I was talking with a friend recently about the difference between inspiration and duty. Sure enough, within 12 hours, I came across not one but three webinars whose focus was on just that, so here we are.
Have you ever made a list in the evening of all the things you wanted to accomplish the next day, a list that you were quite excited about? Then the next day, not so much.
There is such a big difference between an Inspired Action List and a Dutiful To-Do List, isn’t there? If it’s something I am consistently eager to do every day (like my daily journal meditation), I easily create a rhythm that is deeply satisfying and rewarding. The exact same activity on a lifeless To-Do List would feel like obedience to a tyrant whose handwriting is oddly familiar…
I suspect this post may be more helpful for people like me who tend to think too much. I developed that not-so-great habit by working for many years in jobs where strategizing and long-range planning were right there in my job description. I was paid to create crystal-ball projections, write up final reports for programs, describing successes and shortfalls, closing with yet more projections about ‘next steps.’
Even now, in retirement, I find myself ‘strategizing’ my time when I don’t need to, simply because it is a bad habit. In the last year I have gone beyond questioning its value to seeing this culturally-sanctioned habit comes with a very high price.
Chronic ‘Strategizing’ Puts a Barrier Between Me and My Gut Instincts
An example, from life to sketching and back. Stay with me here.
Often when I take my beginning sketchbook students out for an on-site, ‘plein air’ class, they happily sally forth, shiny new art supplies in hand, park themselves on their brand new, highly-portable, over-priced camp stools, take a deep breath, and then start to look around. At that point I usually see the life blood drain out of their faces, and I wait for their predictable next line.
“I have no idea what to draw!” they moan. “There is too much to choose from!”
That’s when I hit them with the very first exercise, guaranteed to make them moan even more, but alas, it works. You can do it at home yourself, right now. Before you start, you will need a pen (any pen) and a piece of paper. A sketchbook, a sheet of copy paper, a plain paper bag perhaps. Get comfortable, here we go.
There are only three simple steps.
First, grab your viewfinder. You can easily make your own by grabbing a junk-mail envelope out of your recycling trash (feeling clever already, right?) Check out the photos below—make it a square, cut a hole, label it as shown for inspiration.
Second, hold it up in front of you using your non-dominant hand, close your eyes, extend your arm and move it through the air like you are conducting an orchestra, keeping the paper upright, hole facing you. You will look like a fool, but no worries.
Finally, stop waving your silly arm, hold steady, and open your eyes. Look through the hole, right where it is. “Oh No!” you exclaim. “That isn’t worth drawing!” Silly you, wrong again.
Because the subject matter doesn’t matter.
Now the pressure is off because after all, you didn’t decide to draw the corner of that garbage can, it just appeared on its own. Next hold your arm steady, take a deep breath, and just stare at the hole for a little while, right where it is. Start in the top right corner of the opening, let your gaze drift down that right-hand edge, and notice at what point some object in the viewfinder’s hole touches that edge. Is it halfway down? A little less? A little more?
Continue around the square, just noticing those ‘hot spots’, those intersections of an object in the hole with the frame surrounding it. Imagine a little buzz of electric energy at each of those intersections. Suddenly that dirty corner of the garbage can has become an abstract shape, one that you can’t get wrong because, after all, it is an abstract shape.
Next, give that arm a little rest, and pick up your pen in your dominant hand. Draw a small square on your paper, and then reposition your viewfinder in the air, as close as possible to its original spot so you get to see that now-familiar abstract image again.
Now, drawing on your paper (not on the viewfinder!), make ‘spark marks’ (dots) at each place on your square’s perimeter where you already identified hot spot intersections. Then, starting at any dot you like, slowly draw the line as it grows from the spark toward the inner part of your image area. And there you have it.
The dots around the perimeter are your safety net, the inner space is your playground.
With each mark, you are deciding (subconsciously) how funky you want to be today.
Do you feel like making bold, emphatic lines?
Are you making soft gentle lines that are crying out to have shading added, so your shapes become volumes?
Do you catch yourself thinking, “Okay next time I want to use a fatter pen, a gel pen, a pencil, a Sharpie…”?
Congratulations, you have arrived at Pen Dancing, which is far more fun than drawing.
The purpose of that exercise is two-fold:
You got over yourself. This is most important: to see that what you draw is nowhere near as important as that you draw.
Secondly, whether you know it or not, you are not just developing hand-eye coordination, you are actually doing push-ups with these amazing miniscule muscles you didn’t even know you had in your drawing hand. This is something I learned from Shoo Rayner, in this enchanting video from 2013, “Why You Should Practice Drawing”. With every innocuous swerve of your pen you are increasing your dexterity.
“That’s fine for drawing, but how do I get a Viewfinder for my Life?”
First off, when you are drawing, you are giving your strategic, long-range-planning mind a rest. Never a bad thing.
Next, the Viewfinder for Your Life is closer than you think. Here’s how you make one.
First, as your other viewfinder says, ‘Take time to compose yourself.’
Look at your agenda for the day, and note any time-specific appointments you may have. You may want to even set an audible reminder on your phone, so you can forget about it until you hear the bell. That frees up head space.
Next, pick something you’d like to do to launch your day. You are not planning your life, or even your day really, you are simply picking something you would love to do for the next 20 minutes. I mean that, ‘love to do.’ Think excitement, not check-list. Think carrot, not stick. Then do it.
I have found that even washing the dishes can be exciting when that ‘chore’ has been nagging at me, and suddenly I picture how good it feels to have the kitchen all sparkly clean. Notice, this is a ‘sudden picture’, an inspiration, not a strategy where I am pushing the mule to move.
Every day, multiple times a day, I ask myself, “What do I want to do next?” It often does include washing the dishes, paying bills, going for a walk, putting 20 more minutes into my next book, and even taking a nap. Confession: that last one, taking a nap, is the hardest because it is new to me. That one still has some “who do you think you are” attached to it, but that is only Thought, so I dismiss it for what it is. It is not depression, it is not laziness. It is just a dang nap, and I have discovered a 15-minute lie-down is often more therapeutic than a walk.
If I have no idea what I ‘want’ to do, it is probably because my brain is clogged with thoughts of what I ‘should’ do. That is a priceless insight. What a world of difference there is in asking, “What do I want to do next?” instead of “What should I do next?”
Oddly enough, either way I usually get everything done.
When using the question “What should I do next?” all day long, I am left feeling dutiful, obedient, and a bit spent.
With the other approach I end my day feeling inspired, content, and a bit pleased with myself.
Sketching, Life, it is all the same thing.
Compose Yourself. Pick something enticing. Then go for it.
(In case you’re interested, here is a really durable, useful viewfinder. I bought one years ago and love it.)
(PS #2: Stay tuned for my next post, called The Mysterious Clock-Face Revelation, wherein I discover the secret of the wonky roof-line.)