“Just wrote a long piece that is not awful. Given the times, it feels like Lourdes. I started w/one image, wrote 1 okay sentence after another. Took paragraphs bird by bird, till I had a shitty 1st draft. Then took out the throat clearing, lies & desperation, and began 2nd draft.” ~Anne Lamott (Twitter)
Getting started with your creative work requires the willingness to make the first mark.
We have an idea. A craving to express something. A desire to build and/or launch the inkling that keeps us awake. A passion to make an indelible impact.
We burn to escape the bounds of the mundane. The routine. The infinite gerbil wheel of sameness. We ache for color, play, adventure, traveling to our edges.
Culture tells us we should want all the shiny things, but what we really want more than anything else is to feel alive. And buried deep inside us is a knowing that the way from there to the here we crave is through the joyful work and art that ignites us, transforms us. In our becoming, we leave faint trails for others to follow, while we tacitly and overtly change the world as we change ourselves.
Chances are we’ll avoid this journey for as long as we possibly can. For even though we want the juice of the experience and its powerful effects, we often choose to hang back—off to the side—out of frame and in perceived safety. The longer we ignore the call to step forward into the unknown, toward the blank page (or toward the opportunity, beginning in earnest the vulnerable, real work), the harder it is to make the first mark.
The bridge across the chasm between staying stuck and getting started begins to fade, wear away with each hour. Each day we decide to cling to the painful world we know (over accepting the invitation to create as part of an unpredictable path) adds another layer through which we must ultimately pierce.
The longer we avoid, the harder it is to begin.
How do we, then, find our way into the work—the work we know will be challenging, yet offers the profound rewards of having stretched us beyond what we thought possible? How can we get to our desk, studio, blank pages, computer, journal, index cards, prototypes, and rough drafts?
I have made a ritual of sorts for piercing the veil of getting started. I begin by gathering together the items I will need, similar to a chef arranging her work station and establishing a mise en place. I try to leave nothing to chance, knowing that if I have to go in search of a tool, a bit of research/notes, a certain art supply, and the like, I can deftly use the distraction of securing it as another way to avoid the work.
With everything set up properly, I muster my willingness to make my first mark.
This is the moment onto which everything else hinges: reaching forward where nothing currently exists and placing something onto the blank surface. It seems so simple, innocuous. Yet our minds will want to make this moment one of life or death.
Monumental—believing that an error or misstep here is one from which we cannot recover.
It is the only way we ever create anything. That first mark is the beginning of the conversation, not the end. It is the first call in what will become a series of calls and responses. We put down the first mark, the first word, the first line, the first ingredient, the first step. What follows is the reaction to that first effort, formed by our intuition as to where to take it next.
There Are No Mistakes
Artist Ralph Stedman says that there are no mistakes…there is only an opportunity to do something else. When he begins his paintings, his first mark is made with a strong flip of his wrist, causing ink to fly from his pen, forming a giant ink splat onto the white paper. Stedman studies the ink splat; he then decides what to make of it. The entirety of his artwork is born from those initial marks. Once a mark is on the page, he has something to fuel his intuition and build upon.
This is true for all of us.
In a recent online art course, we had an assignment to create a work using the same shape in as many ways as possible. I chose the circle and shelved my typical, cerebral approach in favor of a very playful, “what-the-heck” attitude. I had no idea what I was going to make, no plan for how to approach it. I just looked down at the white paper in my sketchbook and put down my first mark—the large circle on the left side of the page.
I now had a bold call that was asking for a response. I answered with the circle in the top, right corner. And then the one on the bottom, right. Slowly the work evolved. Scraps became the most interesting aspect of the work—a very happy accident/surprise. I watched the work come to life, delighted.
Our instructor asked us to share our work in the Facebook group. I hesitated, and then posted. My favorite reaction from one of my classmates was simply, “It looks like a party!”
Yes! That is precisely how I felt in the making of this piece—celebratory, happy, and in flow. A conversation of marks, beginning with the equivalent of a flick of the wrist, not knowing or caring how it landed. Simply curious to see what would happen as I went along.
From Avoidance to Intuitive Flow
Where are you avoiding making that first mark? Decide today that your time in limbo has been long enough. You do not need to feel ready, qualified, talented, or able. Simply scoop up the materials you need (it is always fewer things than our minds will tell us) and flip that wrist. Let the ink fly and land where it chooses.
Study it. Let your intuition take it and you from there. Each reaction builds upon the one before, ultimately forming the finished work and a life comprised of joyful moments, feeling truly alive.