Make Your Work a Craft

17 minutes, 8 links


Updated November 3, 2022

You’re reading an excerpt of Creative Doing, by Herbert Lui. 75 practical techniques to unlock creative potential in your work, hobby, or next career. Purchase now for instant, lifetime access to the book.

In writing about the sea I have learned the important truth that a writer’s subject is always far bigger and more important than the writer himself.Rachel Carson*

Writing in The Craftsman, sociologist Richard Sennett explores how culture is made. He defines craftsmanship as, “An enduring, basic human impulse, the desire to do a job well for its own sake.” A craftsperson is “dedicated to good work for its own sake. Theirs is practical activity, but their labor is not simply a means to another end.”

When a person is dedicated to doing something as well as it can be done—beyond commercial and external interests—their labor becomes craft.

The craftsperson is self-reliant and imaginative; even in the endless repetition of piano scales or in the sharpening of a pencil, the craftsperson can see ways to improve their work. A craftsperson can try new materials and apply their attention to detail and observational skills in different contexts. They work with intention at every level. They may get into a creative flow where work comes easily. But it is never mindless. Over time, the craftsperson can master the methods of a form, and then add new ones. They develop their own style and become recognizable.

Approach your work like a craftsperson. Improve your craft. Find places and people that enable you to work on your craft, and turn away from what stifles or discourages it. Set up your life so that you can work on your craft. Pick friends and partners who support you. If you feel the fire for the craft dwindling, find a new approach to it. Or, if you’re interested in exploring a new kind of craft, do it. Focusing on craft usually means letting go of external judgment, like what the buyers, the markets, or the algorithms reward. Transcend the labels of commerce; be a craftsperson. In order to support this call to action, the following sections will describe the concepts that put the craft first.

Find the Simplest Element of Your Craft

One of Shantell Martin’s most popular projects involves two objects: a black medium-width Staedtler Lumocolor marker and a white wall. Using the permanent marker, she’ll cover an entire wall in elaborate line work. She also draws murals on walls and surfaces at live shows, incorporating an element of performance art to her process.

Martin has said, “It takes a ton of work and practice to get to the point when a line is a true reflection of yourself.”

It can feel incredibly inspiring—and overwhelming—to consider a final body of work. Instead, as you’re starting out, turn your focus away from the final vision of the project and toward the simplest element of it.

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In Martin’s form of visual art, each piece of her work is made up of lines. In all forms of writing, each article, book, or poem, is made up of words. In the recording arts, each bar and song is made up of notes.

As you start to discover these common elements, you’ll realize final pieces of work are just polished combinations of them.

The simplest elements may take a day to learn but a lifetime to master.

Or flip this prompt: Work with What You Have

Remove Imaginary Barriers to Your Work

After years of learning and applying rules, you might live within these constraints even when they don’t actually apply to you. You’ll feel like you’re bumping into invisible walls. For me, a huge invisible wall was the traditional publishing system; I felt like I needed to have a book agent, write a book proposal, and build an audience, all before I could actually start to write a book. For years, I tortured myself with that idea that I needed the system’s buy-in before I could write a book. This fixation on being accepted by the traditional institutions distracted me from the clear vision of what was in front of me and the valuable experiences and ideas I already had.

The reality is, as I found out years later, I could’ve written a book at any time. A book can be as simple as 20,000 words strung together. If I stitched together 20 articles at 1,000 words each, which I was writing every week, I could’ve put a book together. (In the traditional book publishing world, some books are even just 11,500 words.) This is true for you as well. As soon as you’ve figured out the simplest elements of your craft, you can start creating. Elsewhere in this book, you’ll do exercises that involve finding new materials to work with—new lines, words, and sounds, for example—and more deliberately setting a mission and theme, which can be based on one specific element of your work.

Even before we start our creative work, it’s easy to find reasons to stop. We don’t have the equipment that the professionals use, we have no one following our work, and we’re unsure if what we’re trying to do is even “really” what we want to do. If you’ve let your craft get more complicated in your head—through the mystique and magic of creativity—it’s time to let them go. Don’t impose fictitious rules on yourself.

You might think you need all of that to get started, when in reality all of those resources and insights will come to you as you do the work.

Make Idle Time

The most important thing I noticed today was that only in stillness can we recognize movement.Marina Abramović

There is no universal creative process. But any creative process will involve various periods of incubation, or time spent not consciously thinking about the problem. You have likely experienced this phenomenon yourself when after hours at work spent agonizing over a problem, the solution pops into your head when you get home and take the dog for a walk. This is also known as The Shower Principle—ideas come to you when you’re doing something else, like taking a shower, doing the dishes, or working on another problem entirely.

As it turns out, even if you’re not concentrating on something or keeping busy, a different part of your brain activates and processes your thoughts. If you’re interested in the neuroscience at work here, I suggest reading Alex Soojung-Kim Pang’s Rest.

Practically speaking, we can’t actually make ourselves process things or produce creatively faster. In fact, it’s only when we allow our mind some peace and quiet that it can relax, and produce the ideas we so desire. But don’t cover your mind in Netflix or podcasts—reject media’s influence and let your brain settle down. Take a bath or long shower. Try meditating with or without an app. Go for a trail walk or bike ride. Let rest and distraction become part of your creative process.

Or flip this prompt: Do Your Work without Your Equipment

Make Time to Play

“Without play, only Shit Happens. With play, Serendipity Happens,” wrote David Weinberger in The Cluetrain Manifesto.

“Work which remains permeated with the play attitude is art,” wrote philosopher John Dewey.

The difference between work and play is largely intention. Play is intended for amusement, joy, and perhaps mastery, with the main intention being to continue to play. Work is intended for results, benefit, and sustenance, with the main intention being to continue to survive or provide for yourself.

We already know how to play—to do something for its own sake, to explore, to imagine. It’s just that sometimes we go without it for so long that we may forget. No wonder there are classes to teach us how to relearn this valuable skill that was squished out of us. If you need ideas, go do improvisational comedy or try a new instrument or a sport. Rent a bicycle and go for a ride. Buy a Lego set and build. Draw a cartoon. Feed your creative practice (and well-being) by making time for play.

Even if you’re doing it for work, you may find infusing your work with the spirit of play to bring about an interesting opportunity or idea that wasn’t obvious to you at first.

Lose Yourself

Let go of your external expectations. Immerse yourself in the task at hand.

Bono wrote about Frank Sinatra, “Fully inhabiting the moment during that tiny dot of time after you’ve pressed ‘record’ is what makes it eternal. If, like Frank, you sing it like you’ll never sing it again. If, like Frank, you sing it like you never have before.” This philosophy is applicable to your craft; you can pretend like it’s the last time you’re doing your work, the last chance you might be able to contribute to this piece of work. This immersion naturally lets expectations, hopes, and fears fade away; none of it matters. Treating your work like a craft will help you let go of external measures of quality and focus on what’s in front of you. Everything else is an unnecessary distraction.

Whenever a thought of comparison comes across your mind, notice it, and then let go. If you catch yourself ruminating about it, tap it away like a feather duster cleaning a glass and bring your mind back to whatever you are doing. As composer, band leader, and saxophonist Charlie Parker said, “Don’t play the saxophone. Let it play you.”

Or flip this prompt: Make Them Curious

Enjoy the Plateau

Mastering any skill, including all forms of creative work, means spending a lot of time moving forward slowly. The spurts of growth are very occasional, perhaps even rare. Instead, day in and day out, we are working. We are practicing. “At the heart of it, mastery is practice. Mastery is staying on the path,” writes martial artist and author George Leonard.

Make your practice enjoyable. Don’t obsess over improving, or whether someone else is better or worse than you in some way. Stay focused on your own skill set and craft. Perhaps it means changing your environment or schedule. It could also mean switching the routine or the sources of inspiration.

If you find yourself wrestling with metrics such as likes, shares, and comments, check out why three creators ignore the stats and some alternate ways of measuring success. You can also choose to set a mission for your work.

Relax Expectations

With vision comes expectations. We believe this project will be the one that enables us to break through. It would be weird if we didn’t—there might be less of a point in working on it. This expectation can serve as an occasional fuel, but more often gets in the way of us doing our best work. It’s where many creative blocks start.

“It’s important to keep the ideas going. A lot of times, you can’t get too worried about the results. I’m in a business where basically I get hired and fired as soon as a song comes out,” Dacoury Natche told me in an interview for this book.

Chris Kim, who produces music under the name CVRE, is known best for making songs with artists like Justin Bieber, Future, and Don Toliver. Based on his wide range of musical experiences, he observed to me, “Expectation always kills creativity. … You expect a certain result and you have to achieve that industrial definition of success that always kills the magic that could happen in the unknown.”

If you feel your expectations rising, that this project you’re working on is going to be a hit, acknowledge that there’s a chance it might also just be another project. The external measures of success might come after the next one, or the one after that. That is the beauty of consistency. You always have another shot. Another opportunity is just around the corner if you want it to be.

Keeping your expectations modest will ensure that you cultivate the consistency you need not only to improve, but to make an impact. As recording artist Pharrell Williams said, “I never feel anxious about anything. Why would I? If I felt anxious or put pressure on myself then nothing would be fun.”

Relinquish Results

Throughout the years, we are conditioned to do things well and to constantly improve. If we’re not doing that, we’re led to believe we’re getting worse. If we regress, we are failures. These beliefs are all based on the flawed assumption that progress is linear.

At an extreme, this could lead us to chase perfection. If we can’t do something perfectly, we just won’t do it. Perfectionism creates an impossible standard for us to meet. This is just one of many reasons we start procrastinating and get blocked.

In his book Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman recalls an art class when he was instructed to draw without looking at the paper. He was impressed with the results, noticing a “funny, semi-Picasso like strength” in his work. He knew that it would be impossible to draw well without looking at the paper, so he didn’t consciously try. He writes, “I had thought that ‘loosen up’ meant ‘make sloppy drawings,’ but it really meant to relax and not worry about how the drawing is going to come out.” The solution is to do something without caring about the results.

The immediate goal is for you to take a very small step closer to the thing you want to do. You already know your form’s most essential element; now it’s time to build something with it. If you want to write a book, then write at least one sentence in a notebook today, building up to a daily writing practice. If you want to draw, sketch out a person or an object—don’t think too hard, just choose something in front of you and draw. If you want to make music, hum a melody into the voice memo in your phone and try to create it on an instrument or in your computer.

If you’re uncertain, then follow the first thing that pops into your head after 30 seconds. Or do the thing you think you want to do. Or do the thing you think your best friend thinks you want to do. Or write a list out and roll dice. Don’t make your goal to “finish a thing”; make it to “start with anything.” By design, the task should never impose on your schedule. It should be small enough that you can do it within a minute or two. That short time makes it difficult to do anything well, so hopefully you will put that possibility out of your mind and focus on the process. There will be a time and place to care about results—but it’s not while you do the work.

Make Constraints Your Canvas21 minutes, 22 links

In The Craftsman, author Richard Sennett tells the story of two houses. The first is the work of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who financed the design and construction of his house with his virtually limitless family fortune. He set out with his eye on perfection, eager to build the prototype of “the foundations of all possible buildings.” His integrity could spare no expense. Stuart Jeffries writes in the Guardian, “When the house was nearly complete, he insisted that a ceiling be raised 30 mm so that the proportions he wanted (3:1, 3:2, 2:1) were perfectly executed.”

Figure: Villa Müller by Adolf Loos in Prague-Střešovice, Czech Republic. Credit: Miaow Miaow, Wikimedia Commons.

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