On daily creative practice (with a dash of guilt)

Over the years, I have experimented with various forms of daily creative practice. This began in my first year of university, or even further back, if you count the on-and-off diary writing I started as a kid. The first conscious attempt to pursue a daily creative practice began with the desire to capture a bit more of my experience of university, after noticing that the ‘going out-out’ pictures which littered social media and digital camera albums after term one only showed a fraction of what life was like. So, in 2011, I took photos on my Blackberry of my walks to lectures, of me and my friends sitting around in our halls, talking about nothing. I took photos of my laptop screen while I watched things, I took photos that I thought were arty, I took photos a day late because I had forgotten. These were all uploaded to Facebook, and the visibility became a method of holding myself accountable to this daily practice.

 The last photo I ever took as part of one of my '365' projects: taken on the 30th September 2014. It's the old Geography library at the University of Bristol where I had just started my Masters. Clearly, postgrad life took over.
The last photo I ever took as part of one of my ‘365’ projects: taken on the 30th September 2014. It’s the old Geography library at the University of Bristol where I had just started my Masters. Clearly, postgrad life took over.

I tried to restart this project every year afterwards, with varying levels of success. Sometimes there would be months without photos, but I would restart again with a change in season, my creativity reinvigorated. Most of the time it would fade out in the summer. So, before I left Facebook, I had half-completed photo albums of my daily photo practice. ‘365’ or ‘366’, with only a hundred photos in them.

What comes with perceived failure at daily practice, at least for me, is guilt. Why couldn’t I manage it every day? Why couldn’t I pick it back up once I lost the momentum? Even when I was succeeding, checking off my daily photo, I felt guilty or unsure of myself. Why aren’t my photos better thought out? Why don’t I go out more, and do more interesting things so my photos are more varied? Why don’t I include more photos of myself? Why don’t I ask more to take photos of my friends?

Perhaps this gives some insight into my guilt complexes about what I ‘should’ be doing (I’m working on it!). It also gestures towards a consistent fascination with daily documentation, trying to ‘savour’ or ‘remember’ each day as different. There is also, I feel, a hint that if we stick with something every day for long enough, we will automatically become better people as it becomes second nature. An idea that we can collect all of these daily practices, whether that be taking a photo every day or drinking more water, and slowly amass them until we are perfect humans with perfect routines. But nothing good can come from that – there is only so much time in the day. And we can only do so much. So, I’m trying to be easier on myself with my approach to daily practices. With this in mind, I wanted to explore the why behind the ones I’ve been experimenting with in 2018: stitching, journalling, and yoga. These are less about capturing the day or crafting the perfect routine, I think, and more about creative process.

Stitching.

 My stitching project, as it is right now.
My stitching project, as it is right now.

My stitch a day practice is important to me. My hoop sits in the living room next to me now, on a chair next to the sofa. My desire to try this comes from seeing the attempts of much better embroiderers than me, like @craftyfemme on Instagram, create amazing and unique pieces for 2017. I wanted to give it a go for a number of reasons:

1. Wanting to differentiate the days, seasons, patterns, slow changes, etc.

2. I hope it might act as a way to remember the year from one object, rather than having to trawl through thousands of photos backed up on the cloud or stuck in an album.

3. It offers me a chance to experiment with embroidery – a craft I want to better at and that I love doing. But I do get bored of filling in space or repetitive stitching and I’m not good at sticking with it, so this offers me a small creative moment of working out what I’d like to stitch followed by a process of working out how to do it.

I started doing embroidery without any research or learning, so there’s no guilt associated with whether I’m doing it ‘right’ or ‘properly’. Some of my little stitches are wonderful and tiny creations, and some are blotches on the whole hoop. I think I’m getting better at it, particularly at the intricate and tiny stitches the hoop requires. It’s just enough to keep me challenged, without putting too much pressure on myself.

Journalling.

 from a diary entry About my surgery in 2015. My style of writing changes every few years, my handwriting evolves, my doodles disappear and then come back. And yet I always sign off the same: '-catherine' (all lower case, very Myspace).
from a diary entry About my surgery in 2015. My style of writing changes every few years, my handwriting evolves, my doodles disappear and then come back.

I have diaries stretching back to when I was ten years old, so I have a wonderfully tragic, embarrassing, and heartfelt archive of my entire teenage years. Drawings of Good Charlotte when I was eleven, the first mention of my university course, the terrible boys I liked, and fifteen years’ worth of everyday ups and downs all feature. These diaries are the objects I would save if the house was burning down. They remind me that change really does happen, that I have lived through things (metallic gel pen loopy writing from March 2003 that says ‘we invaded Iraq around this time’ is unsettling and sad) and that life is brimming over the edge with an intensity of feeling that I hope I never lose, whether it be good or bad. With this practice, I used to feel a lot of guilt about missing out days or not writing up ‘important’ events like holidays, special weekends, and so on. I suppose I was worried I would forget them or that the diary would be incomplete without them.

Now, weeks without journalling and my head feels like a scribble. It is a way of sense-making. It is a way of remembering. I feel gathered and thoughtful when I write in my journal. I wish it was a true daily practice for me, but I am very tired when I get into bed. Picking up a pen and writing down the events of the day, my hopes for future plans, and all my feelings is a bit too much. I tend to write longer entries on mornings where I don’t feel guilt about not doing other things (see: writing my thesis). I do a lot of things when I have an ‘excuse’ to not feel guilty about doing other things (see: writing my thesis). What a horrible pattern for creativity to exist in the confines of.

Yoga.

This is a new one that I hadn’t planned on in advance or made a resolution to practice consistently. I began in February. It happens, six or seven days a week. And this is a practice I have absolutely no guilt entangled with. I have practiced yoga at home for about five years, but for roughly four of those years I fell into a boring pattern of practicing the same three routines from memory. It was more of a morning stretch rather than a yoga practice – good, in a way, yes. Creative, not very. I started my new practice a few months ago as a way of varying my stretching, of getting stronger, of ‘getting better at the poses’. That is not where I have ended up.

 My lovely yoga mat, glowing in my embroidery hoop (I have no photos of me doing yoga).
My lovely yoga mat, glowing in my embroidery hoop.

My practice on the mat has become my sacred time and my sacred place. Not only have I tested my flexibility, strength, balance, and breathing, but I have also worked through a lot of things over the past three months. A few times I have suddenly started crying on my mat! I never intended for this to be the outcome – it just happened. This exemplifies what daily creative practice can open up: a slow and steady space dedicated to yourself, with no ‘shoulds’ attached, and all the wonderful side effects which it can bring. I have found a creativity in movement, in strength, in softness, and in stillness. It is no longer about ‘getting better at the poses’ or pushing myself to imitate what yoga ‘should’ look like, but finding a flow in the movement, finding those moments of improvement in balance or strength, and slowing down. I start my yoga practice with a frantic mind and frantic breath. I end feeling whole. I don’t do my yoga to keep fit or stay strong in the way I feel like I ‘have to’ do other kinds of exercise. I always want to do yoga, but I have no guilt about days missed.

If I could spread this kind of thinking to my other daily practices, like writing my thesis or all the other things tied up in existing and living at the moment, I am sure I would be happier. If I could move with intention and creativity in every moment, then maybe I would feel more nourished by life and less exhausted by it. In my yoga practice, I have days where I feel stiff or uninspired or like ‘no, I don’t want to try that balance today’, but I do it anyway, I try for a bit, no matter if it doesn’t work today. It might work tomorrow, or it might work next month.

***

Reflecting on my own daily creative practices past and present helps illuminate a couple of things. I’ve consciously moved away from things that require daily output or the idea of an audience. My diaries aren’t read by anybody else. I don’t share my embroidery progress very often. Nobody sees me do yoga. My daily photography project and its digital upload kept me accountable, but it made the guilt about skipping days or giving up a lot worse. I wonder if there is a way for me to balance sharing my creative practice and not feeling horribly guilty about not doing it ‘right’.

Writing this essay was provoked by the Slow Home podcast’s challenge about practising daily creativity in May. As the hosts point out, this could mean painting every day, sketching every day, writing every day, or it could just be about approaching daily practices like they are creative opportunities: getting dressed. Cooking. Moving through a room. This takes away that pressure of production, output, or audience, which can breed negativity and those horrid feelings of guilt which have weighed on a lot of my daily practices. It takes away the feeling of ‘well, I’ve missed two days now, so I’ve failed. I knew I couldn’t do this: I quit’.

But a daily practice ending isn’t a failure. I don’t think we should feel any guilt about not being able to endure. I took photos almost every day for four months and then stopped: I still have photos from those four months. I still attempted a thing, and got more from it than if I hadn’t done it. I have a wonderful archive of the magical mundane during those months, which now seems so distant and distinct. ‘Boring’ photos of homes I don’t live in anymore. A lot of photos of my dearest cat, Jelly, which I thought I had too many of at the time. Friends I’ve lost touched with and streets I’ve not been back to. Fantastically evocative and boring stuff. Did I expect that I would take a photo every day forever? No. Do I expect, now, that I will do yoga every day forever? No (but maybe something approaching daily would serve me well while I’m living). Daily practices end, whether that be because circumstances require it or because they lose their shimmer and our energies are drawn elsewhere. Giving it a shot matters more.

Still, the draw of the ‘daily’ is a challenge that can produce unexpected side effects through a repetitive process. It offers us permission to carve out time for our own creativity and experimentation.

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