Jun 082014

People love to measure their physical exercise. A pedometer to tally thousands of steps per day. Counting push-ups and crunches. Devices on exercise bikes to track time, distance, and velocity. And of course, stepping on the scale to see if any pounds are coming off.

Why does measuring our workouts seem so important? One reason is that consistency is the key to success when you’re trying to get stronger. And the way to stay consistent is to measure and plan.

Doing creative work also means showing up and continuing. A fulfilling creative life requires attentive focus from you almost every day, just like physical exercise. Here are a few simple suggestions to help you track your time on your artistic work.

Set an hours-per-week goal.

You need to put in significant time per week to do fulfilling work. Whether you’re uber-busy with other obligations or have all the free time in the world, choosing an hours-per-week goal will help you progress toward finishing your projects.

Say you are a fledgling writer who wants to break through and see her first published short story. Your first goal could be to write 10 hours per week, including at least one hour per day. Your second goal could be to spend three hours per week researching the business side, so you understand the steps for getting stories published.

Keep a log

Write down how much time you spend each day on your work. It may sound tedious, but it takes just a moment if you keep the log close by. It may sound like overkill, but do it for a little while just to see where you’re at. You might think you spend ten hours a week on your poetry, but maybe it’s closer to four or five. You won’t know if you don’t measure it.

Stay accountable

Find one or two friends to share your artistic goals and ideas with, including your hours-per-week goal. There’s nothing like having someone ask, “How you doing?” to keep you honest. And you can return the favor for someone who is also on the artistic trail.

Remember to keep yourself accountable too. Write down your goals. Put reminders on your calendar to check those goals every few weeks or months. Getting support from others is necessary, but no one can get behind your work if you’re not behind it first.

There you are, a few small things to help track your creative time. Just like your physical health, your imagination will thank you down the road.

Aug 302013

How often do you find yourself talking to yourself about yourself?

“I have no idea what I’m doing.”

“I’m so much better than he is.”

“She’s so much better than I am.”

“Why did she say that about me? I don’t think she likes me very much.”

If self-scrutiny is a frequent activity in your brain, you might find it helpful to change that habit. It’s useful once in a while to reflect on ways to do well and be better. But endless evaluating will quickly drain your enthusiasm.

You may not think specific thoughts like these, but you may have vague emotions of worry, gloom, and fear around your creative work. Visceral self-doubts are tougher to deal with, because you are not simply arguing with habits of thought. You are dealing with deeper emotional connections. Wy not spend some time thinking of ways to break the routine of endless evaluating?

Get started.

One of the toughest things for a person with an artistic inspiration is to begin work on it. If you’re a writer, a wonderful idea for a new novel can feel like a new romance or adventure, bringing waves of elation and anticipation. But that novel inspiration comes with no guarantees, and there is no automatic process that will get the book written. That novel idea might lead to many months of writing and rewriting only to realize that you have twelve and a half chapters that simply won’t turn into anything. Why risk such failure? Why do something that could be a huge waste of time and energy?

One response to the doubting is, “Well why not?” If you’re going to write, you have to just write and write. Even the most skilled novelist must throw away lots of chapters and even entire novels that just won’t fly. You have to do lots of writing–including lots of disappointing writing–before you can learn to do some good writing. You can ask lots of questions about your ability and inexperience and what the big world thinks should be in a novel. You can spend a lot of time wondering if you have the right set of qualities and talents that make up “the successful writer.” Or, you can put the questions aside and start writing to see where it will lead.

Get finished.

Any kind of creative work has a huge element of plain old “work” in it, including things that are mundane, tedious, and difficult. When life demands that you dig in and get some work done, resist the boredom and discouragement. Keep practicing that music, keep revising and editing that poem, keep working stroke after stroke on that painting. It may be boring, it may be discouraging, but the path demands that you put in many long hours of sweat and stubborn focus. During those dull, hard steps in your work, you will be tempted to doubt yourself. “Am I good? Is this worth anything? Why is it so easy for others?” Trust the path, and get the work finished. You won’t know what the finished project will look like until you actually have it done. Why not throw yourself into the work till it takes you to its completion? Why not try to find fulfillment by losing yourself in the task for long stretches?

Be kind to your artistic self. Treat yourself the way a loving parent treats a child who is learning something new. Be supportive, objective, calm, and friendly toward yourself. Take yourself for a walk when that kid is having a bad day. Maybe treat that kid to some ice cream or play a game together. A child shouldn’t have to face endless scrutiny, worrying if her parent will disapprove yet again. Your artistic self needs that same kind of encouragement and guidance. That positive energy often does not come without some intention and effort. Wy not spend some time thinking of ways to replace habits of endless evaluating with habits of kindness toward yourself ?

Apr 152013

“Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” – Thomas Edison

From a young age Thomas Edison had a significant hearing loss. Legend says he took advantage of the impairment to isolate himself from social and educational experiences in pursuit of his experiments and speculations. Perhaps he came across as arrogant or unpleasant if he didn’t socialize much, but it’s obvious that his contributions to technology, science, and commerce have been immeasurable in the past few generations. The light bulb and the gramophone have changed our world’s history, and those are just two examples of Edison’s inventions.

I think of the creative person as having two minds–the inspired mind and the industrious mind.

When time is on your hands and you’re looking for the next project to start, turn on the inspired mind. Take in lots of inputs, take long walks, read, listen to music, wonder and speculate. Cast a wide net, open up, and let your right-brain imagination make unexpected connections. One definition of inspiration is when your brain makes odd connections between things that you and other people wouldn’t usually think to connect. Love is like a playground, a politician is a cat sleeping in the sun, and a hopeless heart needs a box of tools and a trip to the grocery store.

The industrious mind is very different. You’re deep in a project, so you need to put your head down and work. You don’t want your mind wandering around in many meandering trails. The industrious mind needs you to create a little world in your work, and to live deeply in that world. You close the door behind you and work. Emotions about your work are very distracting. Thinking about the whys of yourself, your work, and your little created world will disrupt your progress. The industrious mind relies on steady effort and immersion, closing yourself off from the world to get work done.

Sometimes all you need is inspiration. If you’re writing limericks or cute little poems like Ogden Nash wrote, the sixty-second intuitive burst is more likely your approach. I actually don’t know how much time or effort were required for Nash to complete one of his poems, but he wrote hundreds and hundreds of them so basic math says he must have cranked them out pretty quick.

On the other hand, writing a novel requires the industrious, meticulous approach stacking inspiration upon inspiration. As Walter Mosley points out in his book This Year You Write Your Novel, the complexities and innumerable connections in a good novel require hundreds of days to build. A writer cannot hope to hold an entire novel in her head at one time, let alone create the whole thing in a single, spontaneous bang of creativity.

In The Music Lover’s Handbook by Elie Sigmeister, the work of Schubert and Beethoven are contrasted along these lines. Schubert wrote songs, small pieces of fine music. His work operated on spontaneity and inspiration. Beethoven, on the other hand, created vast stretches of sound in longer forms such as the symphony and the concerto. Beethoven worked over his manuscripts and notebooks time and again. Scholars today study his notebooks to analyze the progress of his works from raw inspiration stepwise to the finished work.

What if Edison had spent more time asking if his work was worthwhile? What if he succumbed to feelings of boredom and discouragement? Part of creative work is being a little selfish, a little aloof, a little arrogant. You’d have to be playing deity to even intend on creating characters, scenes, and plots, let alone entire worlds.

Some people can turn off the speculative thoughts and turn on the industrious mind quite easily, while many others struggle to tame their unruly minds. This is where breath, thought, and meditation exercises can help strengthen your ability to intentionally focus on some things while pushing aside others.

Maybe you are in a place where you need to open up, play, expand, and imagine in order to fuel your inspired mind. If so, then turn off your industrious mind, don’t be too logical and serious. Don’t confine yourself to a little world, whether that rigid compartment is your artistic work, your family, your job, your sense of self, or your discouraged gloominess.

On the other hand, turn off the inspired mind and turn on the industrious when you have a piece of work underway. Enter the little world of that creation, and limit your mind’s wanderings. Less time thinking and feeling, more time creating. Don’t predict or expect, just work and sweat and see what the work brings you.

“Everything comes to him who hustles while he waits.” – Thomas Edison

Jul 192011

In The Inner Game of Music, Barry Green has a great chapter on integrating the analytical and intuitive sides of the musician’s mind.

Some musicians play from intuition, searching for expressions of beauty, passion, shock, sadness, and joy. The intuitive performer sometimes sounds sappy, gushy, corny, or sloppy because pitch, rhythm, and consistent control are not his foremost concern.

Other musicians are analytical, focusing on playing the notes correctly according to the marks on the page. The extreme form of the analytical musician functions like a musical robot, turning out sounds mechanically while suppressing all creative, human, emotional output.

Most musical kids grow up in the analytical path. They are scolded for inventing noises and improvising on their instruments. Band practice is about playing the correct notes and watching the director. Some kids sit there hardly making a sound so they will not get yelled at.

The intuitive kids are the ones who teach themselves how to play guitar or piano because they are fans of so-and-so. Sometimes there is a pride in being sloppy and untrained. I have met musicians who brag about not being able to read music and not even knowing the names of notes.

The struggle between intuitive and analytical can lead to performance problems. For example, imagine a musician is very intuitive when practicing. She enjoys practicing, enjoys exploring the music, and feels satisfied with her progress in getting more comfortable with her material. But when a performance comes along, she suddenly feels panic. Her analytical mind starts taking over, fueled by a sudden nervous surge of on-stage excitement. “How does that piece start?” “How fast should I play that thing?” “Am I playing that high part in tune?” It’s like having a committee meeting where one important member is brought in at the last second for a vote, but that member complains, “I don’t know what we’re voting on!”

Performance problems can come up for the analytical musician as well. SShe practices precisely, plays with sharp focus, good timing, and the correct articulations. When a performance comes along, she faces her intuitive mind, aroused from its hibernation by on-stage excitement. “What are all those people in the audience going to feel?” “Am I really ready for this?” “What if I sound boring?”

When practicing, notice which area you tend to emphasize. Are there ways to balance the analytical and intuitive sides in your practice?

Think about one of the music teachers you have had. Did that teacher have an emphasis on analytical or intuitive? Or did the teacher show a balance between the two, providing both structure and spontaneity?