I believe in a concept called “artistic stability”. It has to do with keeping your soul healthy while creating art.
Most of my ideas about art making are inspired by a writer called Natalie Goldberg.
I came across Natalie Goldberg’s book ‘Writing down the bones’ when I was 18 years old. And I’ve kept coming back to her book my whole life. I’ve always wanted to create art. But I was afraid of becoming miserable. Because that’s what artists are known for, right? To be miserable and poor.
Natalie Goldberg says, that artists do not become miserable because they write, paint or compose music. They become miserable because they are NOT writing, painting or composing. That makes them unhappy. Not doing what they love.
Natalie Goldberg encourages us in the sense, that if you have something you love to do, then you should practice it with love and care regularly – and preferably every day. In her own case it is writing. She is a writer.
This resonated with me to the point that I decided to take up her advice and learn to write well. So when I was in my 20s I filled piles of notebooks with my daily writing. This gave me so much practice that I could easily take on an increasing amount of copy writing tasks, which led me to a career in marketing.
Natalie Goldberg says, that her principles apply to painting, dancing or playing music or any creative process. I had secretly wanted to try her method on drawing in stead of writing. I have been drawing since childhood, but I never took it seriously until a few years ago, when I became sick and had to spend 3 months in bed. That became a turning point for me in so many ways. And drawing and later painting was one of them.
Can you describe artistic stability in just 3 phrases?
The very short version could go something like this:
1. Practice your ‘thing’ every day.
2. Judge your work later. (Not while creating it.)
3. Stop taking every little thing or every mistake you make so seriously. (Even geniuses create ‘real shit’ from time to time.)
The pressure, that turns musicians in to alcoholics, comes from NOT creating art. It comes from not doing the thing that they love to do. So what keeps artist from creating art? What is for example the cause of ‘writers block’?
The reason is simple according to Goldberg. It usually works like this: Artists, who discover that they like to write, decide to write the Great American Novel, and then they become totally unable to write. Or they get lucky and have one big hit, and they become unable to create something just as good again. And then they stop creating art and start to drink. (This is a simplified version. But it serves for making a point.)
With artistic stability Natalie Goldberg teaches us to always begin with a beginners mind every time we create. Just because I created something good yesterday or two years ago there is no guarantee I will create something good this time, or ever again. That is terrifying and thrilling at the same time. And that is the reason why artists need to know many ways to trick themselves into getting back to work and getting into their flow. All those tricks amount to what she calls artistic stability. (Or at least that’s how I understand her book.)
I love this book, and I want to share it, so I have tried to sum up my favourite parts of ‘Writing down the bones’ in 5 principles:
Creating art is not something that each artist does alone. Every time a new piece of art is born in to this world it draws upon all other art that has been created in the history of art. That’s why good painters love to look at great paintings. They can admire other artists work without feeling ‘small’. They know success is momentary and their time will come. Or it won’t. That’s not important. The important thing is to keep practicing the art you love with a mindset like: ‘Maybe my time will come in this life or the next one.’ And most importantly: To feel thankful for being able to practice.
Some people think that if you can write well or draw beautifully, then you don’t have to practice. It seems to be a common belief that whereas sports people have to train their muscles all the time in order to be able to perform, artists have a special gift so they don’t need practice. But that’s wrong too! Making art takes regular practice. You have to train your creative muscles, so they can stay fit and strong. It’s a different kind of practice though: Natalie Goldberg confesses to using her favorite chocolate cake to tricking herself into writing: ‘If I can just write one page today, I will reward myself with a piece of Henry’s chocolate fudge cake.’
When I sit down to draw I give myself permission to ‘let it all out’. As a consequence, some of what I make is not good and pretty, because I have been accumulating negativity for years. (I used to be afraid that I am no better than a boring cheese sandwich. But that’s okay. And that is part of the process too.) Allowing myself to create some real shit is essential. Having faith in the process and continuing my work is more important than creating something pretty that I can sell today. That is the essence of practice. And practice is what keeps the soul healthy and it keeps improving the artistic quality. However, knowing WHEN I have created something GOOD, can be tricky enough. Sometimes I really HATE what I have just created, only to discover that piece in a drawer years later and finding out that is it terrific, but I couldn’t see it at the time. The opposite also occurs. So Natalie Goldberg suggests creating without assessing your work right away. Then leaving your work for a while (a month or more) and then assessing it afterwards. That works well for me.
The high performance philosophy is very popular in the business world. And it sure is appealing, as it promises lots of success and wealth. But there is a problem. It doesn’t have kindness as it’s higher purpose. So it can end up becoming just another addiction where drugs and alcohol has been substituted for MBA degrees, Audi’s and marathon performances. As an artist I think it is very important to steer clear of high performance tendencies and instead follow the principles of artistic stability. (This one is not from Natalie Goldberg. This one is probably my own idea.) I have observed something interesting in more or less all the companies I have worked for: The people I have met, who are truly great at what they do, all seem to be using methods similar to the ones described in artistic stability. And in fact I think you can tell the difference between a great company and a mediocre one by looking at how the top managers approach their job: Do they approach it from an ‘artistic stability’ point of view? Or are they all about ‘high performance’? The problem with ‘high performance’ is, everything about it is high – except the purpose. It has no higher purpose.
Natalie Goldbergs method evolved with the help of a zen monk called Katagiri Roshi. She talks a lot about him in her book. He was like a mentor to her, and it is clear how his wisdom helped her turn her writing practice into a practice of kindness but also a practice of determination as she teaches her students and readers to cut through the noise in their art making process and in their lives. In the beginning of her book she tells a story about how she was clearing out the attic of her grandmother’s house after she had passed away, and she came across an old embroidery with the words: ‘Be kind and loving and do your work well’. The embroidery had hung over her grandmother’s entrance door like a daily reminder, and Natalie recalls thinking that it was a funny mixture of random messages, when she was young and visited her grandmother. But now years later reading it again made total sense. Because: That’s what it’s all about. And with this approach to art making, there’s a good chance of staying sane through the ups and downs of it all. And this is what I love about the wisdom in artistic stability.
The funny thing about artistic stability is it puts you face to face with your own demons. By letting it all out and creating real shit from time to time, you get to know your own inner negative voices such as the one saying: ‘I am no better than a boring cheese sandwich.’ You can laugh about them and eventually let them fade away because they are so much less important that the joy of creating art. When you know your own inner demons, the pain of other people’s hurtful remarks also becomes much smaller. Because these remarks no longer resonate with something inside you. And Natalie Goldberg says that with time these negative voices will disappear like the sound of white laundry flapping in the wind somewhere far, far away.