Every artist I know is the same. The passion we have for our work inspires us to create something new every day. New photos for that exhibit we’re building. New pages for our work in progress. A new monologue we can’t wait to audition with. But going full tilt all the time can be counterproductive. Sometimes, we need to know when it’s time … to create or not to create.
This message goes out to all artists.
Yes, that means writers, actors, singers, dancers, sculptors, poets, and photographers.
But it also means entrepreneurs, coders, website builders, and Do-It-Yourselfers.
By now, you probably know where I stand.
If you make or do something … if you have passion for what you make or do, and constantly seek to refine it … I consider you an artist.
But the same passion that defines us as artists can also be a weakness.
We’ve all heard the Biblical exhortation, “The sprit is willing, the flesh is weak.”
Sometimes the passion that fuels us can burn us.
Sometimes we have to know when to slow down.
As any experienced artist knows, there’s a time to work … and a time to put work aside, take a break, and smell the roses.
The more we mature in our lives and our crafts, the more we learn there’s a time to draw from the well … and a time to fill it back up.
Pretty Please, Ruin Your Inspiration
For any die-hards reading this, I get it.
Really. I know how tempting it can be to work all the time.
Few drugs are more powerful than the rush of inspiration.
The artist who’s feeling inspired is like the mariner of old who hurries to fill his sails with a strong gust of wind.
We think that we have to work quickly because — if we lose this opportunity — damn it, it might not come again for a while.
I’m sorry to tell you, that’s bullshit.
Here’s the truth.
The power of inspiration is a renewable energy source. Like wind, tidal power, or the human imagination, it comes back to us over and over again.
Frankly, there’s no way to stop it.
And why would we want to?
We can liken inspiration to our appetite for food. As Jerry Seinfeld once said in his famous cookie gag:
“Even if you ruin an appetite, there’s another appetite coming right behind it. There’s no danger in running out of appetites. I’ve got millions of ’em. I ruin ’em whenever I want!”
Stop Chasing That Which You Already Have
Confession time. In my younger days, I became obsessed with inspiration.
While starting out as an actor and writer, I chased inspiration wherever it happened to raise its beautiful head.
What I didn’t understand is that we don’t have to chase something that’s already yours. Rather, we can just stand still and wait.
What happens when we do this? Lo and behold, that which we sought all along will walk right up to us on its own.
Once I figured this out, inspiration and I developed a far cozier, far more intimate relationship. And so can you.
This relationship is like any good marriage. We work things out by not working too hard. By being true to ourselves and giving our partner our fullest attention without unbalancing ourselves.
It’s really no chore to do this. In fact, nothing could be easier.
It only feels like work when we resist our inspiration. When we spend a day or a week or a month doing things that don’t inspire us. That put us out of alignment with our identities as creatives.
Which is why I’ve said this time and again:
Feed the muse chocolates and wine, she’ll drop by more often and stick around for longer escapades.
Ignore her, she takes the hint quickly and bolts.
The choice is up to us.
The Trick to Creating (According to Mary Heaton Vorse)
In 1930, Sinclair Lewis became the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Seven years later, he shared the secret of his success in an article called “Breaking into Print.”
In it, Lewis described some of the best advice he ever received on how to address himself to his craft.
This advice came from writer and activist Mary Heaton Vorse, who told Lewis this:
“The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.”
Her point, of course, is not merely for writers. It applies to artists of every stripe.
Waiting for inspiration is a myth perpetuated by lazy creatives.
Do other professions indulge in such nonsense?
Have you ever gone to your doctor and had her say, “Sorry, I’m just not feeling it today. Go home, and I hope you get better.”
Have you ever gone to your accountant at tax time and had him say, “Can’t help you. I’m just not inspired, you know?”
Of course not.
Other professions know the value of having a practice.
They even refer to their business as such.
“I run a family-based legal practice.”
“I’m in medical practice.”
And so on.
The seasoned artist knows that waiting for inspiration to show up is nonsense.
Our muses arrive the moment our asses hit the chair.
“I only write when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes at nine every morning.”
The point of all this, I hope, is clear.
Keep regular hours for your creative practice.
Go to work even if you don’t feel like it.
Set deadlines and meet them. Then set new ones and meet those.
These are the rules that a serious artist follows.
All Work and No Play Makes Jack a Dull Boy
Now then. If you’ve followed everything above, it’s time for another apparent paradox. Because…
Now that I’ve pushed you to work, it’s time to push you not to work.
The artist who maintains regular work hours must be just as diligent about not working. With having a life.
If you draw from the barrel too much, you’ll find yourself scraping the bottom in short order.
Small wonder Bill Esper and I once wrote this (in our book The Actor’s Art and Craft):
“Leisure time allows the subconscious to percolate. When left alone, questions will often resolve themselves on their own. To that end, I recommend that you carve out some time to take a long walk, go to the beach, or go to a party this summer. Plant a garden. Exercise. Fall in love. Read poetry. Go dancing. Laugh. Cry. I understand it might seem helpful to book an acting job right now so you can try out the things you’ve learned. On the other hand, you may end up deepening yourselves more as artists by giving yourself a little time off.”
Bill and I wrote that passage in the context of actors who’d just completed the rigorous first year of training at the William Esper Studio in Manhattan.
But the same advice can and does apply to artists of every variety.
There’s a time to work and a time not to work.
A time to pick up our tools and a time lay them aside.
You have to know when to create or not to create.
The artist who doesn’t know how to do this is no better than any workaholic in any profession.
Sooner or later, you start to get grouchy. Then bitter. And then you collapse.
Your Mission … Should You Choose to Accept It
Make time for yourself this week. Time where you put your creative endeavors aside and do something fun — preferably with people you care about.
Take a walk in the park. Read that book you’ve been meaning to get around to. Do a puzzle just for the fun of it. Make love. Set your cell phone to stun.
I promise you, your work will always be there when you go back to it.
In fact, the more you get away from it, the more it embraces you when at last you come home.
Our inspiration can never leave us. Because we’re artists and always will be.
I wish you all the best in all your creative adventures.
To Create or Not To Create
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