Making Art In Between the Spaces

Whenever I put out a big new creative project like In Between the Spaces, I typically get one question more than any other. Ironically, it’s not “Where can I buy the record?” or “When can I read it?” but rather “Where do you find the time?” Great question, especially since I’m married with two young kids, have a full-time job, and a household to co-run.

It’s a noble thing to create art. But like any other endeavor, it takes hard work and discipline to get anything done, whether it’s in the short or long term.

There are many nights I’m too tired to work on personal projects after a long day. There are many times I’ll hit a wall or get frustrated with my own lack of knowledge during the creative process, which, as any artist will tell you, involves a lot of finding and flailing about. Sometimes incremental progress can seem too slow, or the results can be disappointing along the way.

All that said, aside from factors like motivation, goals, and passion, my short answer to the question is this: The only way to get things done comes down to proper time management.

Yes, time management.

I get that as a concept, it's not as sexy or glamorous as taking a sabbatical from your job, or living in a cabin for four months, or going on a drug-fueled bender for inspiration. 

But what’s worked for me is good time management. Well enough, in fact, to records over a half-dozen indie rock LPs and EPs, and write several novels and screenplays in the last few decades—all while building my career as a creative professional along the way. Mastering certain time management concepts can truly change your life, or at the very least, make you a lot more productive.

What follows is a breakdown of what time and project management means to me, as well as an answer to that question of how to get things done In Between the Spaces. Hopefully these principles will benefit your own creative endeavors—or anything that’s important to you above and beyond making ends meet.

#1. Keep a schedule

Over the years I've read countless ‘how-to’ books about writing (here’s one of my favorites, before I post a longer list on this blog). Regardless of their merit, almost all of them advise keeping a schedule. This helps set expectations with oneself, friends, and family that you’ll be focused on your project. It also of course helps you stay honest, and exercise self-discipline.

When I’m in the thick of a long-term project, whether it be recording an album, or writing a screenplay or a novel, I tend to work certain weeknights and certain hours on the weekend. On weeknights, I tend to stagger my work nights, meaning I don’t work every night during the work week. A few are dedicated to work, “staggered” with alternating nights to recharge by reading or catching up with movies and show (I call this being in “input” mode). Everyone’s different, so you have to carve out time that works for you—as long as you carve out that time, and it’s fairly consistent. Pacing oneself is key to winning the marathon, as opposed to quitting the race.

Which brings me to point #2...

#2. Take breaks

Getting back to those how-to write books, there’s one common assertion I hear often from other writers but don’t completely agree with: the need to work on your project every day. While I believe in consistently working on one’s project, I think sufficient momentum can be maintained with the kind of "staggered schedule” I use. I love this particular book about the craft of writing because the author agrees with me on this point, and so much of it is focused on working quickly and consistently around other commitments.

In the longer term, I might take a few months off in between big projects to make time for input, learning new things, focusing on something different (I personally vacillate between my records and fiction) and recharging for my next endeavor, whatever that might be. In the short term, it’s important to take breaks, too, to give your eyes, ears, and body a rest, but also because taking breaks helps make you more productive (Note: I am more of a 50/10 guy myself).

#3. Don’t waste time

I think I’m attracted to mixing records and writing because they're analogous to life. For example, if you want something to stand out in your mix, you have to turn down or strip out some other element. If you want to feature a character in a screenplay more prominently, you have to cut down on other characters and their scenes.

Similarly, productive people trim the fat out of life. They use their time wisely. They don't spend inordinate amounts of time socializing, playing video games, watching TV, or on other passive activities. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with any of that; I’m just saying that if you’re going to commit to large creative projects outside your day job, you have to curb other areas of your life. Sounds obvious, but more difficult for some people to actually put into practice than others on a regular basis. 

#4. Regulate your work life

My reading about successful writers is rife with examples of those who likely had more professional responsibility and who’ve accomplished much more than I have on a daily basis in addition to their job. John Hughes, John Grisham, Lawrence Kasdan, James Patterson, and Stephen King are all familiar names who wrote around their day jobs, to name just a few.

Even so, it’s going to be nearly impossible to have, say, an executive-level job requiring long hours and extensive travel (plus family, if that’s in the mix) and have any time or energy left over for outside creative pursuits. If you’re serious about pursuing your craft beyond the hobby level but you’re working 60 hours a week, you may have to take a job that allows more room for your creative life, whether it’s taking a less demanding position or reducing your weekly hours.

Another option is to start your own business, preferably home-based, so you can set your own hours and potentially eliminate a time-consuming and non-productive commute. And if you’re going to try to make your own business work—in addition to keeping your creative life moving forward—it’s best to mitigate risk and maximize productivity by minimizing your cost of living, which might include living in a less expensive area.

#5. Plow through the Dip

"The Dip" is a concept I learned about from marketing guru, writer, and entrepreneur Seth Godin—or more specifically, his book on the subject. The Dip is essentially that point in any creative project—from writing a novel to building a house—when one hits a wall. Typically for me, it hits around the 25-50% mark—that point when I want to scream GODDAMMIT WHAT’S THE POINT?! and give up. The Dip can appear in the form of frustration from not knowing how to proceed, thinking the work sucks, losing motivation, getting lost in the project, or losing a manuscript. Fortunately that last example never happened to me, but I did lose extensive notes I’d foolishly handwritten on a printed manuscript for the first draft what would become my first published book, Indie Rock 101

Again, I come back to discipline. There’s simply no other way to get over the Dip without powering through it, coupled with the fortitude and curiosity to learn and try new things. This might require taking a step back from productivity to go into learning mode for a few hours or days (weeks might be pushing it), so you can successfully resume your task. It might mean taking a different approach, or trying new techniques. It might mean simply having the courage to forge ahead and do what you need to do to get over it and continue your project. 

#6. Find reliable work spaces

Years ago, I read in his biography that writer/director M. Night Shyamalan has a lock on his home office door. I recently had one installed myself. I know this sounds hardcore and somewhat cold or cruel with regard to one’s roommates or family, but writing requires focus and unbroken concentration, which requires solitude.

My typical work session—whether it's recording or writing—usually begins with what I call "breaking the seal," which is the act of just sitting down and getting started. This almost always feels downright painful. There are many weekend afternoon and weekday nights I don’t feel like recording or writing at all. After maybe 10, 20 minutes, though, I start to get into it, and eventually my mind enters what I call the Zone* (also known as flow). I describe this mental process because when it’s interrupted, it’s like losing that 15-20 minutes it typically takes me to get into the Zone in the first place. Having a dedicated workspace where you know you won’t be interrupted helps maintain your flow.

Even if you already have a quiet workspace at home, I’ve found it helps to have one outside the house as well, like your local coffee shop—I know or find out where they are in every place I visit, too, since I get some of best writing done while on vacation. I have to admit my writing sessions are probably most enjoyable when I’m working in a cozy environment that’s outside my normal routine, like a quiet hotel lobby.

*I listen to an ambient internet radio station called The Drone Zone while I work. I can’t listen to anything else, especially with lyrics, when I write. For me, the ambient music lubricates the mental Zone, and is proven to aiding in productivity (vs. listening to more dynamic music like rock).

#7. Be with a supportive partner

When my wife and I started to get serious nearly 10 years ago (!), I was very clear about the fact that I wasn’t like most other guys: I spent time outside of my job working on music and writing projects. My path and pursuits as an artist are a huge part of who I am and what keeps me feeling alive and happy. My creative life and professional lives are intertwined. She accepted this and still does.

Now, this does not mean I have free reign to work whenever I please. We both have to work hard to balance family, each other’s me-time, time for each other, and time for our jobs. The key takeaway here is that it’s critical to have a partner who supports not just what you do, but who you are—and vice versa.

One final point on this: If you’re serious about your craft, don’t let anyone call what you do a hobby. Hobbies are recreational pursuits like fishing, bowling, spectator sports, or learning how to fly a drone. All worthwhile pastimes if they make one happy, but they are hobbies. Anyone who’s completed any long-term creative project knows how much pain and work goes into it, and that related career aspirations and effort have historically gone far beyond the amateur level.

Even with no promise of financial reward, creative work is work. That’s not to say it can’t or shouldn’t be fun, but if you’re serious about your craft, don’t think of it as a hobby. And don’t let anyone call it a hobby.

#8. Set goals

This one’s a no-brainer but it bears some context. It’s great to have goals for your creative pursuits like getting a record deal, getting published, etc., but let’s face it: We have less control over these things than what we can do right now, today, that will ultimately lead to getting projects done, and getting them done well. Without that, you have nothing else.

When I sit down for a creative work session, there are typically goals attached, whether it’s laying down certain tracks, hitting a desired page count, or some other smaller task. For writing projects, I keep a running note in Evernote that briefly summarizes every session—where I wrote, start/stop times, what I accomplished. I highlight big milestones like an outline or first draft. Now, this might sound a bit precious and pointless, but seeing your progress and accomplishments mapped out over time like this is a huge motivator and helps you stick to your goals. Plus there are times you may want to refer to your “Session Notes” to see how long it took you over the long term.

#10. Be passionate

When I get a Big Idea for a screenplay or novel—and I really want to make it count—I know it will consume at least 8-12 months of my life outside my job, family, and other commitments. My most recent novel took me six years to get out (I am not bragging about this in any way; it took way too long). My screenplay The Hybrid took about eight months, from research phase to final draft (I am sort of bragging about this because I feel like it was a reasonable timeframe and I was proud of the script, which placed in a few contests last year.)

When I get a Big Idea, it feels like a privilege. I’m excited by the flashes of inspiration that lead up to the prospect of bringing something I care about to life. A lot of successful artists say that the favorite phase of their career was during those salad days before they made it. I think a big reason for this is that there’s less pressure. But an even bigger one in my opinion is that it’s a time when an artist can focus on projects they want to do, as opposed to ones they have to do because of a big paycheck or contractual obligation.

Sure, I write and record because I have to and want to, but I still always want to connect with a wider audience. Whenever I whine to my wife about not getting some big break yet—like I did before Indie Rock 101 was published—she tells me to enjoy the process. I admit that while I’d always found that advice annoying, there’s truth to it, and I’ve learned how to do it. I’ve learned from experience that the process, and the passion that goes into it, really is the best part. Focusing on doing your best in the moment yields the best results.

Nurture and revel in your Big Ideas. Let your passion and dedication to your work be the primary driving force behind your project and productivity.

#11. Focus

I’m not a big fan of multitasking. The vast majority of studies show that humans aren’t good at it, and it doesn’t work.

My creative time is scant. Even if I had more of it, I don’t like juggling projects. I like doing my best on the project I’ve committed to (see above). In between writing projects, I typically go back to my first love—making rock records—for a few months or longer. But it’s difficult to impossible to do both, and to do so would almost certainly compromise my work in both areas, even if they complement and inform one another. Everyone’s different, and you may have your own preference in this regard, but I am a big believer in focusing on one project at a time. Even when I was recording In Between the Spaces, I worked on one song at a time (although sometimes I will “batch” record live drum tracks… but I’m even getting away from that).

This notion of focus comes into play during my individual writing work sessions as well. Author Po Bronson apparently works in a dark closet. Novelist Jonathan Franzen allegedly disconnects from the internet during his writing sessions. Some people take sabbaticals or sequester themselves in a cabin in the woods for weeks or months on end to get the focus they need. 

Me personally? I prefer to be online while writing for any number of reasons: research, spell-check, keep an eye on any important emails. I also take micro breaks on the hour, as I mentioned above re: the 50/10 rule. However, when I’ve set aside time for a writing session, I stick to it, and fortunately have the self-discipline (there’s that word again) to stay on task for the vast majority of that precious allotted time. If you’re able to do the same, I guarantee you will be astounded at how much you can get done in a single hour.

Focus.

How do you get things done?

Of course there are many other factors that determine success, whatever that means to you: your gifts, background, circumstances, natural talents (or lack thereof), ability to learn and adapt, salesmanship, where you live, who you know, having the time and freedom to have a creative life at all. You need to believe in yourself, be willing to work hard, survive ego-destroying rejection and outright failure (My own mother once evaluated one of my older screenplays as a "B-").

All fine topics for another post, perhaps. What we’ve focused on (<See what I did there?) is how to get things done.

So get to it.

And if there’s anything you think I might have missed, or techniques that work for you, please sound off in the comments.