There Are No Shortcuts

It’s human nature, when faced with something that requires a lot of work, to look for a shortcut, an easy in (or out, depending how you look at it) The fact that there is an endless amount of videos on YouTube and books on Amazon about these “shortcuts” proves that people are constantly searching for them. And not just artists.  People are searching for an easy path in every field imaginable.

People want a shortcut. Plain and simple.

Well, I’m sorry to break it to you, but there is no shortcut. Believe me, if there was one, I (or someone else) would have found it long ago. And I haven’t searched for that shortcut because I’m lazy or don’t want to put in the hours of work, but because, sometimes you just look at where you are, look at how you’re doing things and think, there must be an easier way.

(Okay, let’s be honest, some people are lazy and don’t want to do the work, but more on that later on.)

The truth is that many times there is a better way, a faster way, a more streamlined way of doing things. A way of doing things that those who have gone before you have figured out and are more than ready to share with you. But it still isn’t a shortcut.  Often times you’ll hear people getting discouraged and saying things like “It’s not what you know, but who you know”. That is the reason they haven’t had their big breakthrough yet. While that can be true, knowing the right people can help you get your foot in the door and networking with the right group of creatives is never a bad idea, it isn’t the only way to break in.

Something I’ve noticed over the years is that the most successful artists aren’t necessarily the most talented.  Now, before you all start yelling at me and throwing things, hear me out.  First of all, by successful, I don’t mean fame and fortune, but someone who after years and years of doing it, is still compelled to keep going on no matter if they are economically rewarded or not. That is definitely one degree of success. They’re the most stubborn. The Obsessed. They’re driven because they love creating and want to keep doing it. Most writers and artists will say that it’s all they could ever do. So, as much as people don’t want to hear it, and to be honest I also hated hearing it, if you persevere, if you keep going in spite of all the odds, you will eventually succeed.

If there’s no shortcut, then how do we do it?

Are you sure you want the answer?

When I was a kid I was constantly told to “Keep at it”. I hated that. I hated hearing that from every adult, every professional, everyone who had ever made it. “Keep at it.” There had to be some other way. There was some secret shortcut that they had used and were now refusing to tell me.

Those bastards!!

So while I searched and waited for this magical shortcut to reveal itself I continued working on my skills. Writing stories. Creating characters and worlds. Rewriting stories and re-drawing those characters and worlds and on and on and on. Then slowly I began to realize the terrible truth.

There is no shortcut.

At first, I was devastated followed by a great depression. This seemingly unachievable feat that in order to get good in something, you have to work at it for hours and hours, was crushing. Was that the only way? There was no “Get Skilled Quick” course? Damn!

We’ve all heard of Gladwell’s 10 000 hour rule, right? For those of you who haven’t, it’s a rule that’s been thrown out there that to get good at something, you must do it for at least 10 000 hours. Now, first of all, that’s not 10 000 hours straight, so don’t freak out. It’s roughly 20 hours/week for 10 years. And second, it’s not exactly 10 000 hours for everyone. We’re all born with different sets of skills. Some have a head start, a “natural” skill that others have to work at to achieve, but no one is a master right out of the gate.  And odds are that if this is something you want to do, like really want to do, you’ve been doing it for some time already.  The good things about art is that you don’t do it unless you like it. So most of us start doing it as a hobby and unknownst to ourselves, we are on our way to that 10 000 hours.  Also, anyone who wants to can be a writer, an artist, a musician, etc. All you have to do is sit down and do it. Write. Draw. Paint. Make music. Whatever your thing is, do it.  Will you be a huge success?  Well, that’s a totally different story, but what’s important is that you have to hone that skill, that craft. Perfect your talent. It’s a big world and if you aren’t ready to better yourself every time you sit down to write, to draw to… whatever… you will not make it.

And don’t be afraid of being terrible. Don’t strive to be a master, a guru. When writing, your first draft will be a piece of crap — and that’s okay. Just get it down. That is a lesson I learned from the great Neil Gaiman and I’m sure that writers have been saying it since the beginning of time: The first draft is shit. But it doesn’t matter, just get- it -out!! Give yourself permission to write crap.

Once you get past that your next obstacle is time. Time is one of the biggest problems most creators face. Because for the most part, when starting out, most of us are still working a day job. Writing or drawing isn’t our living. So we have to make time for it. Any way we can. The first thing I learned was to write and draw everywhere. When you’re first starting out it’s not very common to be able to sit down and do this for 8h a day. Write on the bus, write while waiting in line, write on the toilet. Anytime an idea comes to you. Use that smartphone for something other than Candy Crush. The beauty of digital is that there is no paper. Keeps notes. Jott down thoughts and make sketches. Or go old-school and use a notebook. Just get them out of your head and onto paper.

One key is to have a routine. Having a routine is your friend. People love the image of a disorganized writer pounding away at a typewriter, walking around the messy room searching for the right order of words to create their masterpiece. That is just an excuse to be lazy and messy. Having a routine will help your brain get into the right zone. It doesn’t matter if it’s your own writing room, the trip to work, or your lunch break. The fact that you have that time set aside for yourself every day will help your creativity and your productivity. Steal an hour before or after work. Sure it takes much longer this way, the point is, you’re doing it! Nate Simpson, the creator of Non-player started a routine of waking up at 4 A.M. every morning to work on his comic project before taking off for his day job. It took some time getting used to but he quickly got into the routine.

It’s a fact that morning is the best time to work. Even for us who are complete sleepyheads. The reason behind that is that the brain is more ready in the morning than in the evening. For some people, evenings are the preferred time to create, but if you come home tired, don’t expect to pump out a record amount of pages.

Whatever the time you have, you must use this time for writing. Whatever you do, don’t use this time for checking your email, Facebook etc. Stay off of the internet!! I cannot emphasize that enough. This is the time when it can be all too easy to fall into the spiral of doing absolutely anything besides creating.

Steven Pressfield said: “There’s a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don’t. It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write”. He calls it Resistance, most of us know it as procrastination. That thing that so many funny memes are the topic of. Those who give in to this procrastination, this resistance, are the lazy ones I mentioned above. And don’t beat yourself over it, procrastination is more common than you would think. Resistance can come in the form of wasting your time on social media to just surrendering to the difficulty of it all and giving up. One of the hardest parts of being creative is beating this resistance.

If you cant stay off of the internet, there are plenty of apps that will limit your internet for a set time. Besides the internet, family can also be an abstraction. This sounds terrible but it’s true. They might not mean to be but they can be a huge distraction. But if you keep a strict schedule they will know that during that time you’re off limits.

And don’t do research either. That is for another time. This time is for writing.

But even having time set aside and having your mind in the right place doesn’t mean that your art will always come out like flowing water. The biggest trap a creative can fall into is sitting staring at a blank page. Getting your art be it prose, music, or drawing down on paper can be one of life’s most impossible tasks. It’s not that we do not possess the ability. It’s not that we do not want to write or that we don’t have the ability draw, it’s just that the ideas do not surface. It’s not a fun place to be.

One old trick from Hemingway is to stop mid-scene or mid-sentence of a dialogue. That way you know where you’re going and when you start up next time you won’t be stuck.

Pressfield’s advice was to turn pro. Turning pro doesn’t mean you’re making your living off of your creative work, it’s the mentality you take on. The manner in which you approach and conduct your creativity. This means that one day you can be a pro and the next day you can be an amateur. Write even when you’re not inspired. The pro will start work even though they know it is hard, mundane and feels impossible, and uninspiring. The amateur will wait for inspiration. Will wait for their mojo to kick in.

Amateurs make claims of doing it solely for the love of it. and not even caring about money. While it may be true that is something you would do even if you didn’t make money from it, a pro will strive to make it their livelihood, turning that hobby into a profession.

Set goals for yourself. Long-term goals are important of course (chapters, then end of the book) but don’t underestimate the power of short-term goals. Things like getting certain scenes done, amount of pages penciled etc. The key to feeling successful and actually driving yourself forward is to have achievable goals. If you know for a fact that you can’t write 5000 words/day then strive for 1000 words/day. Don’t go for a page of penciled art per day if it takes you at least two days.

It’s good to set limits and structure for your creativity but don’t be too strict with yourself. That just causes excess stress and could lead to eventually giving up on your project because it has become too difficult.

And even though I had a mini-rant on social media and the internet above, they aren’t always a bad thing. The internet is a paradise for research and there are many online groups full of professionals and like-minded artists. They can be a goldmine of knowledge but one thing to keep in mind when online, is that you must be ready to take criticism. Bite your tongue and don’t take it personally. For the most part, if you are in the right group, it isn’t personal and if you get offended at every criticism, you will never grow as an artist.

And remember, it’s just a fact that, no matter how good you become, there will always be a better creator out there. The good news is that there is more than enough room for everyone.