Inertia - Nº139
Giving yourself permission
People often talk themselves out of doing something because they struggle to see themselves as the person who can do it. Thinking like this suggests that success arises from innate ability—and if you don’t have it, you won’t succeed. The problem is you believe in permission. Permission that nobody but you is going to give.
I read a story about a painter named Brian Rutenberg. In his New York studio, every day, like clockwork, for decades, Brian brings out some of the most well-regarded modern abstract art. His routine: wake up every workday at 7:10 a.m. and complete a sequence of daily tasks guided by muscle memory and an inflexible routine. After waking, making his bed, and putting on one of his countless black t-shirts, he spends 25 minutes at the gym, followed by a trip to the diner to eat oatmeal, pancakes, and decaf coffee. At the same diner, in the same seat, every single day. He then gets to his studio at 9:30 a.m. and gets to work.
With a routine as clean and well-oiled as this, you’d think Brian’s creative progress would be an ample reflection. Wrong. It’d be generous to call his studio a mess. It’s a concoction of spewed paint and heaps of ragged paper, and it seems like a full-blown mission just to get to the computer desk.
But for Rutenberg, it works. For a man with a schedule as rigorously demanding as any other, it highlights why a sense of purpose is far more powerful than any amount of inspiration.
The philosophy that purpose is far greater than any amount of inspiration is what Rutenberg lives by. “Inspiration is for amateurs, the rest of us just show up and get to work.” is one of his favourite quotes. And it’s something I learned quickly when I started writing: there’s little point waiting for a strike of luck to come and hit you on the head. If you sit there waiting for it, very little will happen. Because all the best ideas come from being in the process. You won’t find better ideas than the ones from the work you’re doing.
Rutenberg isn’t a fan of “luck”. Because all the talent in the world won’t matter if you lack an extraordinary work ethic.
“I think that you work as much as you possibly can, as regularly as you can, which puts you in a place to have things happen, to have mistakes and unexpected surprises. And when those things happen and you decide to leave them in the painting, that’s not luck—that’s practice.”
Choices and schedules
Rutenberg says that being a painter was never a choice. But just because he could draw anything he saw since he was 10 doesn’t mean his drawings would be world-class immediately. But he could see the world in shapes and colours, which is easier to replicate on a blank canvas, and he could summon imagery from his imagination. While his friends played basketball outside, he stayed in his room, making classical drawings.
His attitude is born from a quote by George Carlin, “Just keep moving straight ahead. Every now and then, you find yourself in a different place.” Art school will tell you that painters must “grow” and “evolve”, but Rutenberg considers this bullsh*t.
“There is great poetry in repetition, in doing the same thing over, and over, and over, and over again. No one talks about that.”
As was the case for many of us during the COVID-19 lockdown, this principle played a massive part in my own privileged pandemic-induced self-reevaluation. “Life’s only commodity is time” rang through my ears for the year or so we spent inside.
I started writing because I fell in love with the idea of chipping away at an enormous block of marble, like an artist, taking each piece that breaks off as something new to write or learn about along the way.
Creativity and limitations
The best ideas are born within the limits. Not when there’s unlimited freedom.
One of my favourite things about Formula One is that over a thousand people band together and sift through the rigorous regulations to create something otherworldly. Something that drives innovation across the world.
They are some of the best engineers and designers in the world, people who must have an enormous level of trust in their muscle memory. Because to work, improve, and fail quickly, their doing must be as good, if not better, than their thinking.
Putting pen to paper and concluding a piece of work is one of the hardest things we can do. That is why it’s important to be clear on everything around you, to ensure your habits are in line and facilitate your direction of travel, so you can trust your muscle memory to get you out of bed every day and do what needs to be done.
Do what comes easy
“Writer’s block” or all similar terms are imaginary concepts we find lounging in our heads because we’ve set the bar too high with our work. What’s worse is people think that, when experiencing a block, they should put their head further down and push through.
Everyone has dry spells, but you cannot force anything. Because when it stops being fun, you’re in trouble.
When you’re at a severe loss, it is better to quit the work for now and do something else. Everyone can feel when something comes out weak because someone tried too hard. So, we must do what comes easy. If you’re trying to get into fitness, for example, you do the exercises and routines that are fun to you while the habit settles in. If you’re constantly forcing yourself, you’ll stop sooner or later. Giving yourself permission also includes permission to put everything down and take a walk or get a change of scenery. Return once you start to truly feel that it’s time to go back to work. You will know when that is, and you must trust that feeling.
Make a schedule, not a plan
Being inspired is like being propelled by an external stimulus to think or to do something or to go somewhere—which is incredibly unreliable.
Purpose, however, is a searing fire inside of you. A self-delusion that keeps you coming back to the room, knowing that while you may never get it right, with each passing day, you might get a little bit closer.
You can’t rely on a plan because, like Mike Tyson said, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. But you can depend on a schedule, a system, a routine. You can show up to work within the limitations of the ring and win the fight through delusional levels of conviction.
Art is born from self-delusion but also from getting the basics right. Knowing how to be good consistently. It’s not enough to be great once. Anyone can do that. It’s much harder to create work that’s regularly good.
Don’t consider what you do to be “making art”. If you intend to make art, you’ll incorrectly limit yourself to searching for a few great results. But if you intend to simply make things, you’ll frame your work in a way that keeps it from being precious. And that is a good thing. Anything precious is self-conscious, and that kills creativity.
I prefer writing online because the public domain gives me the confidence to leave things in the ether and move on. If you’re afraid of screwing things up or getting criticism, you’re only slowing yourself down by forcing yourself to work with one hand tied behind your back.
Creativity requires attention to detail and persistence in the face of failure. All art fails before it succeeds. So give yourself permission. Know your direction and protect it with a schedule, reminders, and systems. And give yourself the time to let it unfold slowly.