Business of Writing · Writing

How to Be A (Good) Artist

howtobeanartist.jpegWhen I was in college, I visited a friend up at Western Washington University. I was entertaining a change in universities, and Western was on my list. She had the Sark poster “How To Be An Artist” up on the wall, and it became one of my Very Favorite Things Ever. At the time, I was an armchair artist, a wanna-be writer, and a computer-nerd-in-training. I loved the freedom expressed through Sark’s words, and figured it applied evenly to any effort – artistic or not. I wanted to embody this poster in all of my actions, and in every aspect of life. And while I’ve grown more realistic (pragmatic? crotchety?) over the years, I still have a copy of Sark’s words on my office wall.

I don’t want to get to the end of my life and find that I just lived the length of it. I want to have lived the width of it as well.

– Diane Ackerman

Life is to be experienced, not just lived. Don’t just live need-to-need. Enjoy every moment. Process the scent of the air. Bask in the rays of the sun. Dance in the rain. The other day, I stepped out of the grocery store and was greeted with the first hint of orange blossoms on the desert air. It’s an intoxicating scent, and for me, it brings about a host of images, emotions and experiences. The first time I catch that scent each Spring* I stop. I close my eyes. I let it wash over me and I add another year onto the chronology of the orange blossom.

If we spend our days practicing the fine art of curiosity, we open ourselves to everything that life has to offer. If we breathe in our experiences, accept them and incorporate them within ourselves, then we grow a wide platform from which to spring into our art.

GoodArtistAnd that’s where the dreamy-eyed artist in me stops.

You heard me right. At some point, we must realize that if our art is going to be our livelihood, we’re going to need to work our butts off. We need to put the dreamer in her place, and settle into real work habits. We have to treat our passion like the career that it is, we roll up our sleeves, and we get to work.

1. Set a (realistic) schedule

If you are fortunate enough to be working at your art full time, then set your schedule. Make it something that works for you, but make it regular. Get up in the morning. Shower. Get dressed. If I’m sitting there in my PJ’s all day, I tend to be less focused. If I get dressed, I feel more like I’m ready to be productive. Even if you schedule includes hours for long, leisurely strolls (which I highly recommend), put it in there, and stick to it!

If you’re like me, and you have a day job, scheduling around those working hours becomes imperative. I have my little day planner, and I pencil in there when I’m going to work on my writing. When those hours come, I sit down, and I work on my writing! If I didn’t, I’d never get anything done.

But you can’t plan every second of every day.  Make sure that your schedule is realistic, and that you’re not burning yourself out.  Points 2 through 4 below detail what it means to be reasonable and realistic with your time.

2. Make (realistic) goals, and hold yourself accountable

In my corporate life, I’ve worked in a number of different environments, from the extremely lax to the intensely deadline-driven. I prefer something in between, so that’s what I give myself. Don’t overstretch yourself by making unobtainable goals. At the same time, don’t set your bar so low that you can walk over it while still half asleep before that first cup of morning coffee. Set realistically aggressive goals, and then find a way to hold yourself accountable.

For me, making a simple checklist is enough. When I see that I’ve checked off my tasks, I feel accomplished. When I don’t manage to finish my weekly goals, I reflect on why I slipped. Was it because I had a sick child? Or was it because Facebook was insanely more interesting *ahem* than getting through my to-do list? How did I use my time over the week? If I find myself slipping, I’ll do a time audit the next week, and determine where my sinks are. Then I promise myself to change some habits such that I tick off more of my list the following week.

3. Plan for breaks

No one can work 24 x 7 x 365. It doesn’t happen. Plan for days off. Julia Cameron, the author of The Artist’s Way (read it!), recommends weekly “Artist Dates.” These are hours that you take all to yourself to refill your cup. Maybe you go to a museum, or a junk shop, or the bookstore. Maybe you read or take a bath, or go for a jog. Whatever it is, make sure it’s something that gives you energy. The idea is that you honor that playful side, so that when you come back to your work, you are recharged!

Some of my favorite artist dates are simple: Find a coffee shop with a lot of traffic so I can people-watch. Go to lunch by myself. I seriously love antique shops and estate sales stores! I typically don’t buy anything, but I run my hands over these precious memories that were left behind. I picture them, in their prime: The table that was the center focus of a well-used living room; a beloved wall hanging, passed from grandmother to mother to daughter; the warm blanket that was always draped over the sofa, ready to be used on a chilly morning. Items in antique stores have stories and histories. These trinkets fill me with countless ideas.

4. Make time for your family

This is especially important if you are a full-time artist working from home. I had a job where I worked 100% remote. It’s a blessing and a curse all at once to be a home-bound worker. You benefit greatly from lack of commute, your own kitchen for meals, and the ability to set your own schedule. However, work is always there. It’s easy to get sucked in, much to the detriment of your family.

This goes back to making and keeping that schedule! If your family goes to work and/or school, use those hours to accomplish your goals. If you work a day job, and you are planning your “art” hours around that schedule, it’s important to let your family know that you are making time and room for them. I tell my kids that my first few hours of each weekend morning are “writing time.” Afterwards, we do all sorts of family things – ice skating, playing games, watching movies, play-dates with friends, etc. I schedule –and keep – regular date nights with my husband. These times also refill the artistic cup, but more importantly, your family deserves your love, time and affection.

The moral of this story is twofold: To be an artist, you must embrace that happy, magical inner-being that lives in make-believe land; however, in order to be a successful artist (you know – one that is able to pay for food), you must have discipline, and treat your art like a job. It doesn’t have to feel like work if you balance it right. But it must come with a modicum of seriousness, or else it’s just child’s play.

Happy creating, my friends.

What do you do to drive your artistic success?


* Yes, yes… I know… “Spring” is extremely relative for someone living in the desert.

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6 thoughts on “How to Be A (Good) Artist

    1. In a way, my major in CS over CW was probably not a bad thing… though at this point, I’m fighting my way out of a pigeon hole, and it’s taking heavy weaponry to do so. But, because I have sat in a cubicle for 20 years, I do know what it takes to get shit done… and while creative dreaming is awesome, and required for creative endeavors, I do think a lot of “butt in chair practicing the fine art of discipline” is required. And if you’re totally enjoying what you’re doing WHILE you are being disciplined… I think that’s the point where you’ve won at life.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Changing direction in life is tough, no doubt. Uncertainty scares the living crap out of me.

        It sounds like you have the right mix of inspiration and discipline. On that note, I’ve noticed that when I don’t have an idea (like for these writing contests), if I keep playing with it in my mind, something always comes and I usually like it. Those early “I’ve got NOTHING!” moments are rough, though.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Uncertainty for myself, I’m okay with. However, forcing uncertainty upon my family is something I just won’t do. So yeah, the whole “day job” thing is still required. LOL

          The “I’ve got NOTHING” moments are tough!! The third round of Flash was like that for me. My first story, don’t know if you remember, but I’d said I wanted to print it out and burn it, because simply deleting it off my hard drive wasn’t harsh enough. I went through a good 24 hours of OMG NOTHING. That’s a lot of time, given that it’s a 48 hour contest. LOL I usually find that a change of scenery helps. Or in my case, that time, it was 17 screaming 10 year old girls infiltrating my home. Sleepover of doom! It’ll pull a horror story out of you every time!

          Liked by 1 person

  1. That refill day is so important. Every Saturday morning (most of them) I go to a local Barnes and Noble, get a cup of coffee, and wander. It’s awesome. I love every second of it. The photography books fill me with endless ideas, and then I get a second cup of coffee and people watch. Other Saturdays or days off I go to the beach coffee house I frequent and just people watch. Getting outside, sometimes, is enough. Haha! Doing nothing is often the most productive thing I do as it fuels my week of somethings. 🙂 Loved this post.

    Liked by 1 person

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