Lately, as part of trying to live my life like an artist date, I’ve been taking more small “risks”: going out on weeknights (SF Asian Art Museum’s MATCHA, having dinner with friends), ordering new things at restaurants, experimental cooking. This has helped me cultivate an attitude of “So what if I mess up, so what if everything isn’t perfect?” After all, these are hardly life-endangering choices; it’s just that my normal attitude tends to be, “But what if I don’t like it?” I keep reminding myself: It’s just one evening! It’s just dinner! And it’s all been surprisingly enjoyable (as was my experiment with leftover Polish cabbage and black bean noodles!). My hope is that these tiny risks will eventually pay off in larger risks and a greater sense of adventure.
But last night, after a couple of days spent at home working, it struck me that there’s another, more immediate, payoff to taking little risks in my day-to-day. Trying a new ingredient in cooking (celeriac is tasty!) isn’t as huge a step as going to Petaluma on an artist date, but both open my mind to previously unimagined possibilities. This is really important for those of us who work at home. Routine is great and grounding, but when I spend too many days at home or doing the same ol’ errands and exercise route, I start to feel as if every day is the same. I’ve had a real problem with this over the past few weeks, because we took a weeknight getaway, stayed home and worked on weekends, and then went out with friends on weeknights. I kept thinking Sunday was Monday, and Wednesday was Saturday, and so on, until I felt really hazy about the passage of time. And when time feels meaningless, my work does too, since it just feels like I’m doing the same thing over and over again without going anywhere — it’s like the first half of Groundhog Day (without the meditative self-improvement of the second half!).
Taking tiny risks, or even just doing things differently, isn’t enough to get me out of a rut, but it does help a lot in distinguishing one day from another. I’ll switch around the order of my morning routine, write my morning pages in different pens, eat oatmeal one day and hot barley cereal the next. But the important thing isn’t that I shake things up, but that my mind recognizes this as a step out into the unknown. All too often, my relatively predictable routine lulls me into thinking that life is predictable, which is to say, tomorrow will be the same as today is the same as yesterday. I’ll think, “Eh, last time I went to that yoga class it was pretty hard, so I’m not going to go this week. It’ll probably just be too hard again,” or “This recipe sounds like the last one I tried, and I don’t want to eat that again. I’ll just have eggs and toast for dinner.” The expectation of sameness leads to a numbing “what’s the point?” mentality.
Without being open to all the possibilities (a strenuous yoga class might feel great this week, or black-eyed pea dal might be a completely different animal than yellow split pea dal), a routine that could be comforting ends up more like death. After all, if I already know what’s to come, then what’s the point of going through it? There is no point: each day is a drag, a mindless repetition of the day before, unfulfilling and uninteresting. Without being open to all possibilities, routine is stifling. But when I’m excited about each day’s potential, the familiar becomes so sweet. It’s a necessary counterpoint. I’ve actually written about this before, but I’ve said it differently, and each of these represents a different way of seeing the same situation. I think actually, life is full of these cyclical, circular ways of understanding. You think you realize something once and then it changes your life, but no, you have to realize it again and again, in fresh ways, before it really starts to take hold. It’s as if you were getting to know a single room, and you spent days just staring at the north wall. You might get to know that north wall really well; by the end of the week it would feel like an intimate friend. But then you’d turn around and there would be the south wall staring you in the face. It’s still the same room, but a totally foreign angle. So you’d have to get acquainted with it, too, and then the other two walls, and then you’d have to lie on your back to see the ceiling, and then get on your stomach and explore the floor. After all this, you might even close your eyes and navigate the room by touch alone. It’s all the same room, but each time it’s like starting over before you can get to know it again.
I used to read my old journal entries and think, “Crap! I already learned this! Why am I struggling with it all over again?” I thought it meant I wasn’t growing, and was just stuck in the same bad habits over and over again. But now I recognize it’s not stagnation; stagnation would be coming back to the north wall year after year, thinking I’m going to glean something new from it. I can see from my old blog entries that I’ve struggled for a long time with making my day-to-day routine interesting, but I’ve come up with different insights each time. Initially it was important for me to even recognize the importance of taking risks. Later, I understood I needed to take more artist dates. Now, I see that I can cultivate an attitude of artist dates even when I’m just staying at home — and that, in fact, I must do so. As I continue across months and years of working from home, each of these insights is a vital tool that helps me keep thinking and creating and living in the fullest, happiest way I can.
PS. Scientists have discovered it’s better not to beat ourselves up over things! Hooray!
It’s funny–although I’m a HUGE proponent of artistically mixing things up, when I’m in the midst of a creative period, all I want in my everyday life is routine, routine, routine. Maybe this is a bad impulse, but for weeks on end, I can just go through my “non-artistic” life in autopilot to get as much creative work done as possible.
“No, I don’t want to cook, I’ll just make a smoothie and get back to work.” Which is what I was thinking about 10 minutes ago ; )
I think you’re absolutely right that it comes in cycles–I’ll stick my head in the sand and work for a few weeks, then emerge, craving external stimulation and reinvigoration. I guess the important part is recognizing that kind of behavior and acting accordingly. And not forgetting to eat. ; )
Heh, a smoothie-as-meal sounds much healthier than some of the alternatives. 🙂 There were times in grad school when I had cookies for dinner… though they were homemade cookies at least. ;b
Your creative bursts coming alongside everything-else autopilot actually sounds pretty nice to me! I do think I’m the same when I am in the middle of working on something absorbing. It’s just that when I’m not — like right now, when I’m doing really boring prep work (like just pulling out family photos for drawing practice, not even actual drawing) — it is SO hard to turn my daily routine into something inspiring and exciting. During times like this, I’m always having to fight the impulse to just play computer games and eat snacks all day long, so it’s helpful to remember other possibilities — which is itself often energizing enough to get me out of the games-and-snacks rut.
I haven’t written much on my own this week, just comments on other people’s blogs. It’s not so much that I’m in a rut; I’ve been thinking about it today, and just realized how much, and how often, my creative impulses fizzle when I don’t receive much in the way of feedback. Or is it encouragement? It seems kind of ridiculous to me — what am I a black hole or something? It’s distressing to realize that I don’t write for myself. I probably always knew it, but when I write, I am stubborn enough to write what I think is interesting, but still writing it to be read. I write it to be experienced by other people.
I’ve been trying to soothe myself (I know that it really is my own responsibility) but I haven’t been successful. I often try to write something funny when I feel this way, to divert my own attention. But other things have gone wrong lately that have worked to squelch that desire. I also often try to spend more time reaching out to support other people in their work when I feel this way, but that hasn’t helped me feel better this time either. So this week, I’ve been the reluctant tortured artist, knowing that my own pain and loneliness wouldn’t interest anyone (and why should it?) and not really interested in writing about it anyway. The one good thing that I try to hold on to, is that I know something has got to get better somewhere, sometime. Nothing stays the same.
Oh, Ré! Sorry to hear this — and I think I know what it feels like, too. I read a great quote once by a painter: “Art isn’t art till it’s sold. Until then it’s an obsession and a storage problem.” I don’t think he was talking specifically about audience, but I really do feel that audience is vital to artists. Of course I would write anyway even if no one ever read it (I don’t think I can help it), but it doesn’t take on the same kind of life until it has a reader and a discussion. After all, art owes so much of its existence to interpretation and the meaning the reader/viewer gives to it.
I wouldn’t necessarily agree that your pain and loneliness don’t interest others. I think some of the greatest writing (and other art) out there comes out of such tormented places… but there is a difference between expressing pain in a way that resonates with others (a way that makes others feel less alone, and helps you feel supported too), and just whining to others “woe is me.” Maybe you should try writing a post about all this sometime; if you think it comes down too hard on the side of “woe is me,” you don’t have to publish it. And somehow I doubt you would end up on that side of the line, anyway. 🙂
I know you didn’t write this comment to guilt-trip me, but I do feel bad about not responding to your recent post and email. 😦
No, no, no I didn’t mean anything like that! Thanks for understanding that. It’s just so hard to walk the line between whining and reaching out a little to someone who might care. I hold so much in sometimes. I didn’t know what else to do. So I walked that fine line when I read your post. I know that writing it out, journaling is supposed to help. But in my life it’s only made me feel worse and more alone. That’s why I try to write other things.
When you write it out, do you write around it or about it, or do you write exactly what you’re feeling in all its grotesque detail? I only ask because for me, when I sit down to write about something uncomfortable, I often skip around what’s really bothering me, and start writing things like “I don’t know why this is bugging me so much” or “I shouldn’t even be feeling like this.” Then the writing only serves to extend the unhappy feelings, instead of providing catharsis. But maybe that’s not your situation.
I’m glad you reached out here… I hope you’ll always feel comfortable doing so, or emailing me!
I’ve learned to skim around the edges of things when I communicate with other people. When I face reality in private, I get down to the visceral essence of my feelings about the things that have happened around and to me. That complete honesty has only helped when it’s been heard by someone. I don’t know why. I learned a long time ago that very few people can bear to hear that real sort of honesty from a person they know. Maybe hear it in the dialogue of a movie or read it in the pages of a story. But not hear it from someone they know. I think that’s why the running theme in most of my fiction up to now has been that experience of not being heard and being told repeatedly that one’s truth doesn’t matter and should never be spoken out loud. It’s time for me to work on changing that running theme, but so far it’s been hard. Thanks for hosting this artist’s forum here on your blog, where I can let out a little of this feeling about my process. I’m grateful to be able to touch on it here. I just wish my process weren’t so intertwined with my life.
“I think that’s why the running theme in most of my fiction up to now has been that experience of not being heard and being told repeatedly that one’s truth doesn’t matter and should never be spoken out loud.” I haven’t had as many experiences with not being heard by those close to me, but boy, just a few experiences are enough. I think that’s a big reason why I write too — so I can be heard, in my own words, on my own terms.
I’m so glad my blog is a good place for you. You make it a good place too. 🙂 Thank you.
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