Quotes and Notes
A little imprisonment—if it’s of your own making—can set you free. Rather than restricting your freedom, a routine gives you freedom by protecting you from the ups and downs of life and helping you take advantage of your limited time, energy, and talent. A routine establishes good habits that can lead to your best work.
“I make lists to keep my anxiety level down. If I write down fifteen things to be done, I lose that vague, nagging sense that there are an overwhelming number of things to be done, all of which are on the brink of being forgotten.” —Mary Roach
Creativity is about connection—you must be connected to others in order to be inspired and share your own work—but it is also about disconnection. You must retreat from the world long enough to think, practice your art, and bring forth something worth sharing with others. You must play a little hide-and-seek in order to produce something worth being found.
“The greatest need of our time is to clean out the enormous mass of mental and emotional rubbish that clutters our minds and makes of all political and social life a mass illness. Without this housecleaning, we cannot begin to see. Unless we see, we cannot think.” —Thomas Merton
When you reach for your phone or your laptop upon waking, you’re immediately inviting anxiety and chaos into your life. You’re also bidding adieu to some of the most potentially fertile moments in the life of a creative person. Many artists have discovered that they work best upon waking, when their mind is fresh, and they’re still in a quasi-dream state. The director Francis Ford Coppola says he likes to work in the early morning because “no one’s gotten up yet or called me or hurt my feelings.”
“I paint with my back to the world.” —Agnes Martin
If you wait for someone to give you a job title before you do the work, you might never get to do the work at all. You can’t wait around for someone to call you an artist before you make art. You’ll never make it. If and when you finally get to be the noun—when that coveted job title is bestowed upon you by others—don’t stop doing your verb. Job titles aren’t really for you, they’re for others. Let other people worry about them. Burn your business cards if you have to. Forget the nouns altogether. Do the verbs.
When my children are playing, they are deeply invested in their work. They focus their gazes like laser beams. They scrunch up their faces in concentration. When they can’t get their materials to do what they want them to do, they throw epic tantrums. Their best play, however, is acted out with a kind of lightness and detachment from their results. When my son Jules was two, I spent a ton of time watching him draw. I noticed that he cared not one bit about the actual finished drawing (the noun)—all his energy was focused on drawing (the verb). When he’d made the drawing, I could erase it, toss it in the recycling bin, or hang it on the wall. He didn’t really care.
One of the easiest ways to hate something you love is to turn it into your job: taking the thing that keeps you alive spiritually and turning it into the thing that keeps you alive literally. You must be mindful of what potential impact monetizing your passions could have on your life. You might find that you’re better off with a day job. When you start making a living from your work, resist the urge to monetize every single bit of your creative practice. Be sure there’s at least a tiny part of you that’s off-limits to the marketplace. Some little piece that you keep for yourself.
I noticed a long time ago that there’s actually very little correlation between what I love to make and share and the numbers of likes, favorites, and retweets it gets. I’ll often post something I loved making that took me forever and crickets chirp. I’ll post something else I think is sort of lame that took me no effort and it will go viral. If I let those metrics run my personal practice, I don’t think my heart could take it very long.
René Magritte said his goal with his art was “to breathe new life into the way we look at the ordinary things around us.” This is exactly what an artist does: By paying extra attention to their world, they teach us to pay more attention to ours. The first step toward transforming your life into art is to start paying more attention to it.
In an age obsessed with speed, slowing down requires special training.
Your attention is one of the most valuable things you possess, which is why everyone wants to steal it from you. First you must protect it, and then you must point it in the right direction.
“The purpose of being a serious writer is to keep people from despair,” writes Sarah Manguso. “If people read your work and, as a result, choose life, then you are doing your job.”
Of course, to change your mind is to do some real thinking. Thinking requires an environment in which you can try out all sorts of ideas and not be judged for them. To change your mind, you need a good place to have some bad ideas.
Interacting with people who don’t share our perspective forces us to rethink our ideas, strengthen our ideas, or trade our ideas for better ones. When you’re only interacting with like-minded people all the time, there’s less and less opportunity to be changed. Everybody knows that feeling you get when you’re hanging out with people who love the same art, listen to the same music, and watch the same movies: It’s comforting at first, but it can also become incredibly boring and ultimately stifling.
A reader once sent me a note remarking that while he didn’t share my politics, he felt he was able to really listen to what I had to say, rather than tuning out what he didn’t want to hear. He suspected it had to do with the creative spirit, that connection you feel with another person you know is trying their best to bring new, beautiful things into the world. Try your best to seek out the like-hearted people with whom you feel this connection.
But it’s not an accident that my studio is a mess. I love my mess. I intentionally cultivate my mess. Creativity is about connections, and connections are not made by siloing everything off into its own space. New ideas are formed by interesting juxtapositions, and interesting juxtapositions happen when things are out of place.
You’re often most creative when you’re the least productive.
I don’t want to know how a thirty-year-old became rich and famous; I want to hear how an eighty-year-old spent her life in obscurity, kept making art, and lived a happy life.