Chuck Close says "inspiration is for amateurs." What's the alternative? - Jessica Abel
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Answer these 10 quick questions to uncover the real reasons why you’re not able to take control of your creative work.

Chuck Close says “inspiration is for amateurs.” What’s the alternative?

Sit’cher ass down

Everyone knows that the answer to “I don’t feel like writing,” is still “write.” But we still don’t do it. Why?

I was talking to a friend the other day who was tied in knots over some articles she needed to write. And the worst part was, she felt like she was the crazy one. She was sure that “other people” don’t get stuck.

There are probably other sorts of people out in the world where this isn’t a problem that just makes them go, What the fuck? And stop. There are other people who don’t come to a screeching halt here. But I do.

The vast majority of people do come to a screeching halt, at least some of the time. Sure, there are moments when they don’t, and we hear those stories, and say “why can’t I be like that?” A lot of people think I’m one of those people. But I’m not. I’ve been not writing my own blog posts for weeks. Sure, I’ve been writing. Podcast scripts, because that’s on a schedule, and I gotta get it out. But they’re taking so long, and are so painful that I’ve got no time for anything else.

I actually thought there was something totally wrong with me because I can spend so much thinking about…I think I’m doing it entirely wrong. And that I can’t actually do it, because it takes so much time. I refer to it as thrashing. Because it feels like I’m thrashing.

And then I do produce something and other people may say that it’s good. But I’m aware of all the shit that went on behind the scenes, and it’s exhausting to think about starting that over every week.

I totally understand that. I absolutely agree.  You are thrashing, and I think I know why.

Waiting for the muse: Inspiration is a crock

You can envision the work you want to make today, right there in front of you. Just there…on the other side of this bottomless pit of anxiety.

Too many people wait for conditions to be right to sit down and get to work.

That’s totally understandable. Because when you’re trying to write something, but you’re not feeling it, you sit there worrying about what you’re doing, if it will be any good. You have tons of ideas, lots to say, but when you sit down to write you’re like:

  • I don’t know all the answers.
  • I don’t know how to say this.
  • What will people think?
  • My desk is a mess, and I’ve got to start dinner in 15 minutes.
  • I’m not inspired.

That’s what feels like a trap, this black pit between you and actually making a thing. And who needs to fall into a black pit? You start scrolling through your Facebook feed.

You know from experience that if you can just get past that pit, you’ll be in the creative flow, and you won’t worry about any of that stuff. You’ll actually be inspired. And it will feel amazing.

Naturally, you want to get over there, to that feeling. But facing the very present emotional danger on the way, is, shall we say, not an attractive prospect. And it takes enormous willpower to just cold make yourself do it when you feel unconnected to your work.

The answer isn’t willpower. It’s a plan.

The key to sitting your ass down to work isn’t willpower. And it definitely isn’t inspiration. It’s building a system that makes it a habit.

Being creative is a practice. I wouldn’t call it necessarily…discipline. It does require some self-discipline definitely, but it’s a practice.

The fact that you end up on Facebook doesn’t mean you’re “a procrastinator.” It means that you have a vision for where you want to arrive with your big creative project, in, like, 2, 3, or 5 years, but you have no clue how to get yourself there.

Procrastination is about not knowing the next step to take.

The painter Chuck Close said:

Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.

Daily creative practice is not about feeling good about it. It’s not about even making something good.

The creative practice itself is how you make space for great ideas to grow. Not every idea is going to be great, every day. But you open up a space where you could have those ideas. If you’re not working, there’s there’s no space for inspiration to arrive.

Great. So we’re back to “sit’cher ass down and work.” Thanks a lot, Chuck Close. So helpful.

I mean, I’ve heard that quote over and over, and it’s a great one. But I looked it up, and what he says next is actually much more interesting, and much more helpful:

And the belief that things will grow out of the activity itself and that you will — through work — bump into other possibilities and kick open other doors that you would never have dreamt of if you were just sitting around looking for a great ‘art idea.’

…You don’t have to reinvent the wheel every day. Today, you know what you’ll do, you could be doing what you were doing yesterday, and tomorrow you are gonna do what you did today, and at least for a certain period of time you can just work. If you hang in there, you will get somewhere.

This is the really important part. “At least for a certain period of time you can just work.” Yes, you need a regular creative practice. How do you build that practice? By having a system for working, meaning a specific way in which you go about doing things day in and day out, so you never have to start from scratch.

When you’ve got a project plan for how to get from here to there, when you’ve drawn a roadmap, you can focus on the next tiny, achievable step. Once you put your foot on that path, the sense of accomplishment you gain as you gradually chip away at the big rock will convince you that you’re actually capable of finishing the project you envision. That’s how you grant yourself control over your creative practice.

To create something new in the world you need to face your dilemmas and start making conscious decisions that will help take control of your time, attention and creative practice.

Guess what? I’ve got just the thing for you! Sign up to get a free”What’s Stopping You?” worksheet that will help you pin down where you are, where you are going, and draw a map to get you there.

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Answer these 10 quick questions to uncover the real reasons why you’re not able to take control of your creative work.

  • Michi Mathias

    November 10, 2015 at 11:11 am

    That was just what I needed to hear today! Thank you. I’m right up against a deadline today, once again, and it didn’t have to be this way…

    Reply
    • Jessica Abel
      Jessica Abel

      November 10, 2015 at 11:19 am

      I’m glad you enjoyed it. Next time, it can be better!

      Reply
  • Rani Goederee

    November 10, 2015 at 12:10 pm

    Great piece, Jessica! I guess I better take the next tiny step towards my big goal now… :-)!

    Reply
  • Katherine

    November 10, 2015 at 3:37 pm

    Perfect timing! Thank you. Also loved cheese & grapes!

    Reply
  • dan wiebe

    February 3, 2016 at 5:18 am

    I think Jessica already knew this and just needed reminding. A kick in the pants. Don’t just sit there…..do something. Practice practice practice. Thanks for the great advice .

    Reply
  • Brian Fies

    July 4, 2017 at 10:19 pm

    The version of Close’s quote I know is Charles Schulz’s “writer’s block is for amateurs.” As far as I know, Schulz didn’t follow up with more helpful details like Close did.

    This isn’t a problem I’ve ever had, but I sympathize with those who do. Probably the best thing that ever happened to my creative life was getting a job as a newspaper reporter right out of college. The obligation to deliver a couple thousand words every day or lose your job knocks all the preciousness right out of you. It’s a discipline I’ve kept since. I think you dismiss “sit yer ass down and write” a little quickly; that’s what you’d have to do if your job were cleaning pipes or soldering circuits. Sit down and work, you big baby. It’s not coal mining.

    That said, I use some “tricks” that make it easier for myself, which probably correspond to systems and habits, as you recommend. At the end of every day I try to leave a small thing undone. It nags me overnight, so I can’t wait to complete it next morning. Boom, I’m working and back in the rhythm and it’s lunchtime before I know it.

    I never see anything as a block; it’s just a problem I haven’t solved yet. I have faith I will. Meanwhile, I’ll work on these other eight things I need to do while I let that problem rest a while. A solution always eventually comes. If experience is worth anything, I think it’s growing the confidence to know you’ll figure it out.

    Also, for the big jobs, I always keep Anne Lamott’s motto “bird by bird” in mind (look it up if you don’t know the story). An enormous project can be overwhelming, but 20 or 200 little projects can each be easily manageable. Do something–anything–today, no matter how small. Then do it again tomorrow. Then look up in three, six or twelve months to say, “holy crap, look what I did!” It’s obvious advice, but the number of people paralyzed in the face of what look like unconquerable cliffs tells me that a lot of creators don’t take it.

    Reply
  • Brian Fies

    July 4, 2017 at 10:21 pm

    Just noticed this is an old post! Don’t know why it came around again on Facebook, but my comment would’ve been the same in 2015.

    Reply
    • Jessica Abel
      Jessica Abel

      July 10, 2017 at 11:32 pm

      Just because it’s not new doesn’t mean it’s not true! I reshare posts that are still relevant regularly.

      I really appreciate your comments, as usual, Brian. Great tips for people struggling with the butt-in-chair. I agree that in the end that’s the technique that works. What I don’t agree with is that getting there is simple. You can’t boss your way there, or rely on pure willpower. You have to set up those methods that get you started before you have a chance to get derailed.

      Love Bird by Bird…

      Reply

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