How to Progress In Your Process

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“Are we there yet?”

Remember how fun it is to travel with small kids? The longer the trip, the more this favorite question gets repeated, like a bad commercial.

I think that could be how God feels when we keep unfocusing on the real goal of art and start obsessing about the finish line.

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Two quick examples. Several weeks ago, I got frustrated at a situation at church when a kid had a meltdown and the parent left me to handle it alone. It blinded me for several hours and eventually I felt ashamed of how I handled it.

On the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, at my cousin’s wedding this weekend, I wanted to forget myself and simply enjoy others. I wanted to encourage the bride and groom and tell them how inspired and happy their love made me, how it lit them from within. The beauty was overwhelming and I felt lost in it, forgetting myself and so relaxed and happy.

Writers are a strange bunch, but we do share some things in common with human beings. One of them is that at our very core, we want others to see what we’re seeing. And writing is sort of a way to ask, “Are you seeing this?”

In both situations, I just wanted to get where I was going. “Look how amazing/terrifying/ridiculous/pitiful/horrible/whatever this is!” Not a bad thing, but I forgot my process.

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At church, I thought sharing what I saw would help some people, help a relationship and maybe a kid’s development. At the wedding, I thought sharing my viewpoint could help fuel love and help spread it to others. I thought about Maya Angelou’s famous quote, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” 

Good goal. Yet whether or not I got to share what I saw, I needed to remember what all artists will eventually learn, that life is an exercise in doing all you can to improve things in the midst of never quite getting to the finish line.

Downshift and consider this: the true artists’ questions are always the same: How did I do today? What progress can I celebrate? And what did I learn about my process?

Forget whether I shared what I saw or whether I created something that changed someone’s life forever. Cultivating awareness of my process to produce and express words, art, beauty, meaning, it can feel like a fruitful exercise, even dangerous. It feels like looking too closely at the how can unbalance the machinery.

But it’s also a necessity, an unavoidable business to encourage my development. Gaining insight and evaluating the machinery isn’t the same as messing with the works (which also is sometimes necessary). Getting a better look in there won’t automatically jinx the final product.

In fact, if I’d let go of my barricading attempts to control and predict the final product, I might see that greater awareness of my process is the best result–and the only real way forward.

Making art is not a choice for an artist, just like life is not a choice for the alive. Art, like life, is a process.

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Which means, of course, it isn’t about a goal, a finish line. It’s about the middle. In the middle, it’s safe to say you can completely forget about the goal and focus on the rewards that are inherent in the journey.

(Are you hearing a favorite theme repeated in here?)

Of course, I easily forget this like everyone does, and I need reminders and encouragement to refocus and enjoy the process. But if I know it’s not about a personal victory at the finish line far out there on the horizon somewhere, maybe I won’t need quite so many reminders.

Also, while community is often essential to continuing on the journey, we can’t allow ourselves to get too focused on feedback. Like Bayles and Orland write in Art and Fear, others can’t tell whether you’re making progress or if you’re doing what you should merely by looking at a finished product. They frequently don’t know or care what went into your work because they only see the tip of the iceberg. Our focus on process must respect that we’re in a relationship with our process. And our true work is protecting, preserving and promoting that over all else.

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In the beginning and in the middle of the journey, we must be more focused on process over product. We must make room to let go of our obsession with the end goal to see the little details at our feet. Finished pieces will not define our work. The goal is not producing anything; the goal is awakening, being more aware with every day and becoming more alive. Living with this focus more of the time will produce a continually improving string of works.

With greater awareness of the mechanics of your process, seeing what others too easily miss will become easier. It will be your advantage over the more common crafters. Practicing this presence of mind will increase your insight into what others miss, revealing undetected inaccuracies, omissions, faults in logic, form and structure that a less-focused artist miss by relying on what he thinks he already knows about creating.

To gain a relationship with your process is to gain your true reward.

Pay attention to it. And count it as the true goal to be celebrated. Because that will never be more vital, nor will anything you ever produce be more rewarding.

Practicing this will grow in habitual awareness, and inevitably to ever greater progress.

Acknowledge the oppositions of distraction and frustration, and make progress anyway. Everyone struggles. Everyone faces derailments specific to them. But those who face them and learn how to not quit succeed.

“The lessons you are meant to learn are in your work. To see them you need only to see your work clearly—without judgment, without need of fear, without wishes or hopes. Without emotional expectations. Ask your work what it needs—not what you need. Then set aside your fears and listen, the way a good parent listens to a child.” – David Bayles and Ted Orland, Art and Fear

Be always on the way and you’re already there.

Never arrive.

For the Higher Purpose,

Mick

A special thanks to my amazing friend Tina Howard for the gift of Art and Fear by David Bayles & Ted Orland

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13 thoughts on “How to Progress In Your Process”

  1. It’s odd, I have never considered myself an artist, I’m a doctor. But now I’m writing because otherwise I would just have to keep it all in my head. I needed this today. I can relate to wondering if others are not seeing what I’m seeing. I’m pretty sure they aren’t, but that’s what makes it fun.

  2. I needed to read this today. You actually wrote this in a way that didn’t make the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. To me, “Enjoy the process” has been one of those flippant phrases like a Bible quote that everyone believes but doesn’t live out. For the most part, I’ve read into this phrase as: “Enjoy the process I’ve never been called to take.”

    –OR–

    “Thank God my book is published and I forgot the h*** I went through to get there. ”

    –OR–

    “Enjoy the process, because that’s about as far as you’ll get.”

    For some reason, in reading your blog today about enjoying the process, I think of J.R.R. Tolkien novel “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King”. (Hang in there with me.)

    I was surprised when I got to the chapter where Gollum falls into the fires of Mount Doom, destroying the ring…

    …in Chapter 3.

    What the heck was the rest of the book for? Wasn’t the sole purpose of ALL of the series woven with, “Destroy the ring, destroy the ring, DESTROY THE RING!!!”

    Well great. Mission accomplished.

    So I searched the internet to see if anyone had insight into why Tolkien would do this. I wish I could find the source right now, but perhaps the writer changed his mind. He said something along the lines that Tolkien enjoyed the journey far more than the destination and didn’t want the journey to end. He didn’t want to just show the aftermath of Middle Earth after the Ring was destroyed. In his books he vividly described the various terrains. He nuanced story-lines with simple dialog between characters that didn’t really seem to add to the quest.

    My takeaway from the author was this:

    Tolkien enjoyed the process. To end his series was to end his friendships with those he came to bring to life – to the legends which were created – to the languages he both created and the runes he drew. Maybe his remaining chapters weren’t as much for the benefit of the reader. Maybe his remaining chapters were for him alone – ending a quest that in the end lead to the Grey Havens, where he could grieve and let go.

    OK, so I’m a romantic, and I read waaaaaay too much between the lines. Maybe he’d laugh at my conclusions based on sensibilities and exaggerated imagination.

    Just the same, it helped me grasp any certainty that there really IS a place of joy IN the process, and not conjecture it as a process where one’s soul is dragged out into the light and then flayed for an autopsy in the end.

    (Did I mention I have an exaggerated imagination?)

    Just the same, I’d prefer “enjoying the process” in the company of friends working their way back home…

    …even if the dialog doesn’t seem to add anything to the quest.

    1. holly! are we related? mick’s posts usually make my neck hairs stand up on end, too!!! AND i am right there with you on every word you wrote regarding Mr. Tolkien, who in my opinion should be posthumously knighted :-)
      love
      suzee B

  3. Re Seeing what others might miss, it’s a given that even among artists, we will see different aspects of the same scene–which is why we need the critique of others.
    Re Parenting, and the process being of highest significance, right on (said the Marriage and Family Therapist)
    Re My own process, Isn’t it a core principle that can be abstracted from scripture–that we are not called to success, but to the process and the benefits? (eg Phil 4, if you look at the whole chapter, the phrase “…and the God of peace will be with you” seems to jump out, comforting, encouraging, abiding.
    Given the number of times I’ve heard “great writing” but…a book about teens who are into the occult and drugs, and another about someone who finds her MD dad is a pedophile (abstracted from a very true story)…we’re not going to be able to publish…”
    I needed to hear this, on this very day. Thanks, Mick

    1. So glad, Kathleen. It’s comforting sharing so many of our common struggles and knowing we’re not alone, it’s not up to us, God is in control. Isn’t that the true benefit of the work? That’s success. That’s winning.

    1. I must confess, I would love to! But I think we’re just very much alike, Dolly. Which means I can make all kinds of presumptions and admonish you with what I often need: Stand up for yourself today. Remember you’re never alone. It’s not all up to you. Your part is to keep your eyes on Jesus and share his love boldly. Be brave and speak his truth that others need. That is your gift, your calling, your opportunity, your success. No one else can see and say what you can and to do that is your ministry. Speak what only you know. And watch the miracles happen. Love you, sister.

  4. “Making art is not a choice for an artist, just like life is not a choice for the alive. Art, like life, is a process.” OOOOOoooooooooooooooo!

    My next week’s blog post is going to be from what you said about what they said…those Bayles and Orland people. Thanks fer dat, OB.

    LPF

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