Mired in ordinary life, in the day-to-day and humdrum, we strive for something transcendent. And sometimes, against all odds, find it in the simplest things.
Between the daily grind, the deadlines met (or missed). Between the laundry and the shopping and the kids’ demands. Between the elderly relatives, and their complaints, and our own.
Between other people’s expectations and demands, their disaffection or disinterest.
Between the passing of time, and the feeling that there’ll never be enough of it to achieve our goals, to realise our dreams.
Between the questions that come at three in the afternoon and four in the morning. Did I choose right? What did she mean? Why isn’t it working?
Between all of these, it’s easy to sink into a kind of ennui, a resigned despair. Or just to run out of steam as we watch the darlings of social media swan from success to success, while our work is seen by few and appreciated by fewer.
Sometimes giving up feels like the only sensible option. But wouldn’t that be a shame – and entirely miss the point of why we started making things in the first place?
Why do we make stuff?
There are lots of reasons for making art.
- Because we feel compelled to.
- Because we’re bored.
- Because we have something to say and no one to say it to.
- Because we want to piss off the ‘rents.
- Because we crave attention.
- Because we think we’ll be discovered and strike it rich.
This list could go on, ad nauseam. But aside from extrinsic motivations and inner drives, there’s a simpler reason.
If you write, paint, design, embroider, perform – if you make art in one way or another – you probably feel more alive and whole and clear when you do it (or at least sense the possibility of being so).
The work called out to you in some way, at some point, and a sleeping part of you stirred and mumbled, “This is me. This, I love.”
It’s simple: the process of making brings us joy.
For me, this feeling doesn’t reside in the finicky, finishing stages of the work. There’s not much joy in final proofing or in the polishing process. That’s literally tough – we use our critical faculty, our judging eye to look at the work as objectively as we can. We pull it apart and put it back together again in entirely new ways. We try to balance the whole and ensure that all the details sparkle. Of course, this can be deeply satisfying (or merely maddening) but, for me at least, this crafting is not really joyful.
The beginning and the middle, on the other hand …
When an idea grabs you and won’t let go until you sketch it out. When you play with your material, using whatever medium you have to hand, or love the most, and end up surprising yourself. When the shape of the sculpture emerges from the clay, or is lifted out of the stone. When the arc of your story and the timbre of your character’s voice suddenly come alive and shine through. When you draw that perfect line, or find the perfect colour combination that says something fresh, something that only you could have said.
Products matter, but there’s no product without process
Unfortunately, our fixation with products and outcomes can rob us of the magic in what we do on a minute-to-minute and day-to-day basis.
It’s fine to want outward success and the rewards that can come with it. If we didn’t, why would we complete anything at all? We’d all be quite satisfied pootling away, and never come to the arduous polishing stage.
But the relentless drive to succeed, to finish, to build a platform, to become an author, artist, actor – insert your preferred noun here – can kill the original spark that got us writing or painting or making in the first place.
It’s not our job to be a noun, but to live a process. If we want to make good work, we have to allow ourselves the pleasure of discovery – that’s the immediate, real gift and the daily motivator for our work.
It’s great to have a vision, an outline, and a path you’re committed to. But if it’s a joyless path, why bother? Will your book change the lives of millions? Or even delight thousands? Probably not. But certainly not, if you won’t let the process of making it change and delight you.
(My God! Reading that back, I’ve just realised that I’m a hopeless romantic – at least about this part of my work. So, I’ve decided to be unapologetic about that. If the deafening silence that greeted my first poetry collection isn’t enough to ‘pragmatise’ me, probably nothing will.)
Everyday voyages of discovery
The alchemy of art is that we are always working on ourselves – with every brush stroke and every key stroke, we shape ourselves into something new. We are the material. And that can be a thing that’s both beautiful, and joyful.
That is something precious – something to safeguard – even as we strive to produce, to finish, to succeed.
This little piece came from a need to remind myself to notice the joy in the process of writing. And to savor that! I do get just the tiniest bit ‘Type A’ otherwise.
How about you? And, as ever, I’d value your thoughts and feedback. Please comment below, or find me here:
Cover image by Mi Pham