'I Can't Build a Daily Habit!'

Art is a garden, not an operation.

[Photo by Yanyi: two dark blue doors and a window are closed in a sky-blue whitewashed wall. They are surrounded by various potted plants and a toy donkey rocker.]

Dear Yanyi,

My creative practice has been come and go since I was 13 and started writing poetry and playing guitar. I’d often go for months or years at a time dedicated to building my skill, but then get lost in the chaos of life and fall off with it, fall back into it, the cycle repeats. I’m now in a place in my heart where I feel very committed to my art and understanding myself. My thirst to develop a fluency in this artistic language with which I can communicate with myself and others drives me. However, I still I find it difficult to focus and build a daily habit. I’m an Aries and get impatient for ‘progress’. How do I make my creative practice more routine and joyful?

Searching for the songs of my heart
Fresno, CA

Dear SFTSOMH,

Before writing to you this morning, I wrote some emails and cleared last night’s dish rack. I hesitated to open your letter after I looked at the clock: 18 minutes before I’m scheduled to go on a run or, another reason for me to avoid writing this letter.

But here I am, writing to you. As an Aries myself, I can relate to the mythology of our sun sign—Aries start projects but don’t finish them, as it’s said, so I used to work until I did everything in one sitting to ensure a final product. I used to wait for large chunks of my schedule to be clear or for my to-do list to be checked off before I began on my work. I waited and waited for the perfect conditions that were always supposed to come, but never did.

When I read your letter, I heard the sincerity of your dedication and energy. I heard the months and years you’ve spent practicing and honing your skills. I heard your desire to make something that’s really, really big. I also heard the ambition and the impatience for “progress,” as you admit in your letter.

I want to address these last two things, because they betray some underlying assumptions you’re bringing to your work. These assumptions might explain why it’s been hard for you to cultivate the practice you seek.

Maybe your ambition comes from being power-hungry. More likely than that, though, is the possibility that you were raised in a community that believed art was not a worthy choice of occupation, and so in order for you to prove to them and yourself that you are right, you think you have to work to be the very best. Maybe you chose art because no one in your community believed that it was worth pursuing, but of all the things you started doing when you were 13, guitar and poetry were what helped you feel like you had a voice that no one could take away from you.

Moreover, you may have been taught that creative expression is supposed to be evidence of authentic passion and an authentic voice. You work so hard on your art because you see it as a version of yourself. When you fight to be the best at art, you’re fighting for your pleasure, your pain, and your complexity as a human being. You need to see progress because when your art—your true voice—becomes valuable, maybe other people will see value in you too.

This on-and-off cycle you’re experiencing is because you’re working on your art in a system designed to create value for other people. You’re stuck in the fantasy of the daily 9-5 routine. You’re blocked by the ever-optimizing merry-go-round of deadlines, accountability buddies, and faux-progress of punch cards. You think of spending time with your poetry and guitar as “building [your] skill,” but how perfect does your skill need to be before you let yourself just say what you’re thinking and feeling right now? How long will you work on the perfect sonnet while holding off what you mean to say in it?

You say you want to develop the artistic language to be understood by yourself and others, but you can’t develop art with the rubric of a businessperson. You don’t need to write a sonnet to say what you mean. But maybe you worry that if it isn’t flashy or pretty, that no one will listen? What’s wrong with the words you already know?

You fall on and off this cycle because unconsciously you know this need to operationalize your art will not lead to the joy and understanding you seek. In a never-ending cycle, you reject the work you love to do because you’re burning out on building cultural products before your inner thoughts even get a chance out the door. You tell yourself you’re not an expert because you’re afraid to fail. Because what if you try to sell something, finally, in exactly your own voice, and people reject you anyway?

I want to be clear that it’s not all on you. While you didn’t specify what the “chaos of life” you fell into was, I can guess it’s some combination of school, work, relationships, and surviving in the United States today. Maybe you had to work two jobs or maybe you were in school. Maybe you had to do both at once. Maybe you’re working twice as hard to learn about poetry and music because your parents and your schooling choices didn’t give you those opportunities. Maybe your dad died and though you never felt depressed, it was hard to do anything but eat, sleep, and work; maybe you still are coming out of this. I want to be clear that there are factors outside of your control, and they matter in who gets to make art. The playing field is not equal.

Art is merely the fragments, the detritus, of us becoming who we are in the world. Instead of starting a routine, reframe your art as a practice of attention. Your art is your thoughts, your feelings, and your outlook in history. It is already unique. Your only task, then, is to begin noticing your own thoughts. Notice your mind drifting and start writing it down. Write until you get to the end of what you’re wondering. Write it in a place that’s convenient and that is always near you, like your phone, and write it in a place where you can see the text piling up. Your art is always happening—when you’re washing dishes, making dinner, or waiting for a train—it’s just a matter of noticing and honoring it when it is. You can do the same thing with a tune that’s beginning to appear. Beethoven used to write notes on his shirt cuffs. I used to sing into a phone.

Don’t worry too much about having a “complete” thought as much as getting the initial sketch down. Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself. It may take many months for the same thought to recur and build on top of itself. In a world where everyone else is expecting something from you, make your art a garden you expect nothing from. Show no one. Ask for no feedback. Honor yourself as you would honor another organism whose life you have no absolute control over. Instead, get used to planting seeds that may take a while to grow or never do; notice the wildflowers overtaking the zucchini beds; the tomato stems bowing deeper with fruit week after week. Let your abundance show up for you. Trust that your work is enough.

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