How to Make Art with the Universe
Your art is a co-creation with the universe. Learn how to collaborate better and produce more meaningful work.
When I sit down to write, the first thing I do is clench my butt cheeks really tightly. I don’t mean to — this is not part of my ritual.
I just get nervous. What if it doesn’t work this time? What if I say something so dumb I never live it down? What if my mother learns how to google me?
There are a million reasons not to create, and those reasons are why we clench up. But if you want to make art with the universe, you can’t clench. Artistic energy from the universe can only flow through open spaces.
Stay open to universal creative energy.
Imagine creativity flows into your nostrils through an oxygen tube connected to the enormous creative energy of the universe. Clenching up is the same as stepping on that hose and blocking the flow of energy.
Instead, ground yourself in your body first thing when you sit to create. Focus on your breath and relax your muscles. This will allow you to stay open and channel the natural creative power that’s all around us.
Recognize creating as your natural state.
Humans in this universe create. We create other humans, we create cities, and we create stories about everything we do. If a friend walks past without saying hello, you make up a story as to why. Maybe she hates you now!
That neurotic explanation is creativity.
Neuroses and creativity are close cousins, but they don’t like living in the same house. The more creative you are, the less neurotic you’ll be. Studies have shown creativity is linked to overall well-being. More importantly, Kurt Vonnegut says creating makes your soul grow.
“To practice any art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow. So do it.” ― Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country
Amy Tan, in this excellent Ted Talk, says creativity is questioning to find out what matters. In the beginning, each piece of art is infinite potential energy. It’s nothing, so it might still be everything. Questioning is how you pick a direction for its growth.
Making your art is like groping into the darkness. Questions are how you feel your way around when you can’t see.
If you start with a question like, “Why did my mother clean our house so often?” your creative side might come back with images of mops and buckets, the smells of Lestoil and bleach, and the sound of a woman crying alone in the bathroom underneath the roar of a vacuum.
These memories lead to more questions, more probing into the dark, and this is how the work will grow.
Grow your art like you grow your children.
I don’t have any children since I can barely feed myself crackers for dinner, let alone change a diaper. The things I make are my children, but not in the literal sense — I’ll definitely sell them to you.
What I mean is every piece of your art is the result of a union between your consciousness and the universe. As you work, the song or story lives inside you until the day it’s done. Then you release it, and it takes on a life of its own.
As consumers of books and music, we read meanings into stories and songs the original artist may never have intended. The same will happen with your art.
Your art will always have a home in you, but after it’s done, it doesn’t belong to you anymore.
Remember your art is here to help someone.
Helping each other is what we’re here for. I know — as a recovering curmudgeon, I was devastated when I found out too.
You don’t have to create self-help for your art to be helpful. You just have to create meaning by giving another human a new perspective. If your art doesn’t have a meaning, you aren’t done. (Yes, the meaning can be that everything is meaningless if you so choose, but it’s been done more than once.)
The act of making — grappling with questions — is often what gives the work meaning. Don’t be afraid to start with a memory or idea that seems meaningless but keeps coming back to you anyway. Passion finds meaning.
Meet your audience halfway.
With the internet, finding an audience has never been easier. If you have something valuable to say and you’re willing to create to help someone, that’s 80% of the job. The universe is on your side.
The other 20% is finding the balance between what you want to say and what your audience needs from you. For example, if I write an article about me, you won’t read to the end unless I entertain, inform, or inspire you along the way.
The difference between shaping your experiences for an audience and serving them up raw is the difference between giving someone a wool sweater and wool straight from the sheep.
Don’t sell your passion for the audience.
Here’s the trick: as you change your art so that it’s more accessible to your audience, you have to stay passionate about what you’re creating.
External motivators can’t sustain your art. While you have to meet your audience where they are, you can go too far. If that happens, your work will grow hollow, you’ll get bored, the audience will get bored, and that’s how you’ll know to go in another direction.
Set embarrassingly small, daily goals.
It’s really easy not to show up for creative projects when you’re a beginner. No one will know but you if you don’t work on your drawing or reach the word count on your novel.
I used to work in sprints, which means I used to get jackshit done. For some people, sprinting works. For people like me who have trouble finishing things, it doesn’t work at all. Here’s what I’m doing instead.
Every day, I write 250 words on my novel. The goal is so tiny I’m ashamed to quote it, but it adds up. Since April, I’ve written the first 23 chapters. That’s not fast, and even after I finish, I still have umpteen rounds of revision to go. But if I hadn’t committed to showing up for just that amount every day, I’d only have twenty pages in a Word document I no longer open.
You’ll also notice a daily creative practice might bring you more creative energy in the same way that when you exercise every day, you have more physical energy.
“You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.”
Don’t flake on the universe.
The point of setting a tiny, daily show-up goal is that you’ll never have an excuse to flake. Set a goal you can achieve just as long as you’re conscious. A head cold might deter you from writing 2,000 words, but even the whiniest baby (me, I’m the whiniest baby) can sit through 250 words with the sniffles.
You build momentum this way, and momentum drives creative growth. Questioning steers, but building momentum is how you keep moving.
Here’s why you’ll want to flake even when you’re dedicated, and your goal is minuscule: Creating is scary. It’s the same reason I clench my butt cheeks when I sit down to write. If I show up to the page and what I produce is terrible, all of a sudden my self-image is on the line.
Just breathe. Realize you have to be willing to be a bad artist to be a good one. Just scribble, paint, or sing right through your humiliation. Nobody ever looks cool in the beginning, and even after that, artists often don’t get called cool until we’re dead.
Creating is hard, embarrassing, and more rewarding than anything else you could do; creating is how we find ourselves in the universe.
The process of making art is the process of becoming a person with agency, with independent thought, a producer of meaning rather than a consumer of meanings that may be at odds with your soul, your destiny, your humanity…
So go make something!