The way you think is key to a writer’s success

The motto of this blog is “The art and business of creativity.”

I stress that because becoming a professional artists is really about the marriage of two seemingly incompatible things things— making money and creating art.

The idea that you can’t make a living doing something creative is off-base. I can point to numerous examples in my personal life of some very talented artists creating successful businesses, but there is a caveat to that.

None of them are focused on business when they are actually going through the creative process.

Competition kills the creative process not necessarily the art. There is a distinct difference between the two. The pressure of producing something to advance your business is healthy and can can compel you to create art.  It’s when you start thinking about all those things when you’re actually creating something that it all starts to go wrong.

Think about what you think about

Art is knowledge work meaning it takes the combination of vision and skill to create. Vision is the ability to see what you are creating in your mind before it turns into prose, a painting or a sculpture. Skill is the means to produce it.

Where people struggle in the creative process is doesn’t have as much to do with  having enough skill, as it does being able to envision what they are going to create.

Successful artists are the ones that put themselves in position to have vision in the first place. Clarity of thought is key to art and if you are busy grappling with negative emotions then it is difficult to create art on a consistent basis simply because your mind isn’t all there.

That’s not to say artists don’t deal with negative emotions— they do. It’s just that the professional artists are the ones that are able to push aside all pretenses and and focus on what you are doing on a consistent basis.

This may sound blatantly obvious, but it’s so much harder than you think.

The inability to deal with the things that keep  us from being artists is the number one career killer. This is especially true for artists that work full time. A day job can sometimes consume 40 hours in a week or more. Then there are those voluntary time wasters like the internet, watching movies or playing video games that can consume what little free time you do have.

The best thing you can do for yourself is create the time and clarity of thought necessary to have vision. Then you can use those skills you have more effectively.

A first step in doing this is deciding on a time and place where you can be an artists. The one thing that I’ve noticed about all professional artists whether they are writers, painters or sculptors is that they choose to carve out time devoted to creating their art and nothing else.

This is time where you are totally in the present moment. That means there isn’t any multitasking, stressing about work, or worrying about what you have to do 30 minutes from now. This is an important distinction because if your mind is somewhere else, it’s impossible to have vision.

Think of your mind as an empty room and every thought that comes through is a box that appears and takes up space. This room is constantly filling up with boxes, but the only way to clear the room unpack what’s inside. If you are constantly unpacking boxes filled with worry, fears, stress or thoughts of doing something else then there is no room in there for the thoughts that truly matter to you.

The practice of being completely present in what you are doing means pushing aside all those boxes that don’t matter and creating space for the ones that do. It means making a conscious choice in that moment not to check facebook, not to open up your email or give credence to anything else but what you are doing.

If you are truely passionate about being an artist and wish to take that next step from amateur to professional then you won’t just make this choice once, but probably thousands of times over  in a day because the temptations come often. It’s especially strong when you sit down for your allotted time to be an artist.

I’m not saying give up all those things you like to do, just give them all up when it’s time to roll up your sleeves and be an artist.

It’s only in those moments that you are totally present that you have vision. It requires you to be vigilant about what you are thinking about or the time you allotted to work on your art could be wasted.

I create this space every single time that I sit down to write something whether it’s a news story, a work of fiction or even an email to a friend. If it’s important enough for me to sit down and type it then it deserves my full attention.

It’s almost a feeling of splitting yourself in two. There’s one part of myself that’s watching, filtering through the thoughts that run through my head searching for the ones that are relevant to what I am working on. When a thought comes along that isn’t relevant or is negative then I simply let it pass and move on without judgement or a second glance.

To use the room analogy, I’m unpacking all the boxes and passing on the ones that don’t matter. I like to think of my thoughts as brown cardboard boxes because they all look the same until you open them up. It’s a lot easier to discard the ones that aren’t relevant if you treat them all as nondescript on the surface.

The ability to detach yourself from thoughts that aren’t important is a skill every artist has to master. You have to be willing to pass on thoughts or ideas that aren’t relevant. In the end what you think about is useless if it doesn’t turn into actions.

My job as an artist is to choose the best thoughts to act on in that moment and simply discard the rest.

The danger is letting certain thoughts hijack your focus.

Thoughts have momentum to them and can and take over your psyche with such speed and ferocity that it’s hard to stop. Sometimes this can be a good thing, like when I am on a tight  deadline after a basketball game and the details fall into order naturally. When that type of inspiration comes to me I roll with it and suddenly there’s 15 inches of copy sitting on my editors desk in the span of 10 minutes. Usually there is very little editing necessary.

It becomes a problem when you attach yourself to the wrong kinds of thoughts. These usually come in the form of negative emotions. In the above scenario, things go wrong when I start to focus on the deadline. I begin to let the fact that I only have 15 minutes to write something cloud my thinking space.

Thoughts about deadline turn into regrets that I should have left the gym sooner rather than talk to a coach. That turns into wishing that the your deadline was an hour longer and then anger at myself for making a wrong decision and at the paper for not extending my deadline. Suddenly I’m thinking more about the deadline then the actual story that I have to write in that moment.

That’s precious time wasted thinking about things that don’t really matter.

For one day, try to really observe where your attention is going. Keep track of points when you are completely focused on what you are doing. Take note of the times when you are doing one thing and thinking about something else at the same time. When you see these schism’s try and solve them immediately so you can back to focusing on the present moment.

How often are you truly focused on what you are doing?

Thinking about success

I began this post by saying that being a professional means balancing the idea of making money and creating art. The reason that these two ideas seem so incompatible is because of the social value we place on a certain idea of being successful.

Success to a lot of people is making money and being able to support yourself doing the thing that you love. There is really nothing wrong with that, but the thought of attaining that is so powerful that we can’t let it go when it’s necessary.

For writers, the common mistake is to rush the creative process because you want to get that book out now for one reason or another. They are afraid another writer will get there first, or they want to get their career going quicker and decide to cut a corner.

This also happens when authors write toward a certain market for financial reasons  rather than writing what they know best. They react to a market that may change once that book is finished. It’s alright to write within the parameters of a genre, but when it drives the moment-to-moment plot decisions or you derive a certain style from another writer simply because they sold a lot of books then it becomes a problem.

What happens when you finish and suddenly find out your book isn’t going to sell? If you measure your success by the social values I described then you are a failure. .

I’m not saying you shouldn’t set goals for yourself or put deadlines for yourself, but don’t become so attached to those thoughts that it limits you to certain ideas or it forces you to finish something before it is ready.

Art is not a competition to see who can produce the best work and to measure your success on the basis of what someone else has done is a recipe for disaster. Once you do that, everything you produce is seen through the lens of somebody else’s work and you will never be satisfied with anything that you produce.

When it comes time to really get down to work on your art, pressures stemming from the business side of your life should be just another box in the room that you have to pass on. You stay in the moment and just focus on what you are doing.

John Wooden, the great UCLA basketball coach, was a man who enjoyed true inner peace in his life. He was able to achieve this because of the way he measured success. Success to him had nothing to do with winning or achieving a certain result, though he did strive to bring out the best in himself and his players through setting goals and working hard.

True success to him is peace of mind that comes from knowing you did the best you can with the circumstances presented to you. In the end that’s the only thing you have control over is yourself. You can’t predict where the market is going nor how critics will react to a piece that you finish.

To measure success based on such standards means you’ll never have true peace of mind.

In the end you really can’t ask anymore of yourself then your best when it is called for. If you approach working on your art as trying your best in the time you’ve allocated for yourself then it’s possible to be successful even if you fall short of your goal.

As a writer, my goal is to achieve inner peace. That isn’t necessarily in line with my long term goals of making a living as a writer, but it lays the foundation for me to get there.
For me, true inner peace comes when I am present and focused every moment that I sit down to write. Knowing that I’ve tried my best to do that affords me the peace of mind and clarity of thought necessary to stay present and keep on writing regardless of the obstacles that stand in my way.