Creative work is like sex. If you always wait for the perfect conditions, you just won’t end up doing it very often. Are you and your lover both incredibly horny, fully awake, and have unlimited time, a comfortable bed, and total privacy? Excellent — you’ll have some great sex. But if those are your prerequisites for doing it, you’ll have sex a lot less than the couple who goes for it even when one or both are sleepy, there’s a loud truck outside, somebody’s parents are stopping by any minute, and the only available surface is the kitchen table.
While there are plenty of possible reasons for regretting having sex, lack of perfect conditions is rarely one of them. You’re almost always happy you did it, right?
Same thing with creative work. If you wait for massive inspiration, a giant stretch of free time, complete funding, and a perfect workspace, you’re going to reduce your productivity by 99%. Waiting for all the stars to align is a crap strategy. To produce on a regular basis, you need to be able to push through less-than-ideal conditions (both external and internal).
Ideally, you’re so inspired by your idea that you lose track of time and the work flows like a cold mountain brook. You wake up at 6am, get right to work, and are pulled away from your desk only by loud grumblings of your stomach or a fierce need to pee.
That happens to me a few days a year, but more often I have half an idea that I’m halfway interested in, and I need to push myself to poke around the space of possibility (to see if there’s anything in there worth pursuing).
Why push myself at all? Why not take the path of least resistance and work only when I’m totally inspired? After all, it’s not the like the world needs more electronic music, or novels, or blog posts.
The answer is simple and selfish. I feel better when I produce. Creativity is part of my identity. It’s part of who I am and who I want to be. Also, when I go too long without doing any creative work, I go nuts. I become less fun to be around, and less fun to be. I get irritable and cynical.
If you’re happy and fulfilled without pushing yourself to do the art (whatever it is), well, lucky you. For the rest of us, it’s worth coming up with a system for not going crazy.
I’ve been experimenting with a new quota system for personal creative output. Is it jarring to see the words “quota” and “creative” in the same sentence? Many artists and writers use a quota system to help motivate themselves and set a standard and expectation for daily production. Stephen King has used a 2000 word daily quota. Hemingway’s was only 400 to 600 (but with his terse style that was enough). Other writers (and artists and musicians) set a time quota — work for x hours a day.
I’ve tried both methods, and for me the productivity quota works better than “time worked.” For a couple months I carefully tracked how many hours I was spending writing and working on music. The result was interesting (I wasn’t working as many hours as I would have guessed), but not motivating.
In terms of music composition and production, I’m capable of spending many hours on a track making minor edits and tweaks, while not getting any closer to a workable draft. On the other hand, if I have a clear quota to meet, I’m motivated to make the major changes that need to be made (writing new parts, working on the arrangement). Even if the end result isn’t usable (I don’t publish everything I write), at least I can call it done and move on to the next project.
My current creative quota is to finish or draft a track or chapter a week, plus one blog post. I’m in between novels at the moment (I’m outlining, but not yet writing), so my main focus is music. My current project is a solo EP with apocalyptic and transcendent themes. I’m also finishing up a Momu album, and working on some dance singles with Spesh. Each week, either a rough draft or final master of a track gets done. It’s a fairly easy quota to meet, but so far it’s been effective. It helps me both in terms of getting started, and also not engaging in endless noodling once I have started.
A good guideline for setting a quota is to consider how much work you can get done under ideal circumstances (abundant inspiration, plenty of free time, a great studio with no interruptions) and then cut it in half (or one-third, or less). Don’t set your quota at your maximum output — it’s unsustainable and you’ll just end up feeling discouraged when you don’t hit it.
The Other Side of the Equation
A quota system will help on the quantity side of things, but a quota does nothing for quality. How to keep the bar high?
1. You might find that you make better work at a certain time of day. Work then and only then. Neal Stephenson noticed that his writing was good in the morning, and crap in the afternoon. He stopped writing in the afternoon.
2. Don’t make crap and try to fix it later. Make it as good as it possibly can be, from the very start.
3. Shoot for great, not good. You may not hit it, but you may manage to avoid making crap.
4. Show your work to just a few people with impeccable taste. Pay attention to what they say. If they note problems, those problems are probably real, and you need to deal with them in your work.
No One System
This post isn’t meant to be prescriptive. Quotas may not work for you. There are a million ways to kick yourself in the ass. It’s also perfectly legitimate to refuse to game your own motivational system, and simply work when and if the urge strikes. You may get less done, but maybe you’ll make better work.
The risk of waiting for inspiration is that the gears do get rusty. If you work every day (or at least multiple times a week), then everything is lubed up. It takes less time to get from a blank page (or sequencer, or canvas) to something halfway cool.
What’s the big payoff? For me it’s that feeling when I look at or listen to what I’ve created and I’m surprised. I made that? Really? Chasing that feeling is worth a little auto-ass-kicking.