Feeling like you’ve done something

  • On May 16, 2011 ·
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Something I struggle with fairly regularly is the need to feel like I’ve accomplished anything. Certainly there’s the macro sense of what have I done with my life; does it have any meaning; will anything I’ve done matter 5, 10, 100 years after I’m gone – that sort of thing. But then there’s the micro, the question of whether I’ve wasted my day or not, whether I’ve spent too many hours on something, even down to the hour and minute in some cases. I find if I look at the clock and think I won’t have enough time to do something great and extraordinary I won’t even attempt. You put enough non starts up against each other and that’s useful hours and days that aren’t happening out of fear. Is it the same fear I had when I would start a sketchbook, draw on a couple of pages, then decide the book wasn’t one whole and perfect thing and stop? There was a time when I would start a sketchbook, get frustrated, and turn it upside down and start on the other side. Neither times would I finish and I would feel disappointed that I didn’t create anything of real value.

As a creative individual there are stages through the process that we need to learn to embrace. First comes the brainstorming stage. You could also think of it as brain spilling or dumping. You plop everything you have out of your mind. You empty it. This will give you the first draft, the general. From there you begin editing and refining, tuning and making precise, forming the specific. The specific is the difference between the bland or stock and, say, the unique. If I was asked to draw a picture of a wagon wheel I could draw something that meets all the technical requirements of a wagon wheel. It can have all the spokes, the circular shape, and even be very proficiently rendered. On the other hand, if you asked me to illustrate an image of a wagon wheel from a wagon along the Oregon trail that would be a very different wheel than our generic¬†archetype. Now we’re sure it would be made of wood, we figure the quality of the woodworking would vary depending on what kind of wagon it came from, it might be new and fresh if the journey is just starting or it could be worn and ready to fall apart. There’s so many variables and characteristics to put into the visual information now. That wheel, as big or as small a part of the over-all thing being created, tells a story now. It’s not the same as reaching into our stock file and selecting “wagon wheel” anymore. It’s a matter of rendering that specific wagon wheel.
Part of my brain has to be concerned with the general to the specific. Another part has to be concerned with the¬†procedural. I need to decide what I’m going to be illustrating, what I need to be writing, where is this all going. Am I drawing a sketch for my own amusement? A study to help flesh out a bigger piece? Is this a one shot stand alone book or will it be a larger collection? Determining scope and scale is something I have trouble with sometimes and I think it goes back to that same fear that gave me trouble in finishing or even functionally using a sketchbook. Every project doesn’t have to be some magnum opus that will become one of the great wonders of the world. Sometimes the thing I’m working on right then should just be the thing I’m working on just then. There are creatives out there who have to produce on a schedule, who have to have so many words a day, so many articles a week, so many pages of their next book done. If you’re doing 365 comic strips a year it is very easy to slip up and only do one a day too close to that day when you have no ideas. Can you fall behind and just not have a strip the next day if you don’t have an idea or you’re sick and can’t draw it? Not if your daily bread and butter comes from having that new comic up. That’s an entirely different bear to wrestle. I wouldn’t say quality versus quantity because you can spread quality out. I could dedicate my entire life to this one thing, this one work, this one piece – but how stressful would that be? Should a life’s work be one thing people could either take or leave or should it be a body of different work and different projects over time?
A person can get consumed with thinking too much and not actually doing or starting. That nagging little fear can creep into your mind while you’re working. Many is the day I come down to my studio, ready with my slingshot to take down Goliath only to spend my day searching the pebbles for the one perfectly aerodynamic rock that I plan on hurling through the air some day. It’s too easy to get interested in something else when you’re working on a project. It’s too easy to develop Next Big Thing-itis. What part of a relationship does everybody like the most? The early part, the one where you’re just discovering and learning about each other, where there’s all potential and things are going to be awesome this time. It’s like making a New Year’s resolution. Starting tomorrow you’re going to hike 10 miles a day, eat better, and save the world. And so it goes with working on something else. The grass is always greener on the project you’re not working on now but could be, maybe tomorrow. Or maybe never. Maybe you’ll get a week or a month into that project and decide, nah, you’re not feeling this anymore. Better to trash everything and start somewhere new. Now there’s a time and a place for putting things down, yes, but what do you do if you’re habitually starting new projects? People can spend years on false starts and feel lost.
Maybe our next big project should be keeping our current project exciting. Maybe we need to put on a nice suit, take our project out to a fancy restaurant, and remind ourselves why we’re so good for each other. (Metaphorically speaking, of course) One project can have so many different angles and approaches that you can make yourself excited about it for years to come. Or you could use it as a springboard to something you do have that passion and longevity for. Say you’ve been doing a comic for a year or two about a couple of guys who sit on their couch and play video games, (Because we all know that’s never been done before) and you discover you really like making up the intricate stages of the imaginary games these guys play. Maybe you really want to write a fantasy novel. Maybe you really want to design a game. Or maybe you just enjoy making witty and amusing parodies of current games. Whatever it is and whatever you do, find what you enjoy about something and do it. And if you’re not enjoying what you’re doing maybe you shouldn’t be doing it.