I love hearing stories about artists who are just doing what they enjoy, not thinking about it in terms of it being a project or product, not planning it out or considering how marketable it might be or who the audience is–just having a good time, when they stumble upon “The Thing.” Some small, seemingly random and unimportant thing that ends up being the big thing, the thing that they are known for, paid for, maybe even famous for–The Thing.
For example, artist Hugh MacCleod. His story, in his own words, is:
When I first lived in Manhattan in December, 1997 I got into the habit of doodling on the back of business cards, just to give me something to do while sitting at the bar. The format stuck.
All I had when I first got to Manhattan were 2 suitcases, a couple of cardboard boxes full of stuff, a reservation at the YMCA, and a 10-day freelance copywriting gig at a Midtown advertising agency.
My life for the next couple of weeks was going to work, walking around the city, and staggering back to the YMCA once the bars closed. Lots of alcohol and coffee shops. Lot of weird people. Being hit five times a day by this strange desire to laugh, sing and cry simultaneously. At times like these, there’s a lot to be said for an art form that fits easily inside your coat pocket.
Now Hugh writes a wildly popular blog, has published two books, is commissioned for his art on a regular basis, gives talks at conferences, is the CEO of a wine company, and sells prints of his work for hundreds of dollars. He found his thing.
Then there is author Dallas Clayton.
Dallas Clayton is a person who wrote a book for his kid, and it ended up starting a revolution of sorts, certainly led to a career where he got to work doing what he loved. He says, in an interview with Brene’ Brown: “Do what makes you happy. Use that to make other people happy.” He’s a guy who wrote a book for his kid, and it ended up being his thing.
And Austin Kleon, “a writer who draws.” His story, in his own words:
I’m probably best known for my Newspaper Blackout Poems—poetry made by redacting words from newspaper articles with a permanent marker. I started making them in 2005 when I was right out of college and facing a nasty case of writer’s block. The poems spread around the internet, and in April 2010, Harper Perennial published a best-selling collection, Newspaper Blackout. New York Magazine called the book “brilliant‚” and The New Yorker said the poems “resurrect the newspaper when everyone else is declaring it dead.”
Currently, he’s writing a new book called Steal Like An Artist. His work has been featured on 20×200, NPR’s Morning Edition, PBS Newshour, and in The Wall Street Journal. He speaks about creativity, visual thinking, and being an artist online for organizations such as SXSW, TEDx, and The Economist. But he started by just doing what he did and sharing it, and “it” turned out to be his thing.
And there’s SARK. In a dark moment of her life, after a failed suicide attempt, she wrote a poem in her journal called “How to Be an Artist,” her statement that “we are all artists of life.” Her friend saw it and said “wow, that should be a poster,” so SARK tore it out of her journal and put it on her wall, saying “there, it’s a poster.” Her friend said, “no for the world!” and SARK replied, “I wouldn’t have any idea how to do that.” She found out, and four days later there were orders for hundreds, and she ended up making 11,000 by hand.
And one final example, Patti Digh. She explains:
In October of 2003, my stepfather was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died 37 days later…The timeframe of 37 days made an impression on me…What emerged was a renewed commitment to ask myself this question every morning: “what would I be doing today if I only had 37 days to live?”
It’s a hard question some days.
But here’s how I answered it: Write like hell, leave as much of myself behind for my two daughters as I could, let them know me and see me as a real person, not just a mother, leave with them for safe-keeping my thoughts and memories, fears and dreams, the histories of what I am and who my people are. Leave behind my thoughts about living the life, that “one wild and precious life” that poet Mary Oliver speaks of.
During the launch party for her new website, Patti shared how she started. She said that at first, she was simply writing for her girls, making something for them, and then she started a blog, to give herself and the project some accountability. Not so people could tell her if what she wrote was good or bad, but so that if she didn’t post on Monday like she said she would, someone would say “where was it?” She wrote her blog for two years, and was contacted by a publishing company: “We’ve been reading your blog and we’d like to publish a book with you.”
That first book was “Life is a Verb: 37 Days to Wake Up, Be Mindful, and Live Intentionally,” and it’s filled with art created by her readers. She’s published six books and is at work on another, and still writes an award winning blog. Patti Digh “travels the world teaching others about mindfulness: to live fully, love well, let go deeply, and make a difference. Patti’s comments have appeared on PBS and in The New York Times, Fortune, the Wall Street Journal, the London Financial Times, and many other international publications.”
On the main page of her new website is this statement: “I’ve learned to say yes to life–and that’s why I write, why I speak, why I teach: to open space for others to say yes to their lives in a big, joyous, fantastic way. I want you to live fully, love well, let go deeply, and know that you matter. Together, let’s re-discover the extraordinary in everyday life, every day. No urgent striving, just amazing being. And room to breathe.” She found her thing.
Here’s what I think is so magical and important about these stories and others like them: to be an artist, to be fully awake and alive, you don’t have to wait for permission, you don’t need to have a great idea or a plan first, you can simply start. You don’t need to wait for something to happen, you can happen. Simply start, and don’t get too caught up in “what does this mean? where is this leading? who will want to buy it?” because that’s not what it’s about. It is about being present, showing up and allowing whatever is going to happen, being open to whatever arises, being alive and loving the process without having to know where it’s leading–and trust that eventually you will find your thing.
So often we get caught up in trying to come up with a marketable idea, with determining who the audience is and what they want and how we get them to buy our product, that we forget we are all open, raw hearts looking for something true. We all just want to be happy and free from suffering, and we need to be reminded that we are loved and alive and good.