the secret to making really great artistic work

When I sit down to write these monthly letters to you, I usually have a starting point...

. . . but tonight it’s different. There’s no outline in my head. I’m starting from nowhere. 

Usually I start from somewhere… it might be just a few words or a sliver of a story.

Usually, I have a spark. 

Most times, that spark of inspiration comes during one of the few times that I’m still, as I rock my son Luca to sleep in an almost totally dark room. Then there’s the noise machine mimicking the whoosh of the ocean and the same damn lullabies I’ve listened to so many times that I’m pretty sure I could play them on the piano even though I don’t know the first thing about playing the piano. I know those notes as if I wrote them. 

This past week, I’ve waited in Luca’s nursery every night for inspiration to come to me. I know that if I’m quiet, if I’m still, if I give the creative spark a space to meet me, it’ll show up. But this week, it stood me up. So, I’m showing up anyway. I’m starting before I’m ready. I’m trusting that if I show up, inspiration will, too. 

It reminds me of something my piano teacher said. Yeah, I lied to you. I do know the first thing about playing the piano but literally, only that first thing. 

I had one lesson in an online class during our Camp Dear Handmade Life last summer with Kathryn Lounsbery aka That Piano Girl Kat. The class was called Creating on the Piano but it could have been called, Piano Playing for People Who Have Never Touched a Piano but Want to Learn How to Play Something that Sounds Impressive in About 45 Minutes, because that’s what happened in the class. 

And now, l can pick up Luca’s toy keyboard and whip out a little melody that’s reminiscent of The Doors. And even though I love feeling cool in front of my 22-month-old son (he could care less), the piano lesson itself was secondary to the life lessons I got in my one and only piano class.

Here’s what my piano teacher Kathryn said that stuck with me:

“There are only two things you have to do to write a song…
1. Start the song. 
2. Finish the song.”

When she said that, I thought, you can replace the word song with anything…

  • Start the painting. Finish the painting.
  • Start the business plan. Finish the business plan.
  • Start the email newsletter. Finish the email newsletter.
  • Start before you know how the painting is supposed to look when you’re done.
  • Start before you know every detail about what you want your business to be.
  • Start before you know that you’ll end up writing about that piano lesson you randomly took last summer.

Is there going to be a messy middle? You bet!

There will be moments when you’re cursing your genes or upbringing or whatever made you the type of person who wants to share their creativity with the world. You’ll second guess yourself approximately 1.3 thousand times. And, you’ll ask yourself, “what’s the point?” more than once.

You may even have to walk away for a bit… and that’s ok! But you do have to come back and finish. Even if you end up painting the ugliest painting on the planet or writing the most embarrassing song ever to exist, you have to finish.

The reason you must finish is so that you can start again. That’s how you learn how to not make something that you want to burn in a bonfire or hide in a basement. The only way to make something incredible and transformative, whether it’s a song or a painting or even a newsletter is to push through that messy middle and make enough of whatever you make to move past the place where as Ira Glass puts it, “We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have,” and get to a spot where “your work will be as good as your ambitions.”

When I think back on the things that I’ve painted, written and designed over the years, my instinct is to be embarrassed, to not admit that sophomore year of high school I wrote a clichéd story about a teen who runs away and ends up living at a picturesque desert truck stop (guess who saw Gas, Food, Lodging a few too many times?) or that I designed this postcard for our first ever Patchwork Show and thought it was pretty damn cool. 

But, after that embarrassment stage, I push myself to the spot where I am proud of myself for making and sharing my work despite the fact that it was… let’s be honest, kind of sucky. Sucky or not, it’s mine and without it, I wouldn’t be where I am. 

There will be times when you’ll make crappy art. And, if you’re ever going to make art that makes people wonder at the beauty of being alive and feel a little less alone, you will have to make lots of crappy art and pep talk yourself a lot. 

There may be times where, like me, you sit in your son’s room listening to him breathe his tiny sweet toddler breaths and staring at that bit of light seeping in from your back patio lights at the edge of the blackout curtains and you wait (not so patiently) for that spark to show up. 

But, whether the spark shows up or not, YOU must show up. Even if you don’t have a first line or a color palette or a two-year goal list for your business, you have to start anyway. And, you have to finish. 

And then, there’s the last part that Kathryn didn’t talk about in my piano lesson. It’s the part where you look at or listen to or feel what you created. You have to do this with a critical eye, as if it isn’t your own so that you can see what’s truly lovely about it and what could be better. 

THAT is how you eventually create work that even years after you make it, you love (or at least like, or at the very least feel proud to have learned from). 

So, the next time you’re staring at your blank canvas and feeling overwhelmed or you’re looking at the blinking cursor on your computer, think about that truly awful postcard that I shared with you and remind yourself that it’s okay to make crappy art. 

Then, take Kathryn’s advice.

Start. Sit your butt down at the piano or computer or your studio desk and begin to do that thing you do because eventually that spark will find you. And, even if it doesn’t find you at that particular time, push yourself through the messy middle and finish. Because no matter how crappy the thing you made is, you made it and if you keep making stuff, I promise it’ll get easier and way less crappy. 


.  . . or grow your business or even give yourself a shot of inspiration while being surrounded by the coolest, most welcoming crew of crafty people at the beach in California, then join us at our Craftcation Business & Makers Conference

Craftcation features industry experts leading attendees in 200+ small business classes and craft workshops as well as social gatherings to connect, educate and foster community.

Time and time again, attendees tell us how the Craftcation community is unlike that from any other conference because it is so welcoming. We welcome you just as you are. No dress codes. No judgment. We’re proud to foster a community of people from all walks of life who form unbreakable bonds and stay connected long after the conference ends.

Seats are extremely limited for Craftcation 2022 and discounted early bird pricing ends December 1st, so don’t don’t delay. Join us for a life-changing experience unlike anything else.

P.S. – You can check out our COVID precautions and take a tour of Craftcation here.

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