Since I started taking my creative side projects more seriously, I’ve heard a familiar refrain in the advice typically given to emerging artists. Sometimes I’ve received this advice directly, but I’ve also seen it in countless books, articles and tweets. It’s in projects that urge you to write a novel in a single month or apps that help you make a movie on your phone. The message is always: do the thing, right now. You already have all the tools you need. Don’t procrastinate further. You’re the only thing in your way. Do it.
I appreciate the sentiment behind this message. It’s positive and encouraging. But it’s aimed at overcoming only one particular type of creative block: having the confidence to create. It’s intended to cut through the doubt, insecurity and second-guessing. It’s meant to reach through the fog of indecision or avoidance and be a sharp, neon-bright sign marking the starting line. Do it.
Artists, however, are people, and people have a multitude of different blocks, for a multitude of different reasons. Sometimes the prevalence of a certain type of advice can fool you into thinking you must have the problem the advice is trying to correct. Doesn’t everyone? Isn’t this a part of the journey? As it turns out, no. Our creative blocks and journeys can be just as unique and complex as we are. When it comes to advice, you have to only take what fits, and it takes a period of time and effort to know exactly what shape you are.
After a while, I found that the seemingly constant advice to do it was not actually helping me and was in fact often annoying me. Which is how I discovered I don’t actually lack confidence in my creative work. I assumed I did. There’s a wealth of books, movies, moments with the writer at the typewriter facing an empty page, the painter facing an empty canvas, the composer facing a silent piano, to convince me that self-doubt cripples every creator and presents the primary barrier to overcome. However, I’ve been banging away at words long enough now that while I may not feel confident in my skill as is, I believe wholly in my ability to sharpen my skill. I have many years of past experience to prove I can get better. I don’t think there’s much I can’t reach for, given enough time. All that trips me up is the details of how.
“Just do it” is a great thing to hear when you are wondering if you can do it and need to take a leap. It’s not as helpful when you are certain you’re capable of it and sorting out how to sustain the effort to its completion. It’s not as helpful when there are non-creative responsibilities that claim your time and energy. Frankly, it’s not very helpful when you are just a normal person trying to get by in the world and make something meaningful at the same time. The barrier isn’t internal. It’s external. And you can’t change it. Which means that you need different advice.
And so I’m going to offer a bit of advice for anyone who might need it: take your time. Do things—but you can do them at your own pace. You can weave them into the life you have rather than forcing your life to mimic someone else’s. You don’t need to completely, instantly transform anything. Pay attention to your life. Think, learn, consider, observe, absorb, grow. Fill yourself with the kind of art you want to make. Feel out its shape, understand its structure, learn how to intuit its spirit. Maybe don’t do things. Maybe do things slowly, deliberately. Maybe turn your creativity into devotion, where it is a sacred act you join with and participate in, not an object you control and dictate. Maybe you don’t construct your creative work with blueprints, plans and schedules. Maybe you just let it grow, and tend to it with nourishment, patience and quiet, steady faith.
You should do it. You should make sure you are practicing in action, that you are practicing taking that leap and figuring out how to fly on the way down. You have to do a lot of it before you get good at anything. And you should have confidence in yourself, in what attracts and resonates with you and in what you make from that. But that’s not all there is to it. It isn’t a simple matter of action. It’s also thinking, learning, considering, observing, absorbing, growing. It’s not just about production. Maybe more producers, and what they produce, would be better off for a long period of time spent learning sincerely and humbly before they bring the product to the world.
First, create something for yourself and remember that you do it because you are already confident that it matters.