I’m coming at today’s post from a slightly off-topic direction, mainly because I’m thinking about inspiration and discipline and the idea comes from an off-topic place. I hope you can forgive me.
For a few years now, I have been a photographic hobbyist. I have no aspirations to be anything other than a hobbyist and though I’ve sold a few prints here & there, photography is not something for which I would ever quit my day job. I am fascinated by the craft of photography and the fact that it allows me to translate all those pictures I get in my head without having to go to the trouble of writing them. What can I say but I am an instant-gratification junkie. Sue me.
Anyway, nearly a year ago now, I started a project. It’s a simple project in theory: take one self-portrait every single day for a year. (I have less than a month left, and yes, I am counting the days.) For the purposes of the project, a self-portrait can be something traditional or it can be less so, a fragment, even: a knee or a foot or a hand or an elbow. The photographs can be artistic or bland, inspired or dull, and it doesn’t matter. The only point is that I’m there every day, taking a photograph.
It’s a weird project for a person like me to undertake anyway, because I’m not all that interested in myself as a subject. I am not overcome with vanity and I don’t just looooooooove looking at myself. I look the way I look and I’m pretty ambivalent about it all, to be honest. Comments about my appearance usually gain nothing from me other than a shrug. Whatever. The point is that I chose the project not because I really really wanted to take a photograph of myself every day, but because I really really wanted to challenge myself to do something, just one thing, one relatively simple thing, and see it through to completion.
When I started, I’m sure I thought I’d be able to come up with something undoubtedly fascinating every day. But then I got into the project, the day-to-day drudgery, the days when I didn’t feel like it, the days when I was sick or tired or busy, and I have most certainly had my fair share of days when all I could think to do was hold the camera at arm’s length and fire. So be it. Just as I’ve come up with several shots that I’m rather proud of, shots that took planning and set up and work, there are just as many (maybe even more) that I just didn’t give a damn about, but you know what? They’re done.
All of this to say that I’ve learned a lot about creativity over this year. I’ve always been a creative person, and if I had to pick a defining characteristic about myself, it would be my creativity. It is something that drives me. I love to make things. But the thing that I have learned, the most important thing, is that much of it is drudgery, much of it is work. I have always approached creativity as something that happened almost by magic, something that came about when I was inspired. But — and maybe this isn’t news to anyone but me — waiting for inspiration leaves so much stuff undone. I don’t always feel like creating. I don’t always want to do something. Sometimes I just want to watch TV. But even when I don’t feel like it, I make myself take a photo anyway. Not always, but occasionally, those photographs end up being more interesting than the ones I felt like making. So it goes.
In doing this project despite the many days when I wasn’t actually interested in doing this project, when I wanted to hang it up and call it good, I have learned that making art (ha — not that I would call the vast majority of my self-portraiture art… I might be pretentious, but I’m not that pretentious) and completing things is not a romantic ideal but work. Often the work is fun, and I sometimes end up having a good time working on something even when I started out being cranky about the whole business, but it still requires showing up and doing something, even when the inspiration isn’t there.
And now I’m going to get to writing. (You thought I wasn’t going to, didn’t you?) Writing has been my life-long love, and something I’ve been good at, struggled with, enjoyed, hated, did, didn’t do, etc., etc., I approached it like it was this magical thing that would happen when the moment was right, when the stars aligned perfectly, when I had something to say. But it turns out that it doesn’t actually have to be like that. Or that, perhaps, it shouldn’t be like that. Writing, like anything else we take seriously, takes dedication. Inspiration is all very well and good and I am not scoffing at it, but there are days when I don’t want to write anything, yet I do it anyway. It isn’t always good, it isn’t always pretty, but it’s written. And what’s written can be edited, can be worked with until it’s better, but the stuff that doesn’t get written because I’m too busy waiting for the moment to be right never becomes anything.
The point is that through making myself employ dedication and stubbornness to an unrelated project, I have become a more productive writer as well. Last year, I interviewed Greg Fallis, who said, “The only thing that gets you past the dull, grinding bits is keeping your ass in the chair and your fingers on the keyboard. Putting words in a row.” I didn’t quite agree with him then, thinking that certainly there was more to it than that, that there was always some inspiration, some muse whispering brilliance in my ear, but he’s right.
Creativity means creating. Just showing up and doing the job. And despite its drudgery, despite the days when it doesn’t feel inspiring or interesting at all, and the only thing that keeps it going is sheer determination, what a fun job it is.