If you boil it down, there are two phases in the process of making art:
Times when you know where you’re going.
And times when you don’t know where you’re going.
Times when you struggle.
And times when you breakthrough.
I can’t put into words how frustrating the struggle of not knowing what you’re doing or where you’re going while trying to create is. But luckily, I don’t need to describe that feeling to you. You already know it.
The struggle happens to all of us all the time.
It’s happening to me right now. Not only with this article — I had no idea what I was going to write about today and was getting pretty anxious about it as the hours ticked on — but also with the new book project I’m working on.
I’m currently in that weird, tortuous phase of making where I just don’t know where I’m going. I’m having minor breakthroughs here and there, but overall this whole book is very uncertain right now. I don’t have a clear path I’m following. I’m hacking away, following leads, turning around at dead ends, and trying to find the best way forward.
The Uncertain Journey
But that’s the process of art making. Creativity is, at it’s core, uncertain.
No one knows if an idea, a line, a sentence is worth following until you follow it and see where it leads.
In order for us to break free of this loop, we have to just accept uncertainty.
We have to be willing to sit and just be with the feeling of uncertainty.Because if we wait long enough, if we chip away at our work long enough, we will come out with an idea and a piece of art.
You can’t create art by just thinking about it or trying to plan it all out from the beginning.
You have to go through the whole process, the entire journey. And most of that journey will feel like you’re blindfolded.
But along the way, you’ll find sparks and follow those sparks uncertain of where exactly they’ll take you, but certain that one will, at some point, take you somewhere worth going.
You have to do the work, to find the work to do.
“I was surprised that there were so many desert areas with large riverbeds running through them. I made many drawings about one and a half inches square of the rivers seen from the air. At home I made larger charcoal drawings from the little pencil drawings. Later I made paintings from the charcoal drawings. The color used for the paintings had little to do with what I had seen — the color grew as I painted.” –Georgia O’Keeffe, painter + sculptor
Finding Our Unknown
Why do we do this to ourselves? Why deal with this struggle and this uncertainty over and over? Our lives would be so much easier if we would just leave the uncertainness of art making alone and stick with the known. If we stick with consuming instead of producing.
Our unwillingness to do that, the fact that we are unable to just consume and not produce, is what makes us artists.
We want to make the unknown known. We want to make OUR unknown, known. Maybe just to ourselves, or maybe to others, but that’s what artmaking is all about: uncovering the unknown.
“I feel that a real living form is the result of the individual’s effort to create the living thing out of the adventure of his spirit into the unknown — where it has experienced something — felt something — it has not understood — and from that experience comes the desire to make the unknown — known. By unknown — I mean the thing that means so much to the person that wants to put it down — clarify something he feels but does not clearly understand — sometimes he partially knows why — sometimes he doesn’t — sometimes it is all working in the dark — but a working that must be done — Making the unknown — known — in terms of one’s medium is all-absorbing…” –Georgia O’Keeffe
Keep Choosing Your Art
I often get moments of panic, insecurity, and dejection when I’m in the periods of not knowing, especially with my books. I’ll feel so lost and uncertain of where I’m going that it feels like I’ll never figure it out. And that feeling makes me wonder if I should quit. What if this is a bad idea not worth following? What if this book will never be good?
I can’t answer those questions by just thinking about them. And I can’t answer those questions for you.
I can only encourage us both to keep pushing.
When you feel anxious and scared that you’ll never find that moment of clarity again, remember this:
“Try to calm down, get quiet, breathe, and listen.” –Anne Lamott, author ofBird by Bird
And know that I’m right here with you, struggling and uncertain every day. We both have to just trust the process and the journey, and keep trying to make our unknowns known.
Trust that every time you feel miserably lost, every drawing you throw out, every line you scribbled out, every file you delete, every sketchbook you slam closed, every pencil you snap, every drawing you hate, every unsatisfied feeling, every internal struggle, every mental block, every urge to give up, every mistake, every disappointment… it all means that you’ve made the decision to stick with your art.
And you have to keep making that decision again and again.
Keep choosing your art and choosing yourself.
Your known phase is right around the corner.