Kick-start your creativity with an assignment, mission, or quest

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My first mission

Of all the places I visited in South America, I fell for Buenos Aires the hardest. The sound of accordions playing tango music, the sight of beautiful murals and other incredible art, the taste of empanadas and alfajores, and the incredibly warm people inviting me over for asado and Fernet and Coke all conspired to make me swoon with delight. I could have stayed for months and never gotten bored. Instead, I left after four weeks. 

As delightful as my time in Buenos Aires was, it was distracting me from the main goal of my trip: to learn to weave. Once it became clear that I wouldn’t be doing any weaving in the city it was time to hit the road. 

Eventually I found my way to three amazing teachers and the satisfaction of checking such a huge goal off my list more than made up for whatever I had to leave behind. 

The best way to start something new

A friend sent me a cartoon by Shen Comix that made me chuckle. A smiling character cheerfully states, “I wanna make art but I don’t know how to get started!”. In the next frame, someone grabs this poor person’s arm, shoves a pencil into their hand, and pushes their head towards a piece of paper. The once enthusiastic character is now sweating and frowning and glancing nervously at the other person, unsure of what to do next. 

My friend sent it to me because he knows I think about this stuff a lot. And glancing down at the comments, I could see that it raised some legitimate questions. How should a person get started making art? A lot of the advice is to just sit down and do it. But then what? Once you’ve convinced yourself to sit down, what do you actually do

I’ve found myself in this character’s position so many times. I know that I want to expand my art practice, or develop a skill, or try something new. But it seems so daunting and I spend ages sitting there, sweating, waiting for something to happen. In fact, I'm at a point in my creative development right now where I feel stuck, unsure of what to do next. 

Choose a goal

While pondering this problem I stumbled upon this excellent video about different ways to practice drawing.

The main message of the video is that the best practice happens when we choose to work on a specific project with a designated end goal. Something inside of me sparked. 

What I've been missing in all my busy work for galleries, festivals, and customers is some kind of underlying mission to work toward. Some kind of container for both skill development and growth that gives me direction, purpose and satisfaction. I've found this kind of purpose in missions of the past like the Creative Experiment, the Drawing Project and even this year's abandoned #100daysoflearningaboutpoetry (I'm still holding out hope that I can finish this one!). 

This made me think about Chris Guillebeau's book The Happiness of Pursuit, which is all about choosing a personal quest to bring meaning and joy to your life. He defines a quest as, "a journey with a clear goal or destination and a lot of milestones along the way. There’s always an element of challenge—it shouldn’t be too easy. Finally, there’s also usually an element of change or transformation that occurs along the way." (source)

Suddenly I knew what I would tell the character in the comic: “Think about which specific skills you want to develop. What about making art makes you feel excited and tingly? What kind of project can help you develop those skills and get that tingly feeling?”

Why this works

Previous experience tells me that there are six things I'll gain from starting a new creative mission:

  1. Motivation - Just the thought of having a mission makes me feel tingly and excited. Once I’ve decided on something I jump in with both feet and nerd out to my heart’s content.
  2. Focus - Without a specific project I tend to dabble here and there without feeling like I'm going anywhere. A mission helps me progress in one specific area. 
  3. Priorities - Similarly, I don't have to waste time wondering what I should do first. When I'm working towards a mission, I work on that first - even before customer work. 
  4. Skill Development - This kind of project encourages deep practice, which is the best way to learn something new. 
  5. Personal Growth - With every new skill comes new understandings and ways of being in the world. 
  6. Play - Because each mission is purely for my own enjoyment and development, it always feels a little more light-hearted than whatever else I might be working on, which is a welcome relief.

What will it be? 

So what kind of mission will I create for myself this time? I don't know! I want it to fit with what I'm already working on (going full time with my art business - updates on that coming soon!) but also challenge me in new ways. I want it to be difficult but not unreasonable (no daily projects for me thank you very much). And most of all, I want it to be fun. So fun that I can't wait to get to the studio to work on it. In a future post, I'll let you know what I come up with and give you some tips for creating a creative mission of your own! 

In the mean time, I want to hear from you! Have you ever taken on a creative assignment, mission, or quest that propelled you further in your practice? I want to hear about it! Leave a comment below!