Motivation is a Mechanism in your Brain

(by Daniel R. Jones)

If I had a dime for every time I heard someone weasel their way out of the creative life by saying they don’t “feel inspired,” I could quit my day job. Others will go days, weeks, or even months without picking up their pencil to work on a new drawing.

If you are comfortable with this lack of production, that’s entirely acceptable. For most, there is no moral imperative to keep creating artwork. We often place unrealistic stress on ourselves to “produce,” and the goal of this blog post is certainly not to shame others for their lack of consistency.

But at times, most of us find that we do wish we were more motivated. We hem and haw and wait for the moment that inspiration will strike. This, however, is a fundamental misunderstanding of motivation.

Most people think that the chain of events that leads to the accomplishment of something goes like this:

Motivation>Task>Task>Task>Completion

Since the first domino never falls, they don’t begin their first task, and they make no headway in their creative life.

We tend to think of motivation as an abstract concept, like that of the Muse. In reality, we can easily dupe our brain into providing “motivation” through simple physiology.

The neurotransmitter most associated with motivation in the brain is dopamine. Simply put, when your brain needs to get things done, signaling of dopamine occurs, and you feel the compulsion to complete a task. This is why people all across the world guzzle coffee each morning, desperately trying to tap into this physiological reaction in the brain.

Endogenous dopamine, (that is, dopamine naturally occurring in the brain,) can actually be utilized in a much simpler way. Numerous studies have shown that ticking a task off your To-Do List, no matter how simple or trivial, activates this neurotransmitter.

In much the same way that strength-training tells your brain that it needs to grow more muscle, completing a task tells your brain that you’ll need more dopamine.

So, in actuality, the chain of events that leads to productivity goes like this:

Task>Motivation>Task>Motivation>Task>Completion

Have you ever wondered why on some days, you’ll get into a rhythm and clean your whole house in a whirlwind, while on other days, you can barely muster up the strength to do anything but watch TV on your couch?

This is why.

It’s the same rationale that leads countless self-help experts to advise people to start their day with the simple act of making their bed. These “gurus” know that by accomplishing one menial task, you’re cascading a series of events in your brain that will likely lead to the completion of many more.

So, what’s the secret? An incredibly simple one: any time you’re feeling unmotivated, complete one miniscule task, and give yourself permission for that to be the end of it. Tell yourself, “I’ll just sharpen my pencils to prepare them for the next time I’m ready to draw,” or “I’ll open up my Word Processor and just jot down three ideas for a short story.”

Before you know it, you’ll be halfway through drawing or writing your next masterpiece.

Anything Worth Doing is Worth Doing Poorly

(by Daniel R. Jones)

A shop-worn adage you’ve probably heard countless times states “Anything that’s worth doing is worth doing well.”

But recently, I came across a counterintuitive twist on the aphorism: 

“Anything that’s worth doing, is worth doing poorly.”

The application on this iteration is a little more difficult to parse out. Why would you want to do something poorly? 

Well, you wouldn’t. But that’s exactly the point.

Consider the following scenario: you accidentally snooze past your 6 a.m. alarm. You look at the clock and it’s 6:45 a.m. You’d planned on running a mile and getting some weight training in. But because you’ve overslept, you only have 45 minutes before you need to hop in the shower, not the hour and a half you’d allocated for working out.

“Forget it,” you think. “Even if I started now, I wouldn’t be able to get a full workout in. I’ll just sleep a little longer and pick it back up tomorrow.”

But if working out is worth doing, it’s worth doing it poorly. Which is to say, if you can’t go on a mile run and a one-hour weightlifting session, it’s still better to do some HIIT exercises for 15 minutes and lift weights for half an hour. Beats doing nothing, right? Better to do something poorly than not at all.

And yet, we constantly go to war with ourselves, allowing our self-defeating tendencies to win out:

-You had a donut in the break room, so the diet starts tomorrow.
-You broke down and bummed a cigarette after swearing you’d quit, so this whole day is a wash.
-You’ve only got 15-minutes to work on that foreign language you’re studying, so what’s the point?

What if, in every area, we took to heart the adage that “if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly?”

I believe that artists, a group who have a proclivity toward perfectionism, are among those who would best be served by taking this advice. 

You’ve got an idea for a painting, but you’re worried your lack of technical mastery will overshadow your artistic vision. Oh well, paint it poorly.

You enjoy writing, but you don’t think you can write the Great American Novel just yet. Too bad. Start anyway.  

You love the idea of playing guitar, but you’re middle-aged so you’d be very behindNo excuses; take the lessons.

At the end of the day, the only way toward mastery of anything is to begin. Once you start, you’ll likely do things poorly for a while. But anything worth doing is worth doing poorly, so get to work.

Talking Shop: The Case for Frivolity in Art

This blog resides at the intersection of two subjects: that of spirituality and art.

If you believe in either of the two, the subject probably matters a great deal to you. What could be more important than your relationship with God? And why shouldn’t you care very deeply about the very expression of your soul? 

Of course you should care. These two subjects are taken more seriously by their–practitioners, we’ll say, than anything else.

But at the same time, both topics also demand a sense of levity that can be markedly absent from their discourse, writ large. How often have you heard a sermon that was devoid of liveliness? And how often have you read a poem by someone who clearly takes themselves too seriously? In truth, you’ve likely experienced both at some point in your life.

G.K. Chesterton, a theologian and a creative-writer, never shied away from employing a little lightheartedness. In fact, he once stated, “What can one be but frivolous about serious things? Without frivolity, they are simply too tremendous.”

If this sounds like an oxymoron to you, well, he wasn’t called “the Prince of Paradox” for nothing!

In any event, he was so adamant about the above quotation that he reiterated its sentiments multiple times throughout his life, stating, “It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light,” and even, “It is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.”

While the full import of Chesterton’s statement can be difficult to discern, this much is clear: he believed that a relationship with Christ was anything but stuffy and stifling. After all, isn’t joy a fruit of the Spirit?

But if the church can fall prey to a stifling seriousness, academia is certainly no better. Many self-important painters, poets, and novelists have churned out example after example of joyless art. In fact, literati as a whole tends to eschew work that they view as “low-brow” or less serious, whether it be *gasp* “genre fiction” or “light-verse” poetry.

But what’s wrong with utilizing some tropes, if it’s effective in conveying a point? (See Ursula Le Guin’s masterful works of sci-fi and fantasy, for example.) And some of the greatest writers in recent memory dabbled in light-verse poetry, including W.H. Auden, Dorothy Parker, and–notably, Chesterton himself.

In short, I think we would all do well to take ourselves a bit less seriously at times. Perhaps my opinions on the subject can best be summed up in the following aphorism by the Samurai master Miyamoto Musashi: “Think lightly of yourself and deeply of the world.”

May we all strive to do so.

Featured Artist- Nanci Stoeffler

While the purpose of this blog is, in part, to meet up with like-minded artists who follow the teachings of Jesus, it still came as a surprise when I was able to do just that last week: I had the utterly unique and unprecedented experience of meeting up with someone who I met through this website!

The artist in question is Nanci Stoeffler. We first connected up on WordPress due to our affinity for good art that glorifies God. As we continued to chat, we recognized that we lived in the same vicinity, and agreed to grab coffee together to chat about the confluence of art and ministry.

Nanci is an incredibly talented artist who works with a variety of medium, including painting, writing, pendants, and more. While her expressionistic paintings are breathtaking and profound, what really struck me about Nanci is her spirit. 

As I sipped my Flat White at a local coffee shop, I listened to Nanci talk and I was enamored by the scope of her creative vision. Her passion (both for art, and for the Lord) is evident at an instant, and her Spirit-led approach to the artist’s life practically explodes off the canvases she paints.
Her vibrant expressionist paintings utilize a distinct technique. Nanci describes her discovery of this technique as “finding a gusher,” after searching for creative oil her whole life.

The Lord has laid upon Nanci’s heart the desire to help other Christ-following Creatives find their place, both in vocation and in community. In so doing, it’s her desire to proclaim the gospel and advance the Kingdom of God.

Part of this passion wells up from Nanci’s personal experience. The Lord helped her to extinguish two lies from the enemy: 1.) that she is not an artist, and 2.) that art doesn’t matter to God.

I am excited about potentially partnering with Nanci on her mission to share the gospel and further build up a community of artists in the future. Stay tuned for that possibility!

In the meantime, however, Nanci’s art can speak for itself. Please visit her website and social media pages! In viewing her art, I believe you’ll feel her sense of urgency to co-Create with the One who crafted our universe.

https://www.stoefflerartstudio.com/
https://www.facebook.com/StoefflerArtStudio/
https://www.instagram.com/stoefflerartstudio/
https://stoefflerartstudio.wordpress.com/

There is no godless art

“There is no godless art. Although you love not the Creator, you shall bear witness to Him creating His likeness.” -Gabriela Mistral

The quotation above is from the Nobel-prize-winning Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral, and it’s been bouncing around my head for the past few days. It comes from the brilliant poem “Decalogue of the Artist.” 

Besides the obvious nod to the Ten Commandments (in both formatting and title,) the poem serves as a tantalizing intersection between faith and art.

The question that I can’t seem to wrap my head around regarding the aforementioned line is this: “Do I really agree? Is there truly no godless art?

“All truth is God’s truth,” yes? St. Augustine certainly thinks so. 

By proxy, I can’t readily imagine any truth–whether it’s math-related or scientific or historic–being described as “godless.”The idea of a godless truth seems paradoxical.

But somehow, it’s easier to imagine a “godless art.”

Maybe it’s because it’s easy to find examples of breathtaking “art” that I vehemently disagree with. I’ve grappled with artwork that was out-and-out riveting, but seemed to me devoid of truth or “godless.” After all, didn’t Oscar Wilde say “Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art?”

I believe the truth that Gabriela Mistral is so eloquently unearthing is a little more nuanced.

The first sentence I quoted from Mistral is quickly put into context by the second one: “Although you love not the Creator, you shall bear witness to Him creating His likeness.” Even those who aren’t in sound spiritual standing with the Father are capable of reflecting some of his attributes.

A writer who is godless in his theology can still reflect the awe-inspiring wit of God. The painter who eschews Scripture is still able to portray the grandeur of His work in a landscape painting. Indeed, as the tenth item on Mistral’s decalogue states, “Each act of creation shall leave you humble, for it is never as great as your dream and always inferior to that most marvelous dream of God which is Nature.”

There are artists who reflect the glory of God willingly. There are others who do so reluctantly. There are still others who are dragged kicking and screaming into reflecting the Image of God through their work.

But whether an artist is a willing participant or not, if they are co-creating with God, they are reflecting an aspect of His nature.

One could argue, “I don’t recognize God! My only aim is to create something emotionally resonant.” But who created humankind—and who governs what resounds in their souls but the Creator of their souls?

A person might say, “Some of the greatest literary minds were antithetical to the message of the cross.” That may be, but where the content of their passages may not reflect God, the cleverness of their form can’t help but bear witness to a Supreme Intelligence.

All art is derivative. Every artist is the progeny of one or more artists. If you could dig into this family tree of imagination, you would invariably find that all creative acts trace back to the Creator Himself.

Scripture tells us “Every good and perfect gift is from above.” (James 1:17)

So, no, there is no godless art. Some art reflects a more full-bodied truth of God’s personhood, while some only reflects select parts of his characteristics. But a creative work with any noble aspects, inherently, cannot be godless.

Talking Shop: Overcoming Writer’s Block

(“Talking Shop” is an ongoing series on the craft of creative writing.)

No ailment vexes wordsmiths across the globe like writer’s block. At one point or another, it haunts the steps of all who dare to pick up the pen and scribble down their thoughts.

If I could prescribe one antidote to the scourge that is writer’s block, it’d probably be this: Read The War of Art by Steven Pressfield and call me in the morning.

The War of Art (titled, of course, as a play on Sun Tzu’s The Art of War) is a call to arms for artists everywhere, imploring them to utilize self-discipline to overcome the self-sabotage that so many creative-types fall victim to.

It’s no coincidence that the book utilizes a lot of war imagery. Pressfield is a former Marine who draws on that selfsame level of tenacity and grit to win his creative battles.

In Pressfield’s book, he suggests that we label all of our self-defeating behaviors and thought-patterns as “Resistance.” This Resistance keeps us from fulfilling our ambitions, whether they include finishing a novel, beginning an oil-painting, or opening a self-made business.

Pressfield suggests we re-purpose our “Resistance” and self-doubt as a sort of compass.

If there’s a creative pursuit that we feel disinclined to start, Pressfield argues, that’s precisely the project we should dive headfirst into. In such a way, we can overcome obstacles in creating art.

Others advocate a less militant approach to overcoming writer’s block. In her book Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert writes, “Stop treating your creativity like it’s a tired, old, unhappy marriage (a grind, a drag) and start regarding it with the fresh eyes of a passionate lover.”

The implication here is that artists should steal away, sneaking in a few minutes when they can. They should look at their creative processes with an ever-changing, new perspective. This approach brings to mind experimenting, squeezing in a time for writing whenever possible, and embracing the spontaneity of the creative process. In some ways, it almost seems diametrically opposed to  Pressfield’s approach.

Still, I don’t think either perspective is wrong.

Simply put, each writer must come up with their own method for overcoming creative obstacles. For some, that means a well-regimented routine. For others, it means writing when you can. Which rings most true for you? Or do you subscribe to a different method entirely?

God has no Taste

I’d like to take this week to recall a gem from a Rich Mullins concert. The entirety of the performance can be dug up online, but I’ve transcribed the following excerpt because it particularly speaks to my condition:

I remember reading a thing that Picasso once said. I like to read what famous artists have to say because I’m barely able to look at their paintings without going into a coma trying to figure out what it’s about. But he said this one thing that I really did like. He said, “Good taste is the enemy of great art.” Which I think is very, very true. Good taste has all to do with being cultured and being refined and if art has to do with anything, it has to do with being human. And one of the reasons I love the Bible is because the humans in the Bible are not very refined. They’re pretty goofy if you want to know the whole truth about it.

I remember when I was a kid and people would always say—you know, because I was one of those typical depressed adolescent types. I wrote poetry and stuff. That’s how morose I was as a kid. People would go around saying, “Oh, cheer up, man. Because God loves you.” And I’d say “Big deal. God loves everybody. That don’t make me special. That just proves God ain’t got no taste.”

And I don’t think he does. Thank God.

‘Cause God takes the junk out of our lives and He makes the greatest art in the world out of it. If He was cultured, if He was as civilized as most Christian people wish He was, He would be useless to Christianity. But God is a wild man. And I hope that in the course of your life, you encounter Him. But let me warn you: you need to hang on for dear life. Or let go for dear life, maybe, is better.

How Niche Should we Write?

Recently, I took up sketching comic-book style illustrations.

I don’t have an iota of talent in terms of drawing, but I picked up Jason Brubaker’s “Cognitive Drawing” and have been plodding through it ever since. I enjoy the challenge of taking on a new artistic medium. Perhaps by expanding my horizons a little bit, my primary creative outlet (writing) will somehow improve by osmosis.

Besides, engaging in creative pursuits is never fully wasted, right?

This artistic diversion has led me to wonder: how beneficial is it to specialize in the arts? Does pursuing a multitude of styles of writing, for instance, make you better at your primary discipline? Or is there a law of diminishing returns, because you’re not focusing your talents solely on the artwork that’s in your wheelhouse?

There are plenty of fantastic artists on both sides of the spectrum, of course. Leonardo Da Vinci, the quintessential “renaissance man” was astounding in nearly every academic discipline he pursued. Conversely, Thomas Pynchon hasn’t strayed far from what he excels at: writing complex post-modern prose.

My grandfather is a talented oil painter. As a child, he noted my proclivity to dabble in multiple mediums. He remarked on several occasions that I’d eventually “have to choose one” if I wanted to be truly great.

Even in sub-sets of the arts, I wonder how true this is.

During my college years, I worked toward a journalism degree. As such, I wrote almost exclusively narrative pieces, creative nonfiction, and other journalistic types of stories. During my post-graduate studies, I picked up an affinity for flash fiction and prose poetry. Did my creative non-fiction suffer as a result? I doubt it.  One could make the case that I would’ve further developed my journalistic skills if I’d applied myself to that style of writing, instead.

I’d rather not pigeon-hole myself. The last thing I want is to end up with an impossibly esoteric niche of writing. Who wants to be known as the world’s greatest neo-formalist poet who focuses on sparrow migration imagery?

What about you? Do you delve into various arts with reckless abandon, or mostly stick to one discipline?

A Taxonomy of Tired Tropes

If life imitates art, we’d do well to be careful what we put on our canvases.

Yet, at times, every artist is guilty of being a bit slapdash or lazy in their approach to their craft. How often do you find yourself groaning at a trite “truism” while reading a poem? Or rolling your eyes when an overused trope is rolled out again in a novel you’re reading?

To be truly exceptional, we must learn to write as writers and edit as readers. This means eliminating the tiresome, worn-down shortcuts we’ve taken in our writing process.

As a cautionary exercise, I think it would be fun to maintain a list of platitudes, thematic cliches, and tropes that are over-used. Some examples might include the following:

– Writing scenes in which a character looks at her reflection in the mirror and pores over every detail of her appearance. This is often used as a shortcut to having to deftly work in physical descriptions. Cut it out.
-“The moon” used ad nauseum in poetry
-A man who is denied justice by the usual channels, so he starts taking vengeance into his own hands.
-A nerdy, girl-next-door type gets a makeover and becomes irresistible to her crush.
-A former criminal tries to walk the straight and narrow, but is reluctantly dragged back into “one last big job.”

What examples do you have to add? Any scenario irk you in particular?

I leave you with the following quotation from the poet Gérard de Nerval: “The first man who compared a woman to a rose was a poet, the second, an imbecile.