How to Make Time for Your Art and Find Your Creative Flow

How to Make Time for Your Art and Find Your Creative Flow

. . .even when you’re busy or it feels really hard

Last month I offered my patrons on Patreon the challenge to spend ten minutes a day making art. I took on the challenge too.

Just ten minutes, but every day. I gave them a blank calendar for the month to track the challenge and told them to keep those Xs going without breaking the chain.

Many artists have used this daily commitment to foster their creativity to good effect. Both Austin Kleon, author of the wonderful guide Steal Like an Artist, and Stephen Pressfield, author of the ground-breaking book The War of Art, champion this approach.

Benefits of the challenge

Taking on the challenge of creating every day for ten minutes can be very helpful for getting out of a rut and also learning to make time for your art.

Just ten minutes a day can restore your creative flow, your inspiration, and pretty soon you find yourself spending longer on the days when you can.

You’ll discover the time you do have, and how to break away from your distracting addictions to the internet or whatever it is you do instead of doing what you love.

Keeping the challenge to ten minutes helps reduce your resistance to creating (though you’ll still have to battle it) and helps ensure you don’t break the chain, no matter how busy your day is.

You will be surprised to see all that can get done in a very short amount of time. Stories get written. You learn to play the guitar. You fill up a sketchbook with drawings.

Best of all, you are making art every day.

Getting through the slog

But initially, the going can be tough. Here’s how I felt in the middle of the month-long challenge:

“So far the results have been awful. I have no inspiration. I’m dried up from a combination of overwork during the last few months and overstress at world events. I call this phase ‘grinding the gears.’

“Right now, I don’t like anything I write. Nonetheless, I keep writing, because by oiling the gears, I invite the muse to return. I show up reliably and she is likely to start showing up too.

“I know it works because I’ve been through this phase many times before, and it’s only through persisting in writing that I break through suddenly one day to a voice that excites me.

“Meanwhile, I experiment with different approaches to those ten minutes. Many days I spend much more than ten minutes.

“And, I also keep an eye out for what new sources of inspiration I need to feed my muse now to entice her out of hiding.”

Variations on a theme

Similarly, last month I suggested to one of my students, who has struggled to make time for her art, that she spend an hour a day in her studio for a month.

She had expressed that she keeps letting other things in her life take precedence and was feeling frustrated by this. So, I invited her to make a strong commitment to herself and her art for one month and see what happens.

I advised her to do this in the morning before everything else starts to get in the way. I told her she could use the time any way she wanted as long as she was in the studio. She could doodle. She could flip through art books for inspiration. She could stare out the window. She should let this be free playtime.

Here is what she discovered.

Sometimes she would spend an hour in the studio early in the day. Sometimes she wouldn’t get to it until the end of the day, when she would sit in bed with her sketchbook. Both felt good.

She worked both on a big painting, a much larger canvas than anything she is used to, and on small projects.

She also discovered that, after five days she needs a weekend off to replenish. This is her rhythm, and it’s right for her. It helps her return to the studio with new energy, refreshed.

So, she needed to let go of holding fast to the idea of having 30 uninterrupted days crossed off on her calendar.

She also discovered that sometimes after, say, 40 minutes, she felt done, but she would force herself to do a full hour, and those last 20 minutes were just painful. In other words, that wasn’t helping her be in a good relationship with her muse, her creativity. It turned out she needed to let go of holding so tightly to the full hour every day too.

So, she discovered a better intention was to gift herself an hour a day of creative time five days a week.

And, if she was faithful to the intention, not letting other busyness eat up all her time, then she didn’t need to be a tyrant with herself about it. She could allow a little flexibility, surprise, variation into the mix, and ultimately that benefitted her creativity.

But she also acknowledged it’s a delicate balance to maintain.

Finding your own rhythm

Each of us has to find what works for us. What truly works to support our best creative flow and our best life.

What makes this so tricky is that many of us are masters at lying to ourselves about this, fooling ourselves, letting our resistance get the better of us. And then suddenly, weeks go by and we haven’t made any art, and our lives stop feeling joyful and meaningful.

The challenge is finding and maintaining your own creative flow. When you give yourself permission to vary your routines or spend less time than you planned in the studio, you have to be careful that you aren’t sliding back into making no time for your art.

Or, when you tell yourself that you can’t create unless you have at least two hours uninterrupted, but then rarely give yourself those two hours, that is just sabotage.

So, you have to find a middle way, like the Buddha taught, between asceticism and indulgence, between structure and flexibility. You have to find your own way, through experimentation and self-honesty.

Half-way through this past month I skipped one day but played music instead of writing on that day, so I counted it. That weekend I skipped Friday completely, too fried from the onslaught of the world crisis to do anything. It seemed like a kindness to myself. But then I skipped that Sunday too and that didn’t feel good.

The next week I was back in the saddle, writing daily at least ten minutes, recommitted to the challenge, and finally inspiration was beginning to flow. By the weekend, I needed both days off, or at least, I thought I did.

The balance between structure and spontaneity

Most of us have both an inner taskmaster and an inner rebel. They go hand-in-hand.

Neither one in its extreme form is our friend, though both have gifts that can be channeled in service to our art.

One gives us the commitment and structure to show up devotedly for our art. The other grants variety and zest that helps keep things new and not turning into dull routine, feeling like a should or have to instead of a get to or want to.

Life is hard in many ways. Making art should bring joy and pleasure, as well as meaning, to our lives. So, we want to preserve the pleasure and not turn our art-making into drudgery.

Artists need structure and commitment to get past resistance to creating, but once past it, we also need self-kindness and an understanding of what truly fosters our best creative flow and our best lives. And we need a little wildness to keep things fresh and alive.

I find it’s less important to create every single day than it is to find a consistent pattern and stick to it devotedly.

If it works best for you to create five days a week for an hour, then make that your religious practice. If it’s one day a week all day or every day for at least ten minutes, stick to that. You have to find what works to maintain your best inspired flow, and what’s possible, given the real constraints of your life.

If you don’t yet know, experiment. I highly recommend trying the 10-minutes-a-day challenge for a month.

Taking on small challenges, conducting month-long or short-term experiments, inspires and motivates you to create and helps you gather information about your creative rhythms and what truly works for you.

Then, take what you’ve learned from the experiment and use it to foster an ongoing, joyful, inspired creative life. A life that is uniquely yours.

To your best life,

Maxima

P.S. Every month I give my patrons a creative idea, challenge and/or theme to play with, along with many other rewards. I’d love to have you join us. Click here to find out more:  https://www.patreon.com/maximakahn

Scenes from the Past: A Creativity Prompt

Scenes from the Past: A Creativity Prompt

In my post last week, I shared with you how to get inspiration and training by copying the masters of your art form and translating what you learn to your own unique style. If you missed that, click here for Great Artists Steal or How to Learn from the Masters.

This week, I promised you a new creative “prompt” or idea to jumpstart your own inspiration and creativity.

What the Heck is a Prompt?

A prompt is an idea or jumping off point for creating new work. Its purpose is to get the creative juices flowing and open you to new directions that may prove very fertile. A prompt may inspire, challenge, delight or motivate, or all of the above.

Many artists share that their best work often comes from prompts given by others.

Using prompts is a great way to:

  1. Move past artist’s block and get started creating anything.
  2. Get inspired.
  3. Expand your creative possibilities.
  4. Discover new tools.
  5. Create new work that may surprise you.

A New Idea for You Today

Master of Disguises book coverI have been reading poet Charles Simic’s recent book, Master of Disguises. Simic is a Pulitzer-Prize winner and former U.S. Poet Laureate. Despite that, I don’t really love his writing, though I can appreciate its artistry. It’s just not my style. In fact, it’s about as far from my style as you can get. And that’s one reason he can be a good source for me to learn from, a good master to copy.

Here’s the prompt I created for myself from reading one of his poems. First the poem that inspired it.

Scenes of the Old Life

Washing hung from the fire escapes.
Boys threw cats from rooftops. 
War veterans hopped on crutches,
Pitching pennies and smoking reefers.

Writers destined to remain obscure
Wrote late into the night
Using a pencil and the kind of notebook
Their children took to school in the morning.

Outside a club advertising exotic dancing girls,

A man in a crumpled white suit
Staggered with a knife in his heart,
One dark eyebrow raised in surprise.

In winter, rain fell as if it meant to fall forever.

We kept the gas oven lit to warm ourselves,

While mother cried and cried chopping onions

And my one goldfish swam in a pickle jar.
—Charles Simic

Your Assignment, Should You Choose to Accept It

Copy Charles Simic’s poem “Scenes of the Old Life” formally as exactly as possible. Here’s how.

  1. Start simply by making a list of strong images that are memories from your childhood. Get a good sized list. Notice how Simic chooses images from his environment and then narrows down to one that is quite personal at the end of the poem.
  2. Choose the strongest of the scenes or images from your list, paring them down to ones that create a cohesive or similar mood throughout the poem, as Simic does.
  3. Make a poem that follows Simic’s form exactly. You may need to choose images/scenes that work best to do this.

To follow his form, your poem will:

  • Be made entirely of striking images/short scenes.
  • Express each image in a short pithy line or a few lines. If you want to completely follow his form, you might use the same number of lines for each of your images or scenes that he does. In Simic’s poem, the first line is one image, the second line another, and the last two lines of the first stanza are a third image. Are they all one scene? That’s for you to decide. The next stanza is clearly one scene.
  • Be a poem of 4 stanzas made of 4 lines each (called a quatrain).
  • Use simple, straight-forward syntax and language, be made of complete grammatical sentences.
  • Contain many “end-stopped” lines (though not all of them), meaning the line ends with a comma or period.
  • Mention the season at some point (as he mentions winter).

Once you’ve created a first draft, feel free to edit, revise or stray from the form in some ways to make the best poem you can.

Translate the Same Prompt to Other Media

modern dancer

photo by Olena Kotyk on Unsplash

If you are not a poet, you can start by making the same list of potent images from your childhood, including one set in a particular season. Then, make a painting, drawing, sculpture, musical piece or dance piece, based on a collection of those “scenes.”

You might make a rule for yourself that you have to use the same number of different scenes or images that he does. Or you might decide you are going to make a painting divided into four equal squares, each with a scene in it, as he has four stanzas in his poem.

If you feel stumped, start small. Give yourself the assignment to make a 1-minute dance piece or to do a 10-minute sketch based on one particularly striking scene. If you don’t make representational art, make something that conjures the images or feelings evoked by the list of scenes.

The idea is to stretch yourself and see what you learn and discover.

I’d love to hear how it goes for you.

 

 

P.S. Please share this post with friends who might be inspired to create new work, using the share buttons below!

P.P.S. To learn more about poet Charles Simic and read more of his poems online, click here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/charles-simic

Great Artists Steal or How to Learn from the Masters

Great Artists Steal or How to Learn from the Masters

T.S. Eliot famously wrote, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”

What did Eliot mean by this seemingly outrageous assertion? He wasn’t talking about plagiarism, which would be directly quoting or copying exactly another artist’s work. What he was talking about is recognizing great ideas, great techniques, great tools and making them your own.

When you borrow something, it doesn’t belong to you. When you steal, it becomes yours, a part of your unique artistic style.

How To Steal and Make It Your Own

  • You observe closely. Take note of exactly what the artist is doing that makes their work so powerful and effective. What is the shape and weight of the line? How do they create that shading effect? Where are the line breaks in the poem? How is metaphor used? What is the structure of the musical piece? What is unusual about the harmony, the melody? Most of all, what is it you like so much about it?
  • Man playing piano

    by Francisco Gomes on Unsplash

    You start by copying. Many student artists are given the assignment to reproduce a great work of art. Many musicians learn to play note-for-note the solos that great performers improvised. This is phenomenal training. If you can pull it off, as closely as possible, you will learn an enormous amount about how to make a great work of art.

    And, significantly, you will learn it in your body. As your hand attempts to create the exact curve and delicacy of line of a Michelangelo sketch, your body engages in deep learning about beauty, art and drawing. When you learn something in your body, as opposed to just consuming information in your mind, you truly learn it. It becomes a part of you.

  • You adapt what you love to your own art. Once you’ve learned the techniques and embodied them, you return to your own voice and aesthetic, your unique expression, enriched with a powerful palette. Now, your job is to find exciting, inventive, imaginative ways to use those tools and techniques to express what is uniquely you. Now it is time to be authentic, to say what you need to say, while using what you’ve learned works to make extraordinary art.

    The brilliant editor Shawn Coyne [visit his site Storygrid.com for loads of free, useful information] talks about the importance of including in your writing the “obligatory scenes” and “conventions” of whatever genre you are writing in. He stresses that a story won’t “work” for readers without these scenes and conventions. For instance, the thriller genre must include a scene of the “hero at the mercy of the villain.” And yet, he adds, the challenge and the art is to create those obligatory scenes and satisfy those conventions of the genre in new and surprising ways.

Learn By Copying

I once typed up all of Salinger’s masterful short story “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” so I could feel what it took to write a great short story. I learned so much about how the story was made, even though I had read it many times before. For example, I was surprised to discover how much of the story is dialogue.

I got the idea to type Salinger’s story from the great Hungarian composer Bela Bartok. Bartok copied by hand all of Beethoven’s string quartets before writing one of his own, so he knew what it would feel like to write a great quartet. Time-consuming, painstaking work. The result:  He wrote six magnificent string quartets of his own that sound nothing like Beethoven.

When You Need Inspiration, Look Around You

Artist at desk

by Tamarcus Brown on Unsplash

As a graphic designer, when I needed a great idea for a new client or project, I would start by looking at other designs—on book covers, coffee cans, posters—and also in nature and all around me. I would look for colors, shapes, ideas that jumped out at me. And I would steal: That use of layout, those wonderful colors, that arrow highlighting an important element.

Sometimes I practiced reproducing a layout exactly, so I could learn how to do it. I’d often have to discover new uses of tools on my computer.

But my designs were my own. I stole elements and great ideas from other designers, but not whole designs. In this way, I expanded my palette as a designer and didn’t get stuck in ruts.

I often practice writing poems and stories, modeling the style, voice and/or exact forms of other poets. This is a way of apprenticing myself to them and getting new ideas, new possibilities.

My students worry that if they do this, they will sound too much like some other writer. My feeling is that you would be very fortunate indeed if you manage to create something truly reminiscent of some famous writer. In the process, you will be becoming a better writer. And then, you can use that knowledge to sound more like yourself. 

Become an Apprentice

If you want to be great, study the masters. Artists apprentice themselves to great artists in order to learn, to grow, to study their art and craft. David Levine wrote about this, “Shakespeare routinely stole plotlines and even whole scenes from other writers for his own plays.” Remember, stealing means making it your own, not just direct imitation.

Austin Kleon wrote a wonderfully inspiring, helpful, wise and fun book that leaps off from this idea of theft as being important to the creation of art. His book is called Steal Like An Artist. I recommend it highly.

What artist will you commit to studying in depth and stealing from today?

In my next post, I’ll give you a specific “stealing” assignment, a creative prompt based on the work of another artist, for you to use as a jumping off place. Stay tuned!

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