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Focusing on Doing and Not on Naming

December 21, 2018
8 x 12 inch brush pen sketch with watercolor (not gouache). It was late, I probably should have gone into the other room for some clean white, but I had all this watercolor already out on the palette. It was great fun to use it for this sketch. (Expression cold press Watercolor from Hahnemühle.)

Several people wrote to me after my last post When Drawing Isn’t Fun. Most said that they found it helpful in starting an internal dialog with themselves about their creative practice.

But one of my Urban Sketcher friends Tina Koyama wrote a very important point in her comment on that post: Grief. The grief of letting go.

This is something that I’ve written about at various times on the blog, because in 10 years if you’re living your life, there are going to be things that you have to let go of and move forward from.

Adding it in my already lengthy post wasn’t something I considered while writing.

However, since the response to that post has been so strong I wanted to put Tina’s words into a separate post and devote some time to the issue of grief, letting go, and the practicing of focusing on the doing and not the naming of an activity.

Tina wrote: 

Decades ago, I was a poet, or I wanted to “be a poet,” but writing poetry actually brought me no pleasure. I wrote and published for years, some of it quite good, but it took me a while to acknowledge to myself that writing wasn’t fun. Once I did acknowledge it and let myself stop, I was relieved, but I also grieved for a long time because although I wanted to stop writing, I didn’t want to give up “being a poet.” Anyway, fast forward to now (or 7 years ago when I started drawing), and I don’t care about calling myself an “artist” or anything like that — all I care about is drawing and getting better at drawing. I have never enjoyed anything in my life as much as I enjoy drawing, even when it’s hard (which it always is). I feel really sad for anyone who is drawing but who isn’t enjoying it most of the time. But if they are where I was when I was writing, then they do need to let go so that they have room in their lives to find the thing that will give them the kind of pleasure that creative activities bring. We are both lucky to have found the thing.  

I love that Tina could articulate her connection with poetry and the craft of poetry so clearly. I loved that she could share so honestly with us that she did not have fun writing. She made a healthy choice to stop writing poetry. 

Detail of today’s sketch. You can see the thick applications of watercolor. I worked mostly with a small filbert.

What happened after that—that she was relieved but also grieving—is very important for all of us to stop and consider.

The fact that giving up something, even something that wasn’t fun for Tina, meant that she had really gone all in. She was showing up and trying to make it work. But sometimes things don’t feed us in ways that are sustainable.

Another key point that I hope you take away from her assessment is the realization that when you show up and put the effort into doing something, whether it works out or not, when you stop and let go of that effort expect that there will be a grieving process.

We identify ourselves with the activities that we do.

For decades I was a long distance runner until a non-running related accident ended those efforts.

I was used to the daily dose of endorphins. My young metabolism was used to the need for extra calories, consumed and used up guilt free. But running also defined how I thought about myself in the world, moving in the world, and being out in the world. It defined the types of shoes I wore, the clothing I chose, the people I hung out with.

When we have to give up something that we love, or that we are invested in, something which has come to define us and our sense of self, the grief can be tremendous.

I had my accident shortly before my High School mentor died. I spent the next 8 months or so grieving not only my lack of mobility and the freedom running brought to my life, but the loss of someone who supported me intellectually and simply “got me.”

Those months of regrouping pushed me to the realization that I wanted to get a dog and track with that dog. Emma came into my life because of those two events. And then because of Emma, Dottie came into my life. Both Dick and I agree that we had the two best dogs we have ever known, both different, totally individual, and a blast to be with.

The accident put me at a crossroads where I had to make decisions about going forward. Thom’s death propelled me further into uncertain direction. In time, those events prepared me to let go of another part of myself—the tracker, the dog handler, the beloved of Emma. (Dottie was always a puppy her entire life, but to be with Emma who was so intelligent and so moral was the struggle and reward of a lifetime learning to deal with other species and understand “other.”)

How we think of ourselves, how we name what we are based on activities and our expectations will change us. And as we evolve further we may find that we also have to grieve the loss of additional aspects of ourselves.

I wanted to bring this up today because I wanted to make sure after reading my last post you all understood that grief is part of the growing process.

But I also wanted to write about Tina’s comments today so that you would take a moment to read them and think about them, and then think hard about how the labels you apply to your activities, the labels you create to identify your self image will have an impact on your life and the balance you find in life.

It’s good to acknowledge when things matter to us. It’s good to acknowledge honestly when things aren’t working for us (or aren’t fun). Those realizations help us to make choices. 

But it is also important to realize that sometimes what we don’t want to give up is a construct that doesn’t work for us any longer. There is something better and more balanced waiting for us if we take a step forward.

What Tina realized was that she didn’t want to give up “being a poet.” It was part of her definition of self. But it came to the point where that definition didn’t work for her.

By giving up that definition of herself she was able to open herself to the “doing” of art—to drawing and getting better at drawing, and not stopping to worry about labels.

The important lesson in all this is complex. We change, we grieve, bits of ourselves are left along the way, but the one thing that can give us joy in life is to find the skill to keep enjoying our creativity—through any means we can find.

It’s going to be different for each of us.

I cop to being the fool who’ll walk out in a field, the freezing horizontal rain stinging my face so smartly that I can hardly open my eyes, unable to stop laughing because my tracking dog has survived surgery and is working ahead of me, pulling us towards our goal. That’s not for everyone!

And neither is drawing.

We need to always remember to let go. To let go of the naming that identifies us, and instead embrace the doing. It’s in the doing that the true joy can be found.

We need to also remember that the naming of a thing, and the identifying of the self with an action is not the only thing that can catch us up. Cathy Isner wrote to me and said that she loved the exploration of art materials and the possibilities inherent in each new art supply. Then she realized that she’d lost the love of drawing and painting.

That realization brought a sense of loss because it created what she called a void. 

She even understood that she put off the realization by continuing to go through the motions by picking up new supplies.

It’s really common. So many creative people I know dig themselves deeper and deeper into a creative ditch by doing what they have always done to get by creatively, by relying on an unquestioned  habit or action.

And in the process they stop and wonder where all the joy is going.

You can still find a way back to your creativity. But you have to be honest with yourself like Tina and Cathy have been.

You do this by looking at your situation assessing what is going on. You know whether you are happy or not. You know whether or not you are doing something for healthy reasons. You do know. You just need to sit for a short while and listen to yourself, undistracted by the world and the definitions you use in the world to define yourself.

And from there it’s a matter of choosing a way to express yourself, and exploring that way, and not gumming it up by naming it. Just wallow in it. See what happens.

I believe that when we embrace the doing we actually find what gives us balance.

Remember, that’s what Ruskin insisted in that quotation I included last time! You have to learn to do a thing, for the pure joy of doing it.

Sometimes we end up connecting two or more things together to give us balance, sometimes we pare things away.

But the route to fun and joy in our creative lives is to embrace our creativity in whatever way we feel moved to express it, and to not spend time naming it.

Expect things in life to change. Expect to lose bits of yourself. Allow yourself to grieve over those bits. Celebrate that you had those bits to begin with and were sensible enough to exercise them.

And now be sensible some more and do that which brings you great joy, just in the doing.

If you can do that you’ll be exercising your creativity to its fullest. You might even find yourself giggling in the freezing rain.

Postscript 12.21.18, 7:30 a.m. I was looking for something on the blog and found this post on Momentum and it deals with expectations and doing. So if you’re wondering how to fit things into your day and do them and not name them it might be helpful to read that post as well.

    • Nancy
    • December 21, 2018
    Reply

    This post was so on point for me. I still can’t believe that I could write pretty good poems, and now I can’t, and now It’s getting harder to draw, too. And the grief is there too. Thank you and the people who commented. I am going to save this post and read and ponder it again.

    1. Reply

      Nancy I’m sorry that you’re finding these things are more difficult and that you’re letting go of them. I’ve found that in aging even the things that I love and don’t want to let go of have to be let go of just so I can still have other capabilities. For instance I gave up beading because it was hard on my eyes and my hands and it was more important to me and my core experience in life that I keep binding books (hands) and that I keep sketching (eyes). But I’m finding that as I age especially with my eyes it has been difficult to hold on to sketching in the same way it has been with me throughout my life. And so while I acknowledge those changes I’m still looking for ways to adapt and keep it in my life in some capacity, as it still brings me so much joy. I hope that in some way, before letting go of drawing altogether you can find some different ways to adapt. But if not I wish you peace in adjusting to the loss.

  1. Reply

    This post exactly describes what 2018 has been for me. After getting my master degree in conservation of book and paper I started my own business – something that I’ve always dreamed of doing. I kept drawing as something that I enjoyed doing on the side. Secretly wishing I could make that my profession, but here I was, an academically trained conservation professional with my own business. And one day I was working on a leather 16th century leather binding – my most beautiful work to date – and I suddenly though “I absolutely hate doing this”. Of course there were signs, of course I struggled a lot and everything was highly stressful. It wasn’t only that moment. I just didn’t have the guts yet to admit to myself that this wasn’t working. It had to work, I spend a decade learning for this! In the meantime, I got some drawing commissions, that I did in the evenings. That was my happy place. I looked forward to working on those. I added illustration/art to my business and I stopped taking on new conservation clients. Now I still have to finish above mentioned project (which is a struggle) and I’m doing one more love-project and that will be it for a while. It took me a long time to realize, but the knowledge, growth, lessons and skills aren’t lost. I’m taking all these things with me while doing something I absolutely need to do: draw. The only thing that bothers me- and this is because as a conservator you have to have so much training and experience – is that I’m not formally trained as an artist, so I feel a bit like a fraud sometimes. (luckily not enough to keep me from doing it though!)

    1. Reply

      Maartje, I had a sense some of this was happening from things you said around this and then what you said specifically and I’m so glad that you have started to restructure your business so that it is tilted towards illustration. I think it is a strong and brave decision to let go of something especially when you have all that specialized training.

      Not only are the “knowledge, growth, lessons and skills not lost,” but you are taking all that forward into your life making you a better problem solver and creative thinker.

      I am glad you aren’t letting your lack of formal training as an artist hold you back!

      Here’s the thing—there are lots of people who have formal art education but they can’t be creative because they over think everything and are tied into their lessons. There are others who are self trained who don’t have those constraints. And of course there are people who have a bit of both and bounce back and forth.

      But the reality is that not everyone can run an art-related business, that’s another component that needs to be present. They can be the best artist in the world, but if they don’t develop a way to deal with clients, to get clients and keep them, then they aren’t going to be able to run their own business providing art and illustration to others. (Maybe they will be able to work for someone else in a company that does that, but not run their own business.)

      It shocked me years ago, when a friend’s daughter went through art school that she wasn’t trained in how to set up her own business and deal with clients. Happily this trend is changing in most art and design schools.

      But the reality is that being a working artist means juggling a lot of things.

      I’m self-trained. Most of the designers I know from my generation are self-trained. Like me they started in publishing. I have an MA in English, and I haven’t let that stop me, simply because, once I set up my business people didn’t care what I’d done in school. My clients care about the creative solutions that I offer them, and they care that those solutions are limitless (i.e., I can always come up with more) and appropriate to their needs and delivered on time and on budget.

      When you find yourself feeling a fraud, shake it off. If you don’t think you have enough understanding and theory about some aspect of your job skills (the ones you advertise that you have), or don’t have particular skills that you need, read, take a class, whatever.

      But if you find that you are able to articulate your ideas to clients and then follow up that presentation by providing them with workable solutions—that’s honest work, done well. Smile and take the check. You’ve got new solutions to think about and you don’t have time to think about your lack of formal training. In other words set that conservator-mode of thinking aside. And keep doing what you love doing, and what people are willing to pay you for. Enjoy it.

    • Carmela Sunnyvale
    • December 21, 2018
    Reply

    ROZ–I’m new to your blog and am pleased to have found it. This topic, the grief of giving up something that brings you joy and completes you in some way, echoed my thoughts and experiences. There is so much that you offer here that is of help to the those who enjoy the drawing process. Thank you and your readers for sharing your insights!

    1. Reply

      Thank you Carmela for reading, I appreciate the feedback.

  2. Reply

    Roz. I love all these wise words. In point of fact I am an architect in education and 25 years experience and I stepped away from that career to go into technology for many reasons but also because I lost my love of architecture and grinding out garbage for another strip center destined to be abandoned and blighted in 10 years. I also did not feel
    My talent measured up to so many talented designers I was surrounded by.
    I have not drawn much or with any real focus since I left architecture some 5 years ago.

    Within the past 2 years through Sketchbookskool and artists like yourself it has fueled my passion to create and draw. In the midst of this journey I have experience the largest turmoil in my life by going through a divorce after 22 years and through a natural disaster being temporarily displaced from our home and access to our home for an extended period of time, I could honestly go on(but I won’t). I have found my sketchbook and journal has been my joyous refuge of expression and I work every day at it and some days when it is not easy emotionally or mentally. and I find I come through on the other side better for it. I especially love it because as painful as it is it has been a document of these past 9 months with flickers of further inspiration by USk events and thins such as Sketchkon.

    So also wanted to share the joy it and this community brings me right now. So please keep sharing your beautiful images and thoughtful insights.

      • Kathy
      • December 21, 2018
      Reply

      Susan, I’m in a similar spot (marriage of 21 years)….still in the thick of it, and this blog, especially these last few postings, are like manna.

        • Susan
        • December 26, 2018
        Reply

        I’m so sorry. We are still in the thick of it along with coping with our home and our 6 year old. Honestly though, my sketchbook and the Urban Sketching group I founded here in Baltimore has taken me out of the zone of sadness and grief and helped reshape my identity and give me new things.
        I like to focus on portraits(because it seems soooo damn challenging and with the proliferation of photos that I have loaded in my phone of my son, the documents of him in my sketchbook and our adventures will be forever imprinted in my memories. He even carries his own around and draws of his beloved cat who passed away when he was 3! It’s really such a fun way for us to bond too!

    1. Reply

      Susan, I didn’t know about the architecture departure. I am glad that you found something else as your words clearly paint a picture that it wasn’t joyful in that field for you.

      I’m glad that SBS helped you fuel you passion to start creating again and I hope that you continue going forward (as we’ve discussed). I also want to encourage you to not compare yourself with others, whether it’s the architects and designers you worked with or other artists you simply meet. Remember you are where you are now. Your journey is really what is important and by finding ways to enjoy it you’ll stay with it and then develop the skills that you’ve outlined for yourself as what you want.

      The divorce and the displacement is very difficult. I am grateful that you have your sketchbook. It’s useful for these types of crises to be able to touch something we love doing and recenter ourselves. I hope that the particulars of your life even out into something that is much less stressful. But I think it’s good that you have the sketchbook and that it brings you joy because that is something to build solidly into your life as you put that life back together. I’m really glad that you could come to SketchKon and that we could work together. I am glad that you are finding a community that has the energy you need right now. I hope that 2019 is a year where you create a new normal that is less stress, and more joy in all areas of your life.

  3. Reply

    Thanks for this post Roz. Although my drawing days are sporadic at best, your posts still touch on so many aspects of life. After a shoulder fracture and chronic illnesses, I’m struggling with my identity as a very active, adventurous woman. I don’t know yet what level of “action” I’ll be able to continue with. I know it will take some adjustments and oh yes, there is so much grief. But I know what I need to do and the attitude I want to have about it. Your post is helpful in my quest.

    1. Reply

      Maery Rose, I am so sorry that you’ve been injured and are dealing with chronic illness. I hope you are finding some balance back in your life through all that. I hope you’ll find your way back to being active and adventurous, but if you find there are continuing limits maybe you could think about mentoring people in activities that you were good at. I found that after the dogs died I continued mentoring other trackers and that really helped lessen the grief of both losing them and not having a dog to work. Mentoring also helps you stay in a field. Something to think about. Best of luck in 2019.

    • Dayle Lambert
    • December 21, 2018
    Reply

    I found you today on a reccmondation from a friend. So glad I did as this blog really speaks to me. I am going to enjoy reading the arcchives. Many thanks
    …joy is in the doing…

    1. Reply

      Doyle, glad to having you reading along. So glad you find the joy in the doing.

    • Cathy
    • December 21, 2018
    Reply

    Thank you Roz for your blog posts on creativity, letting go and grieving! This has been a powerful blog post for me too. Your insights go right to the core, and I appreciate that in life.

    1. Reply

      Thanks Cathy, and thanks for participating in the discussion because your insights have helped focus others.

  4. Reply

    This post made me think a lot (as did the other in this series). I became aware that what has become increasingly difficult in my drawing practice is the fact that I’ll never be an full-time artist. I love my sketchbook practice and in the last years I was able to establish a solid creative habit. Most of the time I’m disciplined enough to draw at least 30 minutes a day. But eventually I feel frustrated: 30 minutes a day are not enough to progress as much as I would like. I wish I had more time to develop artistic projects, more time to reflect upon how to perfect my skills, more time to study other artists, more time to explore and make mistakes. I also need time to experiment things that indirectly fuels my creativity : reading inspiring novels, hiking in wild nature… But I have a very demanding day job as a freelance, and a business to run. This will be my reality for years to come. So I’m grieving that and sometimes it’s hard. On the other hand, I’m not sure I could handle the pressure of having to make art for a living. I must appreciate what I have: 30 minutes a day which are absolutely mine to create whatever I want. And I keep thinking that with better organization in 2019, I could gain 30 minutes more!
    Aknowledging that there is something to grieve helps me to see my situation in a better light and to focus on what I have, instead of being (only) frustrated.

    1. Reply

      Bénédicte I love what you do and I know that you are always pushing yourself to do more and to improve your application skills and media skills since you already have good eye hand coordination. I understand that having a freelance business makes free time at a premium. I totally get that. But I want to encourage you to keep to those 30 minutes a day because they obviously give you so much joy already, and because if you do those 30 minutes every day you will be in such a different space than if you waited until your schedule opened up.

      I know you know this and will keep up with the 30 minutes, but I want to speak to anyone reading this who is in a similar position and is thinking of putting their drawing on hold.

      I see so many people put drawing on hold until they retire. It’s great that they come back to drawing, but so much happens in the intervening years that we can’t get away from. Our eyes and bodies age, we might develop tremors which effect how we hold and move our tools, and so on.

      It is easier to cope with the changes age brings if one is consistently practicing, has already got some body memory for moving the tools.

      And as for you Benedicte, I know that you’ll continue with the 30 minutes a day, and find time to be even better organized and so get some more time now and then, but I also know that because you have been doing the 30 minutes a day, when you are able to devote more time to drawing and painting your learning curve will be much shorter when picking up new things and your connection to drawing will already be there.

      So thank you for discussing the situation you find yourself in. Others will recognize it for themselves.

      I think when we are in situations like this it is always helpful to remember that this is “for now.” We can still prepare for the future by putting in daily time.

      And if you try to reorganize so you get 30 minutes more in 2019 remember to not beat yourself up if that doesn’t happen. Sometimes work doesn’t allow that.

      Keep enjoying those walks and books, all the things that feed your creativity.

      I would suggest that you stop saying, “I’ll never be a full time artist” though. It cuts you off in ways that aren’t necessary. You may never do art full time, but you also may never want to (you already know what it’s like to freelance full time in another field, maybe you have to good sense to see how that might “ruin” art for you). I’m just objecting to the word “never.”

      Sometimes surprises happen, someone sees your sketchbook and wants you to do art for a certain project and someone else sees that art work, and then things grow in ways you couldn’t have expected. I’m not saying that’s the norm, though everyone I know who makes art commercially has had experiences like that which have grown their business. What I’m saying is to just leave yourself open to surprising events that you can take advantage of or not based on what else you have going on in your life.

      Don’t forget to give yourself credit for having the ability to run your current business! Which allows you personal freedoms and the 30 minutes a day.

      Your comments hit a key part of this discussion. Not everyone is going to make art for either commercial or fine art purposes. My fine art doesn’t support me. My work as a designer does. All my friends who are artists rely on other work to help pay some or all the bills.

      The reality of paying the bills doesn’t stop them from making art. And I know they won’t stop you.

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