Even though I love working in my studio, some days it’s tough motivate myself to get in there. Maybe the rest of my life is stressful and exhausting, or maybe the initial passion I had for the piece I’m working on has worn off and I’m finding myself in the doldrum-middle of the work or I’ve come to one of the bits I like doing least. The details don’t really matter; the pattern is the same no matter whether it’s a book I’m writing, a quilt I’m creating, or just about any other creative project I’m engaged in. I get started and I really love what I’m doing, then something disrupts my train and it’s like pushing a giant rock uphill to get myself back to work.
When I was early in my writing career, I looked at those derailments and despaired. I thought I was the problem. If I somehow had more inspiration or creativity, maybe it’d be easier to stick to whatever I’d started and even enjoy the entire process. Sometimes I blamed the rest of the world; if only the family was more supportive or the Universe didn’t want me to fail I could get projects done more quickly and joyously. I honestly thought experienced, professional artists never stalled out or found it hard to get into the studio regularly.
Yeah, the pros get weighed down, too. The difference between the me of yesteryear and them is they’ve got tools for those days when it seems the wind’s gone out of their sails. Tools are a beautiful thing we can all use to make our lives more creative and satisfying, even if we don’t intend to go pro. Here are a few of the tools and strategies I use regularly to get myself moving.
Draw on Your Senses
If I know my creative project is going to be big, as in it’ll take me a long time to complete, I like to connect a wonderful sensual experience to it to help me get in the right mindset each time I get to work on it. I draw on that connection whenever I work, and sometimes that’s the only reason I show up to do the work.
A sensual experience can be anything that you enjoy so long as it doesn’t interfere with your work and it’s something you can limit at least for the duration of your project. When I wrote my first novel, I drank Ting Tung Jade tea. It’s a lovely, sweet, peachy high mountain green oolong that I utterly adored. I only drank it while I was working on my novel. Some days I showed up to write only because it meant I could have a cup of that wonderful tea. I made progress each time I showed up, although sometimes it was baby steps. That little bit of progress made it easier to show up the next day, and the next, and the next. I finished a rough and then two more drafts thanks to Ting Tung Jade.
I’ve used many types of sensual experiences to motivate myself to get into the studio. Incense and specific aromatherapy blends are one of my favorites beyond a good cup of tea. I know writers who create playlists and artists who use specific television shows they play in the background while they create. Audiobooks and podcasts can be good, too, if the work you’re doing won’t be hampered by words. The key is to choose something you’ll only experience while you work for the duration of the project.
Break it Down
Just getting into the studio sometimes takes more than a simple motivator for me. When I’m mid-project and I need to change techniques to continue, I often find myself completely drained of the will to move ahead. In my Tree and Rock series, I begin with piecing the background, which may include hand or machine work and may include some simple appliqué. Then, in the middle of the project I switch to using fusible appliqué and machine stitching. That’s a major shift for my brain right there because each approach has its own set of challenges and strengths, and each set requires a different type of thinking for success.
When I’m planning a project, I examine the overall stages of the work for the areas I know are likely to require me to make major shifts in my tools or techniques. I know those will be challenging points for me, so I break the work down at the beginning of each of those shifts into super tiny steps. If I can get myself to do one step that takes only about five minutes of effort, then I can build enough momentum to do another step, and maybe another and another. Once I’ve gotten myself through three or four of those tiny steps, my mind will be in the right zone to keep going fairly easily.
Sometimes, I don’t plan for one of those major shifts. Part of what makes art exploration is you can run into the need to learn completely new techniques or try new tools you hadn’t expected to use. Sometimes, the thrill of trying the new technique or tool is enough to keep me moving, but sometimes it’s the giant rock I’m pushing uphill. When that happens, I make time to break it down mid-project. I’ll often pull out a piece of scrap paper and write a list of each super tiny step to take: Plug iron in, cut fusible web for leaf 1, apply web to leaf 1, cut fusible web for leaf 2…and so on. Yes, the steps are ridiculously easy and small, but it feels good to cross a whole bunch of them off the list, usually good enough to feed my self-motivation for continuing forward.
One of the tricks I learned as a writer that serves me really well in my other endeavors is to never leave a project cold; Always start warm.
In writing, starting warm means when you show up to write you know what you’re going to write next…not just the next scene but the next piece of dialog. To do that, you always end your writing sessions with your current scene not quite complete or you get far enough into the next one that you know exactly what you’ll write next when you sit down to write again. That’s how professional writers avoid staring at the proverbial blank sheet of paper. By leaving whatever they’ve started a little undone, they’ve got easy traction to get the story moving the next time they’re writing.
As an artist, I prepare to start warm by never letting myself set a project down without a clear idea of what I want to do next and how I plan to accomplish it. If I know a major shift is coming that’ll likely stymie my motivation, I take the time to plan out the transition and maybe even do the first step or two to make it easier to shift when I get into my studio next. Even when no transition is involved, I aim to leave my studio knowing what I plan to do next and feeling good about getting it done. That prepares me to start warm the next time I get into my studio, which makes motivating myself to get back to work easier.
Even with a toolbox full of tools for getting myself motivated to get to work, there are days and projects that just seem futile. I may manage to get myself into the studio, but I find myself slogging through the work as if it’s a deep, muddy bog. No matter what I do, I can’t get myself fired up to create. On those days, I motivate myself with a special treat. Sure, my special treats can look an awful lot like cookies, a big slice of cheesecake, or even a chocolate-covered pastry from the local patisserie, but they’re not usual rewards that I give myself every time. They’re special.
Special treats can also be non-foods. I get a real charge out of the almost instant support I get from posting pics of what I’m working on on social media. I love seeing 50 likes for a project that’s in-progress. Better yet, folks sometimes engage by asking what I’m up to or cheering me on. Walks, hikes, a trip to the tea shop for a new brew, or maybe the joy of spending an extra half hour reading once the project’s done (or the part that’s no fun is done), can serve well as special treats, too. I’m so not above buying a book or two on Amazon or from the local used bookshop to congratulate myself on getting through the dreadfully boring binding of a quilt!
The real difference between the pros and the rest of us isn’t that they get paid and we don’t. Many of us do get paid here and there for our creative works. The difference is the Pros know how to get motivated and stay motivated so they show up to do their work regularly. Whether you’re planning on entering your work in shows, submitting to publishers or galleries or museums, or you’re just happy to display it in your back parlor and eventually pack it away in the storage space when something else is complete, you can use professional tools and techniques to stay motivated to keep creating.