I am stubborn. (I can hear the people who know me well chuckling at that. “Yeah, a little!” they are thinking sarcastically.) In a lot of ways, that stubbornness has served me well in life, but it doesn’t always serve me well in the studio. I like to get things done and I like to get them done on time, according to MY plan. But, what I have had to learn over the last few years is that art doesn’t work that way. The Muses aren’t consulting a gigantic project plan and saying, “Ah yes, today Julie is scheduled to complete the quilting on her current piece.” My plan for the day and their plan for the day don’t always align and I hate that.
In my other life, I am a great project manager and am really good at getting things done. When things get hard, I roll up my sleeves and work harder. When a task is taking longer than expected, I make a cup of tea and I work longer. That does not work in art. Yes, there are times when things are really working well and you do just need a little more time or a little more effort, but there are also a lot of times when more time and effort are just counterproductive. In those moments in the past, I stubbornly tried to work through it. I would just keep sewing even after my thread broke for the fourth time AFTER changing the needle, rethreading the machine, and giving it a good cleaning. I would press on and sew a seam again after having sewn it and taken it out six times already. I would just keep getting more and more frustrated and my language got worse and worse, but I would keep at it. I’d square my stubborn shoulders and just try to work through it. I failed and finally, dawn broke over Marblehead and I realized that unlike PowerPoint slides, art cannot be forced. Thus, one of the greatest lessons I have learned recently is that sometimes when creating art, you just have to walk away.
I have just learned that there is a name for this action, for walking away when your art is screaming at you that it just is not going to get done today. Tom and David Kelley in their 2013 book called “Creative Confidence; Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All,” call this activity “Relaxed Attention.” “Relaxed Attention” certainly has a more positive spin than spewing a string of expletives, throwing up your hands and stomping out of the studio while muttering “I GIVE UP!” (which is usually how it happens for me). Instead, cultivate some relaxed attention by doing something else. Take a “thought walk,” as they call it. Go out for coffee. Sleep on it. Throw your project plan out the window. In this month of goals and resolutions, know that sometimes you have to just give it time and take a break.
Want to get posts like this one, along with the rest of the Creative Play Newsletter delivered to your inbox each month? Subscribe here.