How to Keep Doing It
Excerpts from Keep Going: 10 Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad, by Austin Kleon
And so in my ongoing (and increasingly coherent, and maybe even successful) attempts to figure out HOW TO KEEP DOING IT (i.e. be a working artist, over time, without utterly destroying myself in the process), I came across another book seemingly written personally for me, at the exact moment I needed it. I'd read and enjoyed Kleon's Steal Like An Artist but when Ryan Holiday, whom I trust and admire enormously, in his monthly reading list email, announced a new Kleon book called Keep Going, plus praised it to the moon, I was instantly in.
Without getting too far ahead of myself, or giving the game away, I've been fortunate beyond expressing to have stumbled upon the words, guidance, and mentorship of more than a few writers and artists who have been exactly where I am now: trying to find a way to keep doing the work (ideally, doing it well) that is also compatible with life, health, happiness, and sanity. (And, as we know, so many writers and artists have tragically failed at this falling to despair, madness, obsession, isolation and alienation, alcoholism, drug addiction, suicide, or just quietly giving up on the whole project.) With their help, I've been finding my way back.
I WROTE THIS BOOK BECAUSE I NEEDED TO READ IT
I'd been writing and making art for more than a decade, and it didn't seem to be getting any easier. Isn't it supposed to get easier? Everything got better for me when I made peace with the fact that it might not ever get easier. Creative work is hard.
Whether you're burned out, starting out, starting over, or wildly successful, the question is always the same: How to keep going?
1) EVERY DAY IS GROUNDHOG DAY
TAKE ONE DAY AT A TIME
“Make the most beautiful thing you can. Try to do that every day. That's it.” Laurie Anderson
I sit down at my desk and stare at a blank piece of paper and think, “Didn't I just do this yesterday?” When I'm working on my art, I don't feel like Odysseus. I feel more like Sisyphus rolling his boulder up the hill.
The creative life is not linear. It's more like a loop, or a spiral, in which you keep coming back to a new starting point after every project. No matter how successful you get, no matter what level of achievement you reach, you will never really “arrive.” Other than death, there is no finish line or retirement for the creative person.
The truly prolific artists I know always have that question [“What next?”] answered, because they have figured out a daily practice a repeatable way of working that insulates them from success, failure, and the chaos of the outside world. They have all identified what they want to spend their time on, and they work at it every day, no matter what. Whether their latest thing is universally rejected, ignored, or acclaimed, they know they'll still get up tomorrow and do their work.
The only thing we really control is what we spend our days on. What we work on and how hard we work on it.
The creative journey is not one in which you're crowned the triumphant hero and live happily ever after. The real creative journey is one in which you wake up every day, like Phil, with more work to do.
ESTABLISH A DAILY ROUTINE
There will be good days and bad days. Days when you feel inspired and days when you want to walk off a bridge. (And some days when you can't tell the difference.) A daily routine will get you through the day and help you make the most of it. When you don't know what to do next, your routine tells you. When you don't have much time, a routine helps you make the little time you have count. When you have all the time in the world, a routine helps you make sure you don't waste it. I've written while holding down a day job, written full-time from home, and written while caring for small children. The secret to writing under all those conditions was having a schedule and sticking to it.
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.
Cobble together your own routine, stick to it most days, break from it once in a while for fun, and modify it as necessary.
Not every day is going to turn out the way we want it to. The important thing is to make it to the end of the day, no matter what. No matter how bad it gets, see it through to the end so you can get to tomorrow. When the sun goes down and you look back on the day, go easy on yourself. A little self-forgiveness goes a long way. Hit the pillow with a clear mind.
Creativity is about connection 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.
A friend of mine said he didn't know how long he could wake up to such horrible news every day. I suggested he shouldn't wake up to the news at all, and neither should anyone else. It's not sticking your head in the sand. It's retaining some of your inner balance and sanity so you can be strong and do your work.
My writing teacher used to joke that the first rule of writing is to “apply ass to chair.” Because you're forced to switch your electronic devices into airplane mode and you're literally buckled into a chair, I find planes to be a terrific place to get work done. But why not replicate the experience on the ground? You don't need to be on a plane to practice airplane mode. It can be a whole way of life.
3) FORGET THE NOUN, DO THE VERB.
Let go of the thing that you're trying to be (the noun), and focus on the actual work you need to be doing (the verb).
Play is the work of the child and it is also the work of the artist. The great artists are able to retain this sense of playfulness throughout their careers. Art and the artist both suffer most when the artist gets too heavy, too focused on results. Don't get bogged down. Stay light. Play.
I'm so insanely lucky right now. I live the dream, in a sense, because I get paid to do what I would very probably do anyway for free. But things can get very, very tricky when you turn the thing you love into the thing that keeps you and your family clothed and fed. Everyone who's turned their passion into their breadwinning knows this is dangerous territory. One of the easiest ways to hate something you love is to turn it into your job. 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 little part of you that's off-limits to the marketplace. Some little piece that you keep for yourself.
And remember: If you want maximum artistic freedom, keep your overhead low. A free creative life is not about living within your means, it's about living below your means. “Do what you love” + low overhead - a good life. “Do what you love” + “I deserve nice things” = a time bomb.
IGNORE THE NUMBERS
It's easy to become as obsessed with online metrics as money. An Amazon rank doesn't tell you whether someone read your book twice and loved it so much she passed it on to a friend.
You know what success is, or at least you have your own definition of it. (Mine: when my days look how I want them to look.) “Suckcess,” on the other hand, is success on somebody else's terms. Or undeserved success. Or when something you think sucks becomes successful. Or when success or chasing after it just plain starts to suck.
We all go through cycles of disenchantment and re-enchantment with our work.
YOU HAVE EVERYTHING YOU NEED
PAY ATTENTION TO WHAT YOU PAY ATTENTION TO
Your attention is one of the most valuable things you possess, which is why everyone wants to steal it from you. What you choose to pay attention to is the stuff your life and work will be made of. “My experience is what I agree to attend to,” psychologist William James wrote in 1890.
I keep a daily diary for many reasons, but the main one is that it helps me pay attention to my life.
ART IS FOR LIFE (NOT THE OTHER WAY AROUND)
“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.” If making art is ruining anyone's life, including your own, it is not worth making. The world doesn't necessarily need more great artists. It needs more decent human beings.
“This has been my job in a way,” says screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. “I sit at my desk and I don't know what to do.” You start each work not knowing exactly where you're going or where you'll end up. But hope is about moving forward in the face of uncertainty.
I ignore every “35 under 35” list published. I'm not interested in annuals. I'm interested in perennials. 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. These are the people I look to for inspiration. The people who found the thing that made them feel alive and who kept themselves alive by doing it.
Go easy on yourself and take your time. Worry less about getting things done. Worry more about things worth doing. Worry less about being a great artist. Worry more about being a good human being who makes art. Worry less about making a mark. Worry more about leaving things better than you found them.