Apr 302014

Everyone I talk to about doing artistic work raises the topic of needing more time in the day. “I’m so busy–how can I squeeze in my creative pursuits?” Here are some quick tips that may help.

1. Give Up Something

Choose a specific activity that you will give up to make time for your creative work. Maybe you don’t need to watch all 162 games of your favorite baseball team. Maybe you can give up that committee you’ve been volunteering on for nineteen years. It’s not that these are bad things, but sometimes you need to say no to other activities to make room for your creative work.

What you are telling yourself: “I am doing my work. My work matters as much as everything else in my busy life.”

2. Handle Distractions

The phone ringing, the kids doing kid stuff, noise from outside, your sore left knee. The dirty dishes and the dirty laundry and the plant by the window that needs watering. And there’s always something to look at on the Web. Immersing yourself in creative work will require you to block out the world for a while.

Then there are the distractions from within. “My boss was such a pain today.” “Maybe I’m no good at this writing thing.” Whatever thoughts arise that are not contributing to your work, let them float away down the stream of consciousness.

For most people, the earlier in the day you start your creative work, the fewer the distractions. If getting started early is available to you, give it a try.

What you are telling yourself: “It’s hard to do my work with such a busy life, but I am equal to these distractions.”

3. Create Every Day

Pick a time and place where you’ll work every day. Tell the other people in your house, “I’m writing each morning before I get ready for work.” Hang up a sign to remind you and others of your plan.

If you want to create in a fulfilling way, you need to put in the time and attention. There are no shortcuts. Getting to your work every day will help you move from dabbling to creating.

You may need a transition period if all you can manage are a few minutes per day. Even a little time and space each day is a good start. If you can begin to spend a little more thought and effort on creating, then you’re heading in the right direction.

What you are telling yourself: “My artistic work demands a great deal of time and brain power. So I will show up to work every day.”

4. Plan A Project

Let’s say you show up at your chosen time and place to do some writing, You will also need a concrete idea of what you will write. You will need a form and a goal. Think in terms of describing your current project to others. “I’m writing a short story, a dark suspense thing.” “I’m writing an article about the need for improvements to the parks and playgrounds in the south half of town.” “I’m working on the second draft of my novel.”

This goes for other types of work too. A musician practices honestly when she can state her aim for that session with her instrument. An artist works with focus when he knows what he is painting.

Treat “to create” as a transitive verb, always needing an object. What specifically are you working on?

What you are telling yourself: “I know what I am working on. I’m not just creating–I’m creating something.”

Moving On

When you put tips like these to use, you are sending a message to yourself and others that your work matters. Most of us have time in our hectic lives to get our creating done. See if you can use a few of these ideas to get more momentum behind your artistic work.

Sometimes life is just too busy, and there truly is no time to give to your creating. If that is your situation, be patient, and look for opportunities to simplify other parts of your life so you can get to your creative endeavors in the future.

Nov 202013

Have you ever heard of a “memory leak?” It’s a classic problem in programming computer software.

A memory leak occurs when an application doesn’t let go of memory when it is done using it. For example, an ATM shouldn’t try to keep information about all customers that have used it in the past week. It only needs to hold the current customer’s information. Once a person logs in, makes a transaction, then logs out, the transaction is stored permanently in the bank’s systems. The ATM is done with that customer, so it should free its memory and wait for the next customer.

If the ATM isn’t programmed properly, it might not free up all its memory after each customer transaction is finished. Over time the machine has less and less memory until it starts to run slowly or crashes. The memory seems to leak away. It’s there, but the flawed programming doesn’t use it efficiently.

A person doing artistic work can have memory leaks too. A human “memory leak” is a common cause of the sluggish, stuck experience known as a “creative block.”

Often A blocked writer starts getting ideas when he frees up his brain’s memory capacity. The grocery list, the dog’s facial appointment, and the sequence of episodes in the first four seasons of his favorite TV show take up valuable brain power that could otherwise be used for creating and editing. The grocery list can be written down, so it doesn’t need to be held continually in his mind. The dog’s appointment can go on the calendar. And, well sometimes trivia about TV shows really isn’t very important, is it?

A musician waiting to go onstage holds a tremendous amount of cognitive and emotional information in her mind. “I’m nervous. I want to make a good impression. Did I forget anything? Why is the light so odd in this place?” That information is powerful. It sends messages to the body such as, “Be alert! This is a vulnerable situation.” If the fear response escalates, she may experience Shaky hands, sweaty armpits, and a dry mouth. She may feel stiff, stunned, and blocked, wondering why things are always so scary onstage.

If she can free up some brain power by letting go of the “worry” information, then her mind and body will have resources available for making music and connecting with her audience. However, if her mind holds onto those “I’m scared” feelings and thoughts long after they have served their purpose, she will not move efficiently from a defensive state to a confident one.

Here are some simple things you can try to reclaim some brain power when you feel blocked:

  1. Take long, deep breaths
  2. Write down to-do lists
  3. Watch less TV
  4. Take a few minutes to do nothing
  5. Replace a worried thought with a hopeful one
  6. Start your creative work earlier in the day
  7. Write your appointments and reminders in a calendar
  8. Take a nap
  9. Avoid trivia
  10. go for a walk or a run
  11. Make time to daydream
  12. Change your routines regularly
  13. Spend time with an animal
  14. Go to bed a little earlier
  15. Fall in love with your creative endeavors
  16. Say encouraging things to yourself every day
  17. Keep working even when you don’t feel like it
May 132013

Every few days I end up in a conversation with some musicians where the topic is, “Why we all hate marketing and business stuff surrounding our music.” Musicians hate marketing, hate cold-calling DJs, hate negotiating gigs, and hate asking to get paid to play.

In his new book, Making Your Creative Mark, Eric Maisel gives some great reframing or thought-substitution techniques to get through the discouraging stuff. The basic idea is to be attentive to your inner conversations, and eliminate thoughts that do not serve your interests.

Here’s an example:

“I have to call three or four people today to start setting up gigs for this winter.” OK, that’s a good, sensible, useful thing to have in your head.

Then along comes the next thought. “I hate calling people. I wish I didn’t have to do that stupid stuff.” OK, this is where you need some substituting. You hate making business calls, but it’s not useful to think too much about that. What could you substitute?

“I don’t like making biz calls, but it only takes about twenty minutes. Then I can get on with something more interesting. Besides, I haven’t talked to Carol in Colorado for a while, and she’s always great to talk to.”

That substitution will give you a much better chance of actually getting those calls done. Kind of obvious? Yes. But discouragement and procrastination are built on gloomy moods, not following what is obvious and logical. And as Maisel points out, it is often very useful to let go of a thought even though it may be true. You hate doing something, fine if that’s true. But let go of that thought if it doesn’t serve your creativity.

Of course artistic passion means more than simply finding ways to get tedious tasks done. Obsessed, devoted, impetuous, falling madly, lustily, foolishly, hopelessly in love with your creativity. Forget discipline–this isn’t military training. It’s your romance with that instrument, that moment of writing, that dance, applying tools to wood and stone, speaking to the canvas with your brushes.

In the same book, Maisel writes that passion is what separates artists from dabblers. Some people can create casually, occasionally working at something, but usually one must stay passionate and be in the work day after day to create well. The concept of “getting into flow” is often spoken of in terms of immersing into something for several hours. But flow can also be a way of life, where artistic passion is a driving and directing force behind everything you do day upon day.

A runner must have strong mental and emotional focus during a race. But she also trains day after day with that same competitive drive and intensity. The passion to succeed is not a switch she can turn on right before a race and then forget it afterward. Success comes from wanting it and living like she means it. That’s the same kind of passion needed to live a fulfilling artistic life.

This new book from Eric Maisel is one of the best things I’ve seen in a while for the creative personality. He covers the most common difficulties and struggles facing artistic people–your thoughts, confidence, passion, identity, freedom, and relationships. If you’re not on the bandwagon reading every new book that coms along for artists, writers, or musicians, that’s cool. But this is one book I’d recommend to everyone with the desire to create.

Dec 272012

Are you stuck in artistic quicksand, unable to get going with your art, music, acting, or writing,? Perhaps you see yourself in the following picture:

You have conflicting emotions about your work. You procrastinate consistently through sophisticated techniques of diversion and distraction. You spend about ninety minutes this month on your work, but next month you promise yourself that you’ll dive into it every evening and weekend to make up for squandered time. And you keep wondering why you have such frustrating flaws when others seem to be so prolific.

Getting unstuck is no simple job, but there are some common tactics that many find helpful. First, understand that feeling trapped in artistic quicksand is practically a universal experience. Most people find digging deep and creating to be tough stuff, so don’t think you are unusual because you can’t get going. Writing a novel requires you to sweat and struggle far more than writing a business memo or a grocery list. Finishing your painting is much more demanding than helping your third-grader finish his homework. (Well, it’s supposed to be, but some third-graders can be pretty stubborn.)

Sometimes the answer is getting your mind back into practical things. It’s hard to work when you keep asking yourself, “Am I talented? Does my work matter? What if I’m choosing the wrong project? What if people hate it when it’s done?” Better to quiet down the mind and give yourself over to the task at hand. Turn off your super-busy thoughts, and pick up the paint brush, pen, script, or score. Trust yourself and submerge yourself in your work.

On the other hand, you might feel overwhelmed by the myriad little steps that lie ahead. You’re chugging along on your novel, and you keep thinking, “I’ve still got tens of thousands of words to write. I’ve been working on this for a year and a half, and my inspired feelings left me a long time ago. It’s enough to make Sisyphus pity me!”

The bored, uninspired times are to be expected, even when you have endless energy and an optimistic attitude. When you feel a deep doubt inside, it may be a good time to consider what you value most. Usually the answer is something like, “I keep forgetting how much I love my work. I’ve been so busy worrying that I’ve lost sight of my artistic heart. I have to remember that if I can work for ten hours a week, I’ll have this project done in maybe twelve to eighteen months.” If your inspired mind can cheer on your industrious, methodical side, then you have a good chance of getting through the dull days.

You might try investing in some non-creating time for renewal and strength. Like a tennis player who works out in the gym to improve her game on the court, you may benefit from some supporting activities. Here are some suggestions.

  • Meditation and attention exercises to strengthen your mental focus
  • Healthy diet and physical exercise to increase your stamina
  • Attending workshops, reading books, and relying on the expertise of others to gain business savvy
  • Relaxation and stress-reduction techniques to manage anxiety
  • Taking long walks to refresh your mind and feed your imagination
  • Investing a little extra time into planning and scheduling to keep your projects on track
  • Loving yourself, being your own number-one fan and supporter

Artistic quicksand is no joke. When you’re stuck, it’s miserable. But almost all of us feel the doubts and worries that you feel. And there are practical things that might help you in your particular little patch of quicksand now. Push yourself, ask a friend to keep you accountable, find a supportive group of peers, or get a creativity coach. The path leading into the quicksand is well worn, but the path out is probably a lot closer than you think.

Aug 032012

We all get stuck in artistic quicksand from time to time. That bored, uninspired, pessimistic fog can creep in and mess with the imagination. What do you do when you find yourself saying things like this?

  • I feel blue and uninspired about what to work on next, but I don’t know why.
  • I have no motivation.
  • I don’t have any good ideas left.
  • the project I just finished was a huge success, and I got lots of positive feedback on it–so now I feel gloomy and discouraged about the future for some illogical reason.
  • My last project was a flop. I don’t feel like going through that again, but I want to work on something.

There are lots of things you could do to get yourself motivated and inspired. You might take some walks. Maybe talking about your struggles with a friend helps you get unstuck. For a lot of people, journaling is one of the best exercises to clear some debris and undergrowth from the creative path.

Journaling? Really?

Maybe the idea of journaling sounds frivolous or boring to you. You might say, “Look, I’m not the type of person to write a hundred pages about how being a third-born sibling set me back fifteen years in my emotional development. And I’m not about to write out some plan for what I will do every day for the next five years. The last thing I want is some homework assignment to take up what little time and energy I have left.”

OK, none of us wants a boring burdensome introspection project, fair enough. But I actually have something simpler in mind. For me, journaling is writing down your reflections about yourself and your experiences over some time in order to maintain a broader perspective on yourself. It’s just using the act of writing to orient yourself so your moods and problems don’t completely cloud over your view of things. I’m suggesting that you simply spend time regularly reflecting and writing about yourself.

If you’re feeling stuck or uninspired right now, then start writing down your thoughts about that. Use the pen or keyboard to bring some order and logic to the problem. No deep self-psychoanalysis necessary, just getting your mind a little more focused on what you want to do about your quicksand.

Here are some practical steps for getting started with journaling:

  • Next time you’re at the drug store pick up one of those 100-page composition books that kids use in school. The smaller ones with fewer pages are great so you don’t feel like you have lots of blank paper that you need to fill up.
  • Pick a specific time and place to journal every day for a few days. Mornings are often a good choice, because that is when your mind is rested and not yet cluttered with the irritations and stresses of the day.
  • Just write. You can ask yourself questions. You can talk to yourself. You can just write silly rhymes and weird musings that pop into your mind, if that is helpful or meaningful. No one else needs to read this, so just write what you need to write.
  • Go into it with no expectations. The journaling might be a waste of time, or it might change your life. Everyone’s experience will be a little different. Try not to expect anything–just see what happens.

You don’t need to make journaling an intense, life-long commitment. I personally don’t like to journal much, but I do find it helpful from time to time. There’s no “should” here–just try it if you think it might be useful, and forget it if it doesn’t do much for you.

Time Traveling

Try one of these prompts to get your words flowing:

Travel to the past: Think of someone from your past that is one of your heroes. What advice would this hero give you for today?

Travel to the future: Imagine a conversation with your future self–maybe yourself five or ten years from now. What wisdom and encouragement would you get from conversing with your future self?

Give it a try for a few days. Jot down a few paragraphs every morning for the next week or so, letting your past heroes or future self offer some advice and perspective.

And, while we’re talking about time travel, allow me to recommend my favorite time-travel novel, Borgel by Daniel Pinkwater. This little novel is no longer in print as a stand-alone, so you might need to look for a used copy to buy. Or, you can buy it as part of Pinkwater’s Four Fantastic Novels collection. Or, you can listen to the free audio book at pinkwater.com.

Mar 252012

Imagine a person who builds a house making frequent mistakes from beginning to end without even knowing it. The foundation is not level and solidly laid. The supports are not plumb, the walls are not sturdy, all because the builder did not do anything about the mistakes. If the builder would recognize and correct each mistake as it happens, then the house would turn out beautifully. Maybe all that correcting and reworking would take three times as long to complete the house. But which result is better–a rapidly completed house that is flawed and worthless, or a slowly built house that turns out wonderful in the end??

Last night I was out for dinner and some live music with a crew of friends. The topic of practicing guitar came up. We talked about how hard it is to notice mistakes, and then to decide what to do about them. It seems like the whole point of practicing is to improve, but seeing mistakes and fixing them can be tricky when practicing becomes mindless routine and unconscious habit.

Watch yourself as you practice to notice as many mistakes as possible.
Once you find a mistake, then you must decide what to do about it. You can choose to ignore it, because you are intentionally focusing on another part of your playing. Or you can stop and work on the mistake until you are playing the passage correctly. Or you can plan to work on the mistake later. Do you make a deliberate choice with your mistakes, or do you follow a habit or routine without much awareness?

The most obvious choice is to stop and fix a mistake when it happens. How does a musician fix a mistake? By repeating the phrase or passage and trying to play it correctly? By improvising an exercise to focus on the underlying skill needed to correct the mistake? By focusing your mental attention to the trouble spot to clarify the connection between mind and muscles? Identifying the cause of the mistake might point you to the best remedy. If the problem is mental distraction, then you will need to put more focused attention on the problem. If the cause is physical, then you will need to work on muscles and technique. Sometimes a mistake is more stylistic–a weak or forced presentation. In that case you will need to combine your imagination and technique to develop a more effective interpretation for the piece.

Here’s a novel way to make some good use of your practice-time mistakes. Watch for mistakes as you play, and write down a nice long list of them. Do this for fifteen or twenty minutes, and suddenly you have a list that can serve as your practice agenda for the coming weeks and months. If your practice time is boring or uninspired, build your mistake list and get to work.

I once read in a book of Zen sayings that “life is a continuous mistake.” That saying has stuck with me for years. Life is messy, and people make mistakes all the time. Sometimes we don’t see our mistakes, and they just continue to happen. Other times we can recognize them and use them to grow and improve. It works for practicing music, and it works for other areas of life. Look for your mistakes in your relationships, your finances, and the way you spend your time. It’s a good thing we are all so flawed, because we have lots of mistakes to help us learn and grow.

Nov 052011

Today I ran across this blog post on violinist.com about a violin student’s tears when facing the challenge of playing Bach. I’m an appalachian fiddler, not a classical violinist, but I can relate to a few points here.

Point #1: don’t count on linear progression in your efforts to improve. The writer describes how a piece can make intonation and other technical issues come to the fore. I see this with my Appalachian music buddies. We’ll take a simple tune and try it out, and it seems ready to go within a few tries. then after playing it at gigs for a while, suddenly the tune seems to lose its groove, and we have to really practice hard on it to tighten it up. Now you have it, and suddenly you lost it and struggle to find it again.

I see this in my private practice on the fiddle. I’ll work on tone exercises for a few months, and suddenly my timing seems off. I work on timing, and my intonation slips. then I work on intonation, and circle around and around. Music is like other parts of life: You keep learning the same lessons over and over.

Point #2: Don’t assume that your subjective experience of playing a piece corresponds exactly to the objective experience of hearing it. In the Bach blog post, the student feels like she is losing ground while the teacher hears progress. I see this dispute between subjective and objective in myself and in other musicians fairly regularly. “did that sound OK?” “I didn’t play very well.” “You sounded great. Why do you act like you didn’t play so well?”

It helps to give less than one hundred percent credence to your subjective experience of playing. Listen to the subjective, but then ask others for their input and feedback to balance things out.

Point #3: Perfection? What is that? I appreciate the idea of holding oneself to very high standards. but perfection means playing in tune, playing in exact rhythm, all the technical and mechanical parts of music. What about emotion and personality? What about smiling at the audience, or playing with sadness, or vulnerability? for my appalachian fiddle music, it’s about making people tap their feet and getting up to dance. If I skip a few notes but have a strong pulse and drive, that’s a successful performance.

Aug 062011

You’ve got some talent? You’ve had some success?

According to hockey star Evgeni Malkin, that’s not enough.

Malkin (known as “Geno” by his teammates and fans) plays for the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins. He won the legendary Stanley Cup with the Penguins in 2009 and was awarded the Most Valuable Player trophy for that year’s playoff season. All this in his early twenties. The man is just getting started.

Malkin missed half of the 2010-2011 season with a devastating knee injury. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, he has learned the value of training and improving. This article points out the benefits of the rigorous rehab process for Malkin, who needed to learn better ways to work out.

My brilliant wife Robin points out that legendary NHL player Gary Roberts also learned about conditioning and training only after a serious injury. Roberts was a fan favorite in Pittsburgh a few years ago for his ferocious and tenacious effort on the ice, so I have a hard time imagining him in the skinny-fat club. (OK, why are you all looking at me when I say the term “skinny’fat”?)

For musicians, artists, actors, and writers, there’s a great lesson here. Talent and success need to be combined with self-improvement. Getting better is a skill. You can relax on last year’s success, hoping that your audience will not notice that you’re treading water. Or you can relish last year’s success while working hard to do your best on your current creative work. Nothing takes the place of a serious work ethic.

Jul 302011

Jazz pianist Marcus Roberts’s music is very smart and very spirited. His trio’s recordings are free, beautiful, fun, and brilliant. I particularly recommend their “Time And Circumstance” CD where all three members of the trio stretch out, really showing some personality and imagination. All the Marcus Roberts CDs I’ve heard have been fabulous, so I’d recommend any of them.

I recently read the Q and A section of Roberts’s website. Very thoughtful stuff. When people say “just play scales, just practice the mechanics,” it’s great to know that people like Roberts are out there putting all their mind, imagination, and determination into the music.

A few highlights from the Q and A page:

  • Roberts sees practicing as “solving problems.” This is one of my favorite phrases when practicing or teaching. You got to listen to the sound you’re making. Then you got to figure out what the problems are. Then you know what to solve. Practicing is a lot more than just going through some motions.
  • Roberts talks about how the notion of innovation is overrated. If everyone creates a new genre, a new subgenera, a totally unique approach, then we don’t have much connection and community. Roberts seems to be saying, put your personality and unique voice into the music, but you’re still best off standing on the shoulders of those who have made this music in past generations.
  • Roberts speaks about how musicians should listen to great recordings and figure out what all the instruments are doing, not just yours. This has come up a good bit recently, as I mentioned in a post about how Del Ray gets a lot of her guitar bass lines from boogie piano. Listening is a huge part of being an evolving musician.