into something blander?
That’s where the juice is. That’s what we want to look it. That’s what we want to be inspired and provoked by.