Yesterday morning I showed up at my writing desk not quite ready to work. I was in a foul mood, a little tired and lazy, and feeling distracted. Not just feeling distracted but actively looking for distractions (which, on the internet, are not hard to find).
After an hour or two of wasting time and wallowing in my bad mood, I figured out (for the eleven-hundredth time) that I had nobody to blame for my mental state but myself. I could have said no thank you to the 18-year-old Lagavulin my friend brought back from Scotland and poured freely at the D&D game. I could have attended one decadent social event instead of two. I could have eaten better, exercised more, and gone to bed earlier.
Radical Responsibility is a form of self-empowerment. To me the phrase means looking for solutions and possibilities instead of excuses, and never passing the buck. It means being ready, brave, and confident. It means exercising my free will (and rejecting fate, powerlessness, and inertia).
Of course, having an ideal and living an ideal are not the same. But the point of having an ideal is to stop pounding your head against the wall before you hurt yourself.
So … I acknowledged to myself and my family that I was in a terrible head-space (I had kind of been taking it out on them up to that point). I sat down and meditated for five minutes. I turned off the wifi on my laptop, opened my working document, reviewed my notes, started writing, and kept writing until I had met my daily quota.
Immediately my mood lifted. I read the work and felt excited by it. 27 days in a row working on my current novel (“don’t break the chain” in full effect). There’s no better reminder that emotions don’t have to control you than pushing through and doing the work anyway.
But There’s a Better Way …
Ideally, I shouldn’t have to expend so much willpower to get rolling. I wasn’t ready but I could have been ready. Artists can choose to be ready physically by being reasonably rested and fed (but not overfed — less is usually more when it comes to food and creative productivity). We can be ready emotionally by not getting entangled in other people’s drama (Polish saying: “not my circus, not my monkeys”), by avoiding disputes and the need to always be right. We can be ready with an abundance of ideas by paying attention to the subconscious mind, by meditating, and by consuming brilliant work by artists we admire. If depression is holding us back we can do something about it. If we don’t have enough time or a fancy working space we can fit in bits of work here and there; we can create a distraction-free zone in some little nook.
We could make an excuse for not being ready, but do we want to? Why not just be ready when it’s time to work?
The Perfect Excuse Guy
When I was in my early twenties I had a shitty temp job at a warehouse packing boxes. I also had a few techno and house tracks signed and published (one with a major label) and I was working on music about twenty hours a week. There was a guy at the warehouse, probably in his thirties, who was interested in electronic music and frequently asked me questions about how to get into it. I told him my story: I had saved up money to buy a keyboard, figured out how to plug it into my computer, taught myself MIDI sequencing, sent demos to labels, and so forth.
Anything I told this guy, he had a perfect answer for why he couldn’t do it himself. A keyboard was too expensive (I had saved over a year before buying mine). He didn’t have time because of his job (I was currently working the same job and producing music nights and weekends). I would try to explain to him how he could get around the obstacles he was setting up for himself, but he always had an answer ready. I would give up trying to convince him, but then he would start asking me about music production again. He clearly wanted to get into it himself. He wanted me to talk him into it! I tried, but the excuse part of his mind always won out, and finally I just refused to talk about making beats with that guy.
A different guy from the warehouse was a DJ. He heard I was producing tracks and asked if he could come over and check out my home studio. I said yes and we had a great production session — we exchanged quite a bit of knowledge in just a few hours. It didn’t turn into an official collaboration, but it left me wondering why the first guy never asked to check out my studio and see what it was all about (I had done the same thing with Josh Davis aka DJ Shadow a few years earlier when we both worked at Steve’s Pizza in Davis, California — Josh showed me his four-track + turntables recording setup which was an eye-opener for me at the time in terms of ways to make music).
I want to be the opposite of the Perfect Excuse Guy. I want to be able to produce and create even when I have shitty tools, no time, not enough money, no great ideas, inadequate skills, and a lack of natural genius. Because I just jump in and start. And then keep going. And then get better. And then keep going. That’s the guy I want to be, forever, no matter the field or the game.
So what’s your story? Are you ready to be radically responsible for your own mental state and creative output?