Five routes to a resilient creative practice

Society loves to glamourise creative people and creative work. But as a side effect of treating creativity as something marvellous, many of us end up seeing our own attempts at creative practice as flawed or fragile. We are scared to start, question the quality of our work, get creative block, and are scared to share what we make. This post, rooted in my own journey and the conversations I increasingly find myself having, is for people who wish their creative practice was a bit more resilient.

What do I mean by creative practice? I mean the process of bringing things about in the world, where the drive to do so is for the joy/value of the things themselves rather than as a way to achieve some commercial or political goal. So the medium could be painting, poetry, puddings, performance or something else entirely— the point is that it is a creative practice.

I see creative practice as a basic human process — a valuable-but-optional thing we can do, like sport. And like sport, not everyone will want to prioritise it but lots will and everyone can — some people might be especially gifted at it (eg Serena Williams: better than you at tennis) but that doesn’t de-legitimise your own drive to follow your interest. In fact, the presence of gifted people should inspire us to work at being better ourselves, with tennis rackets or pencils. Creativity (like athleticism) isn’t a static identity (something you “are” or “are not”) but a practice that you choose to invest in to different degrees — depending on your inclination, resources and what else you have on your plate.

Now, I can’t tell you how to make creative practice pay (mine doesn’t). I can’t tell you how to make other people like your creative work (people like what they like). And I can’t make your personal creative journey easy (it’s hard) or quick (it’s slow). But I can offer some ways of thinking/doing that will build a more resilient creative practice. I believe that every person who has the inclination/desire can (with attention, over time) build a creative practice that feels grounded and strong — where they make work that they are proud of — and where it holds something of value.

It happened to me. My creative practice started around 2005 as an untrained illustrator posting on a MySpace blog, and perhaps even a bit before when I was writing poems about romantic failure that I was too scared to share. I’ve come a long way. My latest poem got cast into bronze and embedded into Camberwell’s pavement. And The Mixup (a 41-artist, 6-city global collaboration) has had shows in London, Istanbul, Cape Town and in October opens in LA. Meanwhile my recent book, It’s Hard to Be a Human, has a *whole section* of poems about romantic failure.

But this external progress, has been marked by much more profound internal progress, after spending a long time feeling fragile. Here are five ways my creative practice got more resilient, and five things I’d encourage you towards too.

This post started as a conversation

1. Follow what you care about — judge expression not approval

When the goal of your creative practice is other people’s approval, you are on a fragile track. You can’t “please people” because different people are pleased by different things, and (honestly) none of them are paying that much attention to what you are doing anyway. A resilient track is to see your creative work as fundamentally expressive — the work of bringing something you personally care about into the world, regardless of what other people value. It’s a work of honesty not quality.

“Don’t judge” is pointless advice. We will always judge. But let’s shift what we judge against. The only true answer to “is my work liked?” is “some people like it, some of the time”. Instead, ask yourself:

  • What is a theme/sensation/subject/idea/feeling/form/person/group that I really care about?
  • How might I genuinely express/explore that in my practice?
  • Looking at what I made, does it go in the direction of expressing/exploring that thing I care about?

I’d encourage you to judge yourself hard on these questions and to talk with people you love/respect about them - answers are there but might take time to find (if you decide you care about finding the answers, you could even make creative work about this quest). Also, you can clearly care about lots of different things at the same time – this is about finding what’s true not crafting a slogan.

I was insecure about being an untrained artist and spent a long time seeking “experts” to approve my work – but found it to be as unsatisfying as chasing the wind. Other people’s approval is fickle and outside of your control – but getting your own approval is worth your attention. This is the foundation for resilience.

An example from my practice: Love Songs For Friends is a recent project with folk musician Ali Mackenzie where we write love songs for our friends. We wanted to write some songs together and we have some mutual friends who have been very important to both of us, so the project took root and we now have seven songs we are proud of. Are they the best songs you’ve ever heard? Probably not, but that doesn’t matter. We wrote them for people we care about and they are, for sure, the best songs that have ever written by us for Ben, Emily, Steve, Rosie, Dan, Josh and Jon.

Following what you care about is more resilient because it’s purpose isn’t external approval.

  • Fragile: Who cares about my creative work?
  • Resilient: Do I care about my creative work?

2. Keep a book — a playground for imperfection

People obsess about good ideas. But a decade working with ideas professionally tells me that good ideas often start as bad ideas which only grow better with attention and curiosity. So in your creative practice you need to make a home for bad ideas. This is what a note/sketch book is for. I’ve got 30 old books that trace the lines of my practice.

2006 to 2017 – my story is on this paper

A book is space for loose ideas, free association. Don’t make it to share, make it to process. Don’t try and make it pretty, make it beautifully ugly. A good sketchbook should be exposing, honest, therapeutic — should connect with things you deeply care about. Mine are full of fears, disappointments, dreams, lovers, fantasies, quotes, ideas. A book is a playground not a performance. Go at it with the relish that a 7 year old goes out to play.

Don’t be critical as you go, but revisit and see what you are most drawn to. Every new thing is an experiment. Not everything must work. If you like an idea, build on it in the book or take it out of the book into other work. But never feel bad about exploring bad ideas. That’s the point.

Some pages from my last two books… not exactly exhibition material, but the guy on the right has a charm
  • Fragile: my bad ideas are proof i’m doing something wrong
  • Resilient: my bad ideas are fuel for doing something right

3. Tie together projects —the making of sense

What we call ‘creative block’ is often not a block of doing creative work at all but a block of deciding what creative work to do. Project block. Thinking in projects gives a backbone to your creative work.

So what is a project? The coherent ideas and choices that frame creative work. Creativity only flows in a frame so you have projects even if (like many people) you can’t instantly name them. A project is really just some kind of idea/direction, some choices about that idea, and some edges – project can be anything:

  • A subject/topic (a young artist I know, Treya, has a series of drawings of people she comes across who are sad)
  • A time limit (Habits Habit, was Gretchen Jacobson’s experiment with fast finishing: 30 days of 30 minute drawings – all on paper, all illustrating habits)
  • The use of a particular colour or particular material (Picasso’s blue period)
Being Bodies was a 2015 collaboration project with artists and poets meditating on the body, one body part per month

Projects make sense of your work, for yourself and others. A good way to define a project is to ask “what would the exhibition/book be called”.

Anything that is an edge of your creative practice (a medium/colour palate/topic/format/subject) is really just an expression of your current projects — and it’s good to recognise that these limits aren’t fixed. With projects we articulate conceptual distinctions to our current work – we have threads to follow — and new projects can open up new direction. We can have multiple projects at once without feeling like our work is disjointed. Projects can end when we are bored of them. New Projects can start. We can do solo or group projects. Projects let us take up something totally new, or leave something behind. Projects can blur into each other, multiply or divide. And, of course, not every piece of work has to turn into a project – it might be an experiment or for a very particular purpose.

Finishing a project feels fantastic — and frees you to move on to other things
“You have to have an idea of what you are going to do, but it should be a vague idea.” Pablo Picasso

You don’t need to know your projects up front – you might just create and then later realise that these 4 stories or paintings or dresses are exploring the same theme. Name that project. Once you name a project, you can much more easily build it, or take it in a new direction.

The best thing about projects is that they are key to resilience and experimentation — because projects can fail without feeling like your practice has failed. I had a project called Life Lessons that never really went anywhere — it was a bit preachy and boring. Perhaps it wasn’t ready and I’ll come back to it another time (just in: perhaps it’s become this post?). My Literal Idioms project was fun, but not excellent. But other projects have flown, and I’m brewing a new collaborative one that I’m dead excited for…

  • Fragile: What is my creative practice all about?
  • Resilient: What projects am I playing with

4. Make with others — don’t get self absorbed

The caricature of creative practice goes like this: isolate so you can be “true to yourself”, absorbed only in your own special creative thoughts. This might be good for a retreat, but long term is a recipe for fragility.

Confidence comes from encouragement. Ideas come from conversations. Growth comes from advice. The connections you need will come from the connections you have. The resilient creative practice needs to be connected to others. For resilience you must be be self aware – but (news flash) it’s not essential that you become self absorbed. If you do, you might become intolerable. And I’m speaking as someone who has tried it a few times.

The world moves through relationships, and your creative practice will move forward through relationships. A few reasons to be mixing and making with people:

  • Courage. In the early stages of my creative practice, I drew a lot of missing confidence from joining in with things – a group show, an open mic night… much easier to join than initiate. But it is also true I never would’ve had the courage to take on The Mixup without Andile, Seyhan, Lara, Rosie, Federico and Saba.
  • Sharing the load. If there are more of you, then more people who know other people, more people who have friend they can invite to things. The Airmail Project only had shows in LA and Beirut because Lara and Saba both had relationships with art spaces.
  • Inspiration. As part of The Mixup in London, the seven artists all met up to talk though our work. Those conversations were about our work together but Claudine, Matt, Erica, Amanda, Rosie and Nick all taught me something and inspired me to be braver with my own work.
  • Friends are better than art. It’s fun to make stuff together and it is a great way to form special connections.
The #AllsWellWall was a labour of love — with Göksu Gül and Ben Weldon
  • Fragile: my creativity only counts if I am separated and special
  • Resilient: my creativity is given life by others

5. Share to learn — don’t wait until it's exquisite

A lot of people don’t want to share their creative work because it’s “not ready”. Way to put pressure on yourself. When are any of us ready? If you can only share what you have decided is 100% exquisite, you will not share much — and likely even that will feel fragile. A more resilient way of thinking is that the point of sharing is to learn, so you can improve.

Your work isn’t flawless. There is always room for it to grow and change, to become a better expression of what you care about. But it wont grow and change if you lock it away in a sketchbook or studio. You need to expose it to the world, to other people, and when you do you will realise things. This can start with people you trust the most, then might expand out slowly, but in the end it’s good to put stuff out there in the wider world.

In 2010, me and West End hero Katie Bonna went busking with some of our new poems (photo Miles Langley)

Contact with the world is what shows you what is most true about your work. Be curious — what are people drawn towards? what do they linger on? what do they mention? what are they less interested in? The answers to these questions won’t tell you what is good (remember, good is about expressing/exploring what you personally care about) but it will give you data. And this data can be used as you decide where to go next.

Sometimes you learn even before feedback. Selecting what to share puts a kind of focused assessment that can point you more towards what you value. For my poetry, reading it aloud to people tells me if it’s finished and what needs work. And sometimes your feelings as you share can teach you things — when you look as an observer at your own work. Be curious.

The Mixup on show in Cape Town, London and Istanbul — heads to LA in October

Of course we all want our work to be well received, and it’s normal to feel some anxiety/uncertainty (which has the same physiology as excitement). But let’s be candid: our work will be judged and some people won’t like it. But when we share, we learn. And whatever we learn (even/especially if it’s hard to take) will help us get better.

Resilience is aliveness and power

This post is about building the resilience of your creative practice. Of course, we all want to create work that speaks, that touches something in others, that people value. But this is outside of our control. It’s a side effect of having a creative practice that genuinely explores things. We all feel fragile sometimes, but this is not something that has to overwhelm us and as we can build resilience. We can feel grounded, strong and open to growth. And when we feel like this our work is more alive and more powerful.

A resilient creative practice comes from:

#AllsWellPoem as part of Leoni Bullcock’s Camberwell Art Trail

ONE: Genuinely representing the things you care about in the world, rather than orientating around external judgement

TWO: Freely exploring edges and trying new things without fear — a good way to do this is in a sketchbook

THREE: Bringing work together into meaningful projects — to make sense of your work for yourself and others

FOUR: Working with other people — to learn, to spark new ideas, and because people are good

FIVE: Sharing what you do so that you can grow — rather than as an unrealistic demand for universal adoration

You can do it.

And please comment with what you have found in your journey.