5 Tips for Unfocused Artists

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It’s ten minutes to 1pm on a Sunday afternoon, and the last thing I want to do is sit here at this computer and form words together on a word processor.

At least, that’s what my body is telling me:

There’re dishes to do.

Laundry to put away.

Brunch to cook and eat.

A shower to have.

Groceries and hormone medication to purchase.

And a mother to go and visit – long, long, overdue.

And yet, I have been aching — physically crying out — to sit down and write, all weekend. I want to be here. I want to sit down at this desk (technically breakfast bar?) and reconfigure the last problem area in Book of Wind, so that I can finally move on to something else (Hopefully, Eri book 2).

I’ve been sitting here since 9 o’clock this morning, listening to the Happy Console Gamer and the Diablo 1 OST with pieces of a new chapter spread across three different open documents, Wikipedia tabs open pertaining to the geographies of Scotland and Ireland, a dictionary.com definition of ocean firths, a Google images search for “firth” (resulting in an endless wall of Colin Firths), not to mention bringing up inside jokes with my live-in partner about Shinji Ikari’s cousin from the southern states, Corncob Ikari, to which I am being verbally assaulted for merely mentioning here and now in writing (“How dare you reveal our secrets? I’m mad right now.”), and nothing to show for this newly-revised chapter other than mental exhaustion and a bladder full of coffee and Jade Citrus Mint tea.

I know what this chapter looks like. I know what needs to happen and where it needs to go. Its contents are easily-visualized in my imagination. It’s just a matter of sitting down and doing it. Putting the time in, powering through, distraction-free.

 

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And you bet your buns I took necessary time away from writing so that I could make this picture of Shinji’s American cousin, Corncob Ikari. He’s a farmer from Nebraska.

Except, of course, it’s not that easy.

In my last blog post (I’m going to pretend it was last week, because this is supposed to be a weekly blog, right?), I mentioned the struggle of diverging focus on building a social media audience, when all of my energy wants to go to writing. Ultimately, this leads to mental exhaustion.

I want to write, I physically need to write. So I sit down, put on some music, and stare at a blank screen for as long as my body will allow until the sudden urge to get up and make a tea, or go to the bathroom, or snuggle with my cat, or joke with my partner, or all of the above, takes over.

Most every artist who dabbles in throwing words at a page struggles with procrastination and focus. My background is in journalism, and this problem was prevalent with myself, my peers, backed by evidence supported by our collective professors and mentors in the field. It’s no wonder why so many writers struggle with substance abuse: drugs and alchohol sometimes help bring down the internal walls guarded by Inner Critics and Overanalyzers.

And as someone who has recently discovered that she’s more than likely been living with undiagnosed Inattentive-Presenting ADHD for all of her life, the temptation to drown my unhinged thoughts and lack of focus with a brim-tall glass of wine and a few puffs of the ganja are pretty strong right now. Because, haha, Heaven knows downing twelve cups of tea and coffee in a row does the complete opposite of what I need my body to do, and I start to feel sleepy.

I’m sure some of you can relate to this sense of artistic frustration in one way or another. And it’s easy to be frustrated with one’s self-imposed expectations for “productivity”.

But I think the imporant thing to recognize here is that it’s happening, and to forgive yourself in the moment, and most important: try to maintain good humour about these frustrations.

When you’re able to recognize your “faults”, and laugh at yourself, the dehibilitating power of these issues we face when it comes to starting, and finishing, our art projects ultimately become lessened. At least, I like to think so. Sure, we’re still going to procrastonate, and become frustrated, and absentmindedly leave a wall of Colin Firths open in our Internet Browser (because fuck that’s funny to click on when we least expect it). But recognizing these patterns and why they are happening (be it internal or external forces vying for your attention) allows us some grace as artists to step back, have a chuckle, and utilize our imaginations as a problem-solving mechanism.

I mean, part of our job as artists is to problem solve, right? Whether you’re a painter, an author, a sculptor, what have you, we are all ultimately sitting down with a dozen or so intellectual pieces of a potential puzzle we’d like to solve (the puzzle being whatever project we’re working on, and the pieces being the literal vague or planned ideas we would like to incorporate into these projects). The only difference is that we are trying to solve a much bigger project: our ability to create in an efficient way.

So, for the sake of keeping myself on task, and hopefully try and help some of you who also struggle with these issues, I’ve come up with five ways to help refocus attention on the creative process. Here are some strategies I use:

Meditation: I’ve been meditating on and off since about 2014. My then-business coach  introduced me to mindfulness meditation and Buddhism at a time when I knew things in my life needed to change.

I love meditation because the practice isn’t so much about emptying my mind (like the media often portrays), as it is recognizing my thoughts and separating myself from them; recognizing thoughts as things that are independent from me as a person, and allowing these thoughts to simply pass by as I focus on the relaxing effects of deep breathing.

I typically can’t bring myself to meditate for more than twenty minutes at a time, and it needs to happen in a dark and quiet place where I can close my eyes, seperate from the rest of the world. Even a quick five minute session helps to ground me in a way where all stress and tension seem to just evaporate.

 

Listening to/humming instrumental music: I’ve always used music to write with. Even as a kid, writing stories on my brother’s pentium work laptop (he was a door-to-door salesman for Kirby Vaccum Cleaners), listening to shitty MIDI-quality songs from favourite video games and cartoons was an integral aspect of my creative process.

I say instrumental music works best, because of how distracted I can get listening to anything with lyrics attached to them. There are plenty of artists who can throw on AC/DC or Drake, or Glee: The Music, The Christmas Album, and create to their heart’s content with relative ease (Stephen King is my favourite example of this; the guy rocks out like nobody’s business when he’s creating.) I can’t do it, though. My ears focus on the lyrics instead of the words trying to form in my brain, and it’s just a disaster from there on out.

Instrumental music sets tone and mood of the scenes just as well, in my opinion, and because there are few to no words attached to said songs, the music itself helps focus my thoughts in a creative direction, driving out any other sort of mental intrusion.

At the time of this writing, I’m a Starbucks barista in my spare time, and the same tactic applies: because there can be so much to do and keep on top of (you’d be surprised how much there is to keep on top of, for a job that revolves around the serving of coffee), that I often find myself humming high-octane themes from some of my favourite video games (Final Fantasy II, Phantasy Star, DOOM) to help focus my attention and keep pace with my coworkers.

 

Smoking the ganja: I have a complicated relationship with cannibis. Sometimes it helps, sometimes it makes things worse. Cannibis has wonderful healing and coping properties, but I will be the first to warn anyone that its effects (both for better or for worse) differ from person to person. Sometimes I hyperfocus on otherwise neglected tasks (doing dishes, getting back to people’s texts…). Sometimes I’ll overthink every self-percieved flaw and have an emotional breakdown because I’m a horrible human being who should have recognized the signs that my ill cat had contracted something months ago, and should have taken her to the vet ASAP (Don’t worry – I did, and she’s doing just fine).

When I use cannibis, typically it’s for making art and writing. Because of the way my brain is wired, cannibis helps focus me in a way that nothing else can. It breaks down self-imposed limiting barriers, which for an artist, can be a supreme obstacle to overcome. There are no inner critics, there are no imposing thoughts of, “I have to do laundry, I have to make lunches, I have to pay the bills” — there’s just the hyperfocused ability to enter into your art in its rawest form, and simply create, or see problem scenes/characters from a different perspective.

The Master of Monsters was a project I struggled with for over a decade, until I discovered cannibis, and it’s no wonder why so many creative people use it. The stuff helped me realize a lot of problems in MoM’s narrative, and aided in the creation some of the best and most memorable chapters and plot developments not present in previous drafts. It’s still not a perfect book by any means, but it is a book that I can now proudly stand by as an artist who has matured and honed her craft.

In that regard, cannibis is an amazing tool for the creative process. It’s just important to try to not rely on it as a tool. Good writing comes from practice, and great writing comes from opening your work up to external constructive criticism and subsequent revising. Cannibis might help lower self-imposed walls, but it doesn’t make you a better artist; being in-tune with yourself and your projects makes you a better artist.

 

Working in a closed-off and/or uncluttered area with a lot of space around me: This one’s really important, and to some of you readers, is likely a no-brainer. Personally speaking, I need a lot of space to create. The table or desk needs to be at the perfect height in ratio with the seat of my chair, there needs to be a ton of natural light coming in from somewhere, and a tea kettle needs to be near-boiling close by. Working in a wide-open, distraction-free, area helps alleviate any chance of me feeling suffocated and needing to constantly get up and move.

Perhaps this point is more about harnessing healthy rituals than it is finding the perfect place to sit and work on whatever project is at the top of the list. Creating routine in your life as an artist is just as important as creating art. 

Whether it’s simply about getting dressed in the morning and having a cup of coffee before you create, or limiting access to all WiFi-enabled devices, or going for a brisk walk, or throwing on some amazing hip-hop beats, it’s important that you find what works for you and your muse, in order to be at the top of your potential that day.

 

Practice patience and self-forgiveness for the days that just don’t work out: This is a tough one. And is quite honestly, the most important point on this list. Some days you’re going to sit down at your desk with good intentions, only to stare at a blank screen for hours at a time. Sometimes external factors will demand your focus and attention on days you’re feeling most creative. Somtimes your body, or your mind, or both, will work against you in ways that will make you feel defeated and filled with resentment.

It’s easy to get frustrated with the lack of productivity. Being a creative person comes with a term I learned in journalism school, called “hurry up and wait”. Waiting for the ideas to come, waiting for inspriation to knock on your door, waiting for the caffiene to kick in, waiting for the end of this long and grueling process to be over, so you can move on to the next fresh and exciting idea that keeps knocking on your door.

Sometimes you have to buckle in and drive through these moments of inactivity. Sometimes you have to sit back and say to yourself, “Listen, today didn’t happen. I’m not okay with that, and this is why, but I realize tomorrow is a new day. I’ll try again then.”

Being real with yourself is the key point here. And for most of us, tomorrow will come, and tomorrow will offer new opporotunities to try again. And if it doesn’t, then it’s important to try not to be so hard on yourself.

When I’m feeling this way, I always know my partner and my close friends will be there to support me, and talk sense into me. Shit happens, right? Life will go on, and your project will get finished, so long as you keep plugging away and don’t give up on it.

Accept the day for what it was, recognize where you can improve, but most of all, be patient and forgive yourself when you think you’ve failed. In the grand scheme of things, you are likely more productive than you actually believe you are.

 

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Chasing Readers, A Fundamental Flaw

So, I’ve realized I hate blogging.

This is an especially problematic thing to admit when you’re a self-published author struggling to build a devoted audience. The thing is, writing is an extremely personal thing for me, as you can probably expect, and sitting down to do such a thing for an extended period of time often leaves me feeling emotionally-drained.

I’m quite good at what I do, even though writing fiction in and of itself comes with its own Santa’s sack of stressors and spectrum of insecurities. But at the end of the day, if I’m going to write, I’d rather direct that expendature of energy towards long-term projects, such as The Quest for the Crystals or Eri, the Monster Sealer (The former of which is going quite well in its second installment’s drafting).

If I’m being honest, blogging is easier in some regards, because I don’t really have to think much about structure or formatting — everything just seems to come together pretty organically, whereas writing fiction is rife with overanalyzation, underestimation, and copious amounts of self loathing and theraputic alcohol.

Fact of the matter is, when it comes to blogging, I just don’t have a lot to say. Or at least, it certainly feels that way.

If I’m writing for a larger audience — or attempting to — there’s this sense of pressure on my shoulders that demands that everything I write must offer my potential readers something. Giving stuff away for free has been the go to mantra of bloggers, artists, and dot-com entreprenuers since the dawn of Internet Capitalism(tm), because when you give away something of value enough times, people will begin to pay attention to you. Apparently.

This includes tutorials, advice and insider secrets, webinars, e-books, behind-the-scenes insights, et cetera. Look no further than Geoff Goins, Mark Manson, Tai Lopez, and every other web-funnel guru with an e-mail list giveaway (Yes, I realize I’ve only listed men here — they’re the first number of folks who popped into mind. Don’t have a cow). These guys make a killing by giving stuff away for free, because people value what they have to say, and wish to pay them for whatever services they have to offer.

All I want to do is write fiction. I don’t care about maintaining Facebook adverts. I don’t care about chasing after whatever trendy hash-tags are available on Twitter. Nor do I really desire to spend every waking moment vlogging my way across Youtube John Green-style when I should be sitting down at my word processor.

All of these things feel like superficial distractions to me, that may or may not aid in building in audience — but only if I have a solid audience already established. Which I don’t. These things aren’t guaranteed. I know plenty of struggling authors and artists in the same boat as me, desperately chasing after someone — anyone — to pay attention to them. And I kind of can’t help but pity their desperation.

I’d rather spend what available energy I have focused on telling honest and engaging stories that entertain the most important audience to date: myself. This is a somewhat scary thought, because I know deep down that the stories I have to tell are important ones, that need to be shared far and wide, except I just don’t have the emotional capacity to sit down and whore myself out online for a smidge of traffic.

I’m an introvert by nature. I’ve always been a lone wolf, and the idea of forcing myself to engage in social media-centered fellatio in dire attempts for Sempai to notice me feels somewhat unproductive and exhausting. Just thinking about logging into Wattpad or Twitter makes me want to take a nap and avoid anything related to the Internet.

I feel like I’ve rambled in a few directions here, and ultimately, I’m not sure what the answer is. I don’t like blogging, and I hate social media even more. But as a self-published author I feel almost obligated to take part in these acts, because every other self-published author and dot-com success story tells me I have to, in order to be viable and relevent.

But what about all those other artists and authors I know who believe this, and are still total unknowns?

Obviously it boils down to genuine connection — but I’ve never been very good at putting myself out there, pushing myself into public spaces and being the centre of attention. Most people get on my nerves easily, and I’d rather not have to John Green my way to success if I don’t have to.

Part of me really envies John Green though, and every other content creator out there who has enough of an outgoing personality to pump essays and vlogs out at a consistent rate in order to satiate whoever throws a couple bucks towards their Patreon account.

I just don’t have the energy to expend that kind of effort. What do I give away that’s useful to other people? I don’t have a lot to say, nor do I see myself as an effective mentor-figure. I’m just a spooky YA author who cries like a baby at opening credits to Don Bluth films and consistently has Doom 64’s title theme stuck in her head.

It’s a lot to consider.

How about you? What would you like to see from me? Off the cuff journal entries? Short stories and poetry? Reviews? — What kind of advice do you have, if any? If you’re also a content creator, what’s your experience been like in this frontier? I’d love to know.

 

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The Rule of the Playground

Genre: Young Adult | Comic | Comedy |

Kiefer Bloodman is a troubled child. A misfit and social outcast at best, the Rule of the Playground, “survival of the fittest”, has become an ingrained way of life for him. But where lies the balance between “survival” and “schoolyard bully”?

This four-paged character study about childhood societal pressure vs. authentic expression was produced and presented for the online-based course, How to Make a Comic Book, led by artist and mentor, Patrick Yurick (of Making Comics fame).

Click here to start reading.

Art is Pain

Someone I once knew in my old life pushed away friendships that weren’t “emotionally easy”, because she was too afraid to share herself deeper than skin-level. She was quiet and awkward, and intelligent and confident, and caring and angry.

I knew her as well as she’d let me, but at one time I considered her a best friend. We’d met in college and spent the first two years of our friendship getting stoned or drunk and bonding over cheesy ’80s movies, midnight adventures with our dorm-mates out in the campus arboretum, or sitting quietly around her kitchen table, gleefully roasting toothpicks over an open scented candle flame.

She was a person who protected her heart behind sky-cutting walls, but wrote beautiful agony inside her notebooks. Her poems spoke of deep and cryptic musings that flowed from the sorrow of her heart. Death. Love. Hurt. Confusion. Pain.

Very few people were granted access to her poetry. Not even her lovers were allowed inside. Distant and guarded face-to-face, it was clear to me that what she wrote was what helped her heal and to sort things out and try to find perspective in life.

The reason I bring her up now is for the simple fact that she’d come to mind recently.  Thinking of her brought on feelings of pain for myself, grief for what once had been. Thinking of my friend caused me to reflect on my own life up to now, how much pain I’ve faced in thirty-one years. How much pain I’ve run away from in thirty-one years.

Nobody enjoys the experience of pain. Real, heart-wrenching pain.

Loss.

Regret.

Embarrassment.

When given the option, we run from pain like it were a sickness – a common cold, the flu. We mask it with alcohol and drugs, with a bright smile and a gregarious nature – sometimes helping others feel good about themselves. Sometimes, we mask our pain with arrogance, overcompensation in our achievements to attempt to showcase a false perception of emotional perfection, that we have our “shit” together.

Many times, we mask our pain with our credit cards and bank accounts.

We do everything in our power to maintain a fleeting sense of happiness. To not be happy means that there is something wrong with us. That something deep within the woodwork has malfunctioned. And instead of putting on our work gloves and hard hats, ready to search within ourselves to fix the problem, we are expected to be stoic. “Pain is weakness,” people with bravado complexes say. Visual vulnerability within a person is taboo. To be genuine with ourselves is almost blasphemy, invokes feelings of shame and guilt.

But pain is a part of life, as natural as all positive emotion we share on the contrary – even if pain is unpleasant and messy, and sometimes shows us harsh and honest truths we would rather not be privy to.

The fact of the matter is that pain shows us who we really are. If we let it, pain can help us to grow and to help others who are in search for a guiding light.

We cannot selectively numb emotions, when we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.

~ Brené Brown

As artists, it is our duty to peel away the flesh that keeps all that is safe and secure. Emotion is the birthright of humanity, and our exploration of the deeper self – while in no way an easy task – is what allows us to speak to our audiences. This is because artists are obligated to express themselves honestly. Most of us have something evocative to say, we stand for something that resonates with other people. Therefor, it is our responsibility to speak from a place of soulfulness, worldly experience gleaned from the experience of pain.

Whether or not our audiences realize it, we relate to their pain through our own pain. As my friend displayed, art in and of itself is healing. Music resonates with the teenager going through a world-ending breakup. Television, movies, and video games offer cathartic release to wound up adults after a rough day at the office. Books and comics fuel hungry imaginations, and often inspire change.

Art heals, because art is art is pain – and pain is honesty. This is how some of the greatest works in the world, including our own, are created. [Tweet this!]

I started writing this article out of a sense of pain. Grief has been heavy on my heart over the last year, and thoughts of anger, regret, sadness, and ultimate confusion and loss threw me headlong into a hurricane of wavering depression. Some days I have an all right grasp – others, not so much.

Truth of the matter is, the friend from my old life is no longer my friend. We were too different. Needed different things than what the other was willing to offer or compromise for.

We always said our friendship was the type that “you could go years without speaking, and reconnect like nothing separated us.” I believed that.

But I had to move on.

A lot of mistakes were made on both sides. A lot of regret. It hurts like a son of a bitch, even a year later, but when I’m being honest with myself, I know letting  go and thinking on the good memories was the best decision – for the both of us. I hold no anger. No animosity. She was good to me, the best she could be. I am grateful for what we had.

But it still hurts. A fuck ton. I sat down and started to write this article in an attempt to help aid my pain to heal. And this soon became an article about developing your inner pain into art.

It’s important to do something creative and constructive when you’re feeling emotional. It’s healthy. It’s therapeutic. My friend knew this, and so do many artistic geniuses. What I especially love about this process that I feel like the reins are being given back. The emotions have relinquished their control and something tangible, shareable, is carved and fired into existence.

Our emotions are part of who we are as living, breathing, entities of this universe. When we push away our emotions and try to mask our pain with distraction, nothing is solved. On the contrary, our pain will only manifest deeper within our souls, and over time – if we don’t release it somehow – our bodies and mind will be caught in the crossfire and will pay the price in the end.

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The Art of Vulnerability

Image credit: “Face Time Canvas 05, 2015”, by Studio Various & Gould

Last November, we talked about the art of self forgiveness, taking ownership over the life-long decisions you make as an artist. Claiming responsibility for most everything that happens to us isn’t an easy task – most notably when doing so bares the ugly truth that we aren’t as golden-gleaming as our delusional mind and memories would like us to believe.

Coming to terms with our own faults and assumptions and seemingly colossal fuck-ups isn’t easy, either. But finding room in our hearts for self forgiveness is one of the single most important lessons we as artists – and human beings – can take away from the universe.

Maybe as a student you once romanticized your chosen industry, and the stress of post-secondary education caused you to abandon your dreams and go into a field that just seemed “easier”.

Maybe as a child you had a grandiose idea that should have reached millions of fans, but now you’re a resentful middle-aged barista, brewing lattes for young purpose-driven millennials, with nothing to show for your rampant imagination but a few dusty-moldy sketch books in a box somewhere in your parents’ basement.

Or maybe a minor disagreement between you and your business partner blew totally out of proportion, and now the dread of dangling bridge ropes haunts you from the other side of a great emotional chasm.

You’ve allowed your heart to recognize the sober realization of your situation, and now it’s time to move on. You want to move on. You want to take control of your situation and try again. But you might feel lost. Afraid that the same mistakes will trip you along the way. You might have a vague idea of what you’re supposed to do, where to go – but the path looks long and winding, dark with uncertainty, and overwhelming.

But you’re not alone. In fact, there are people out there who want to help you – who want to see you succeed. These are our supports. These are our mentors.

Part Two: The Art of Vulnerability

“Learn from everyone. Follow no one. Watch for patterns. Work like hell.”

-Scott McCloud

What do Walt Disney, George Lucas, Stan Lee, J.K. Rowling, and Dr. Dre all have in common?

If you said they were some of the richest people in their industries – well, yeah, you’d be right! But what else? Sure they worked hard, yes, they never let the world beat them into the ground. But steadfast determination can only go so far. Come on, you read the title of the article! You already know the answer!

Vulnerability. Vulnerability to let go of control, to open your heart to those around you who are like-minded and wish to see you succeed.

That’s the key.

It is nigh impossible for anybody to strike success all on their own. Many amateur artists are convinced that the journey of their craft is a lonely one, but by pure nature in and of itself, human beings are social beings. Very rarely does the lone wolf make it on his own. It is through cooperative teamwork that success is born.

As artists, we need a team of people to push our limits and keep us accountable. People who will help us, be they your podunk town’s little painter’s circle, or business associates involved with your influential social media blog. By letting these people into our lives, sharing our work with them, and vice versa, brings not only strategic feedback, but also invaluable perspectives that will broaden your own.

To put it bluntly, you can’t spell “art” without “heart”. Yes, you read that correctly – it wasn’t a punch-drunken typo. Listen, we get so absorbed by our work that it’s easy to miss the obvious (and sometimes glaring) flaws. Your support group is your second pair of eyes. They are the “pre-release” consumer, if that makes sense. The beta market. The test audience. The “DaVinci’s Inquestors”.

It’s downright scary to be so wide open when it comes to sharing our art. Everything we create bears a glowing piece of our souls (like a horcrux!). However, by shutting yourself away, hoarding your art from the world convinced of a “one-man army” mentality is an honest disservice. Your art will not grow, and neither will you.

In conclusion, Dr. Brene Brown says it best: “Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen. … Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity.”

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Let your path unfold around you.

Take a deep breath.

Feel the pressure – feel it, deep in your expanding lungs.

Let it rest there awhile.

Know the pressure. Understand the pressure.

Visualize the pressure within the expanse of your lungs as the stress of 2016.

When you are ready, exhale. Let all of your stress built up from this previous year spill from your lips and your nostrils, the invisible force that it is, as your lungs rest back to their natural shape.

Take another deep breath. And this time, pay attention to the muscles in your arms, in your thighs, all of the muscles in your body.

Feel the tenseness – feel it, deep beneath your clothes, beneath your very flesh.

Know the tenseness. Understand the tenseness.

Visualize the tenseness in your muscles the stress of your artistic craft. All of your “shoulds”, all of your “wants”, all of your regrets, and all of your failures.

Exhale, and with your exhalation, feel your muscles relax.

Relax, and know that a brand new slate surrounds you. You can do anything you put your mind to. You can do anything, so long as you put in the effort, and care for yourself in the best way you are capable of.

It is a new year. It is a new now. Self pity does not serve your soul; it serves the ego.

Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and let yourself go.

Art. Art is what serves your soul. Art is what drives you. Do not close your heart this day, this month, this year, to the wonders of creativity, to the desire of your artful mind.

It is who you are. It is what you are. So stop reading this, and go make something.

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