Bill Viola, Catherine's Room, 2001. Video installation. Acquired jointly with the National Galleries of Scotland through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008.

Bill Viola, Catherine’s Room, 2001. Video installation. (Photo © Bill Viola courtesy tate.org)

 

Resolutions

It’s the New Year, which means that many of us are taking stock of our personal habits, both good and bad, and resolving to do better.

But how many things on this year’s list of goals also appeared on our list in 2013?

While it’s easy to write down New Year’s resolutions, what’s harder is taking ourselves off “auto-pilot” long enough to re-evaluate our overall direction. We forget to ask a critical question: are we setting our creative goals with clarity and intention, or are we merely coasting and taking the path of least resistance?

 

Here is an exercise that can help…

Imagine receiving the news that you have only one year to live. You have an illness that will not cause you great pain or suffering, but in a year’s time your life will be over. (Let that disturbing thought sink in for a few moments.)

If you had only one year left, what would you do? Who would you see? Would you stay in your present job or quit tomorrow? And which creative projects would you want to be certain to complete? What artistic legacy would you want to leave behind?

 

A still from Bill Viola's video installation Catherine's Room (Photo © Bill Viola)

A still from Bill Viola’s video installation Catherine’s Room (Photo © Bill Viola)

 

Who & What Are Most Important?

Life is impermanent. Thinking about death isn’t morbid. It’s clarifying.

Australian nurse Bronnie Ware spent many years caring for people during the last 12 weeks of their lives. She recorded her patients’ epiphanies in her book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.

Here are the top five regrets Ware observed, according to The Guardian:

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

“Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others,” says Ware. “As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.”

Resolutions are useless if we are living small, mindlessly, and not tending to the larger life-issues on Ware’s list.

When we think about death, priorities snap into sharp focus. Immediately we know what is most important in our work and personal lives, and what distractions should fall away. Our life goals should emerge from this mindful place, and any “resolutions” should be extensions of this larger plan.

 

A still from Bill Viola's video installation Catherine's Room (Photo © Bill Viola)

A still from Bill Viola’s video installation Catherine’s Room (Photo © Bill Viola)

 

The Thing that Dismantles Your Own Sense of Yourself

Why is it so difficult to live a life true to ourselves? Why do we expend so much time and energy on petty projects that are unfulfilling, even harmful to ourselves and others? Why do we talk about our most important creative work instead of doing it? The answer is FEAR.

There is so much to be afraid of… The fear of being judged. Laughed at. Fired. Flat broke. Burning in hell. Badly reviewed. Disrespected. Disowned. Unloved. Alone. Shunned by those who expect us to be different. We are afraid to be vulnerable because of these fears.

And yet, the best creative work emerges from these sticky, aching vulnerable places.

Writer Amy Hempel.

Gordon Lish told Amy Hempel and her fellow students to write a story that revealed their own worst secret—something they would never live down. The thing, as Lish put it, that “dismantles your own sense of yourself.” (Photo: Writer Amy Hempel)

One of my favorite short story writers, Amy Hempel, talks about a major breakthrough she had when studying writing with Gordon Lish. Lish told Hempel and her fellow students to write a story that revealed their own worst secret—something they would never live down. The thing, as Lish put it, that “dismantles your own sense of yourself.”

Hempel’s “worst secret”?  That she had failed her best friend when she was dying. It became the subject of the first story she wrote, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried.” This short story masterpiece would become Hempel’s most anthologized piece of fiction.
 

Follow the Fear

In the Buddhist tradition, fear is a guide. It is the emotion we must pay closest attention to so we can move toward it. That’s right—move toward it. Anything else is procrastination. It is avoidance in its most damaging form. This was the critical lesson Lish was teaching his writing students: the best art requires bravery and vulnerability.

Fear tells us what is most important. In his book The War of Art, Steven Pressfield writes, “Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do.”

“The more important a call or action is to our soul’s evolution,” says Pressfield, “the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it.”
 

The Importance of a Creative Practice

This is the reason we must have a regular creative practice. There will always be a reason to avoid the places that scare us: a carpet covered in dog hair, an email inbox overflowing with unanswered mail, a headache or a bad mood, an empty refrigerator, a studio or office that is too small, too loud, or too far away, a soul-sucking day job, or a looming deadline. Ideal conditions do not exist, so stop waiting for them.

Deep work and exploration require space (mental space, not necessarily physical), and this means showing up, whether it is for two hours in the morning before our 9-5 job begins or for an hour at night once everyone else in the house is asleep, or for five hours in the early morning before turning to administrative obligations and freelance work, or for two months every winter or summer when our academic jobs allow time for an artist residency. Without a plan—a commitment—we will gladly allow fear to have its way and take charge of our schedule.

A purposeful daily routine is actually the opposite of oppressive. It’s liberating. It reduces the odds that fear will derail us from our deepest goals and passions.

 

(Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

(Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

Resting in Our Own Experience of Discomfort

I scratched this sentence in my notebook today: routine=practice=working=courage=presence=being=art. For me, all of these actions are connected and are essentially one in the same. Practice is performing an activity or skill repeatedly in order to improve proficiency, but the word has multiple applications. To “practice the piano” is to exercise one’s skills on the instrument, but to have a “musical practice” is to be dedicated to exercising those skills regularly. In other words, routine is essential to having a thriving artistic practice.

In Mary Jane Jacob’s marvelous essay “In the Space of Art” (from the book Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art) she quotes Yvonne Rand: “we need to be able to ‘rest in our own experience of discomfort,'” she says. This is what a mindful artistic practice allows. It gives us a place to rest in our own discomfort.

Process is a safe haven. Whether we are writing, drawing, composing, designing, or performing, the habit of working those artistic muscles routinely allows us to be brave, radical, and brutally honest in our work. Showing up on a regular basis honors this process.

 

Writer Edwidge Danticat in her office (Photo © John Sprinks via the New York Times Magazine)

Writer Edwidge Danticat in her office (Photo © John Sprinks via the New York Times Magazine)

 

Get Busy

Imagine having only one year left to live…

Who would you call? Who would you see? What would you say to those you care about most? Where would you go? Which projects would you drop this very minute and which ones would you be certain to finish?

Think about it.

Now, get busy.

Put those people and projects at the top of your list. Make time for them each and every day. And when fear and resistance try to derail you in the guise of Facebook, television, so-called “research,” junk food, drink, sex, anxiety, emotional drama, keeping up with the Joneses, martyrdom, (fill in the blank here), do the work anyway. When 2015 rolls around, you might be surprised.

 

A still from Bill Viola's video installation Catherine's Room (Photo © Bill Viola)

A still from Bill Viola’s video installation Catherine’s Room (Photo © Bill Viola)

 

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Further Exploration

Check out the Gwarlingo Store–a handpicked selection of books, movies, etc. of interest to writers, artists, teachers, art lovers, and other creative individuals. A portion of all your purchases made through the Gwarlingo Store portal, benefits Gwarlingo. Prefer to shop online from an independent? Visit the IndieBound Gwarlingo portal here.

 

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