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There’s Nothing Divine about Dissatisfaction

“There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”

–Martha Graham to Agnes DeMille

This is, hands down, my second favorite quote about art. Reading it makes me feel seen. It calms me down. It brings me peace.

Until, that is, I sit down again to face the blank page. Then it seems sort of horrible.

I want satisfaction, damn it! It’s the promise of satisfaction that drives me to write — to do anything. And on those days when I find myself getting “no satisfaction whatever,” I don’t feel more alive. I feel less alive. Hopeless. Ready to quit.

I don’t just want satisfaction. I need it.

But before you reach out from across the internet to slap me for arguing with the legendary Martha Graham, bear with me a second.

Martha said this to help Agnes through a tough time. Agnes was doing Oklahoma! and it was a huge hit and she felt like a phony for doing something light and popular instead of deep and obscure.

But most of us aren’t trying to nurse our artist ego through a huge hit we’re not terribly proud of. Most of us are trying to muster the courage to write for a few hours before work, or in the evening when we’re exhausted, or on the weekend when we should be hitting the gym or spending time with our kids. 

I need satisfaction every day to drive me forward. I need to set goals and accomplish them. I need evidence that I’m growing, changing, making progress – or, at the very least, moving

I make a to-do list every day, and checking things off generates small hits of satisfaction that give me the momentum to continue. But the thing is, I write novels and novels are long and they take a long time to write. I cannot put “write novel” on my to do list, because then I will stare at that one unchecked item on my list for months and hate myself and want to quit. So I’ve learned to manage my tasks in a different way. Here are some tips that might help you, too.

Include daily tasks that you know you’ll do anyway

Put them on your list, even if they’re no-brainers. For me, that includes:

  • Get kids to school
  • Clean the kitchen
  • Prep the coffee for tomorrow

Why? Because doing those things takes effort and energy, and by Dumbledore, I want credit! I got the kids to school on time this morning without bloodshed! I win at parent! Check mark. I set up the coffee before I want to bed so I won’t be a grumpy !@#$@#^hole tomorrow. Check! I win at humaning. It sounds lame but it’s not. I’m giving myself wins for doing things that are vital to my family and my sanity. Plus, I start the day with a few items already checked off. Yay me.

Give yourself credit for “maintenance tasks”

This has the dual purpose of holding you accountable for self-care and drawing attention to how little you might be doing in that category. My items include

These things take time, and I’d honestly rather get in an extra 500 words. But my Dad always told me that maintenance was important (he was talking about my car, but the metaphor travels.) I learned that the hard way by paying for two clutches, a radiator, and a transmission. Human parts are much harder to replace — so do your damn maintenance, and give yourself credit on your to do list!

Break big goals into chunks

If you’re writing an 80,000 word novel, figure out how many words you can feasibly write in a day, and give yourself a deadline. 1500 words x 5 days/week = 30,000 words per month. Give yourself three months, and you’ve got a first draft. So, the item on your list isn’t “write novel,” it’s “write 1500 words.) Which leads me to another point:

Measure “Time Spent” instead of “Results Achieved”

I suck at outlining. So when I write down a to-do item like “outline act one,” I am setting myself up to fail. Whereas if I write down “outline for two hours,” I have a chance of actually succeeding. This works well for time suck tasks like straightening up offices, cleaning out files, etc.

Make it weird      

I have a moleskine fetish. I have one notebook for to-do lists and one for morning pages. They’re expensive as notebooks go—but hey, I don’t have to pay for headshot lithographs or bass guitar strings anymore, so there’s no net loss. The point is, I feel special and important and bohemian when I’m writing in my Moleskine with a nice roller ball pen. If you prefer a spiral notebook, get a nice cover for it. Toss that motel ballpoint and get a decent pen for godssake. You’re a grown up. If these things are outside your budget, get legal pads (cheap) and a vinyl pad folio (also cheap) or take the time to decorate the cover of your spiral. Do that thing from high school where you make designs on the cover with your eraser. Remember that? That was cool. Do that. Light candles when you make your list. Have a ritual. LET YOURSELF BE WEIRD and do something slightly strange or luxurious. It’ll make planning your day less stressfull and more creative.

And, in case you were wondering what my first favorite quote about art is:

“Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.”

–Banksy, Cesar A. Cruz, or Finley Dunne, depending on whom you ask

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Jeff Garvin

Author of SYMPTOMS OF BEING HUMAN and THE LIGHTNESS OF HANDS. Cohost of THE HERO'S JOURNEY podcast. Rock musician, D&D geek, aspiring revolutionary.

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