The 7 Maxims of Authentic Creative Work

Some things matter more than others in creative work. These seven elements are perhaps the most important.

image of a singer on stage with her eyes closed, for article titled “The 7 Maxims of Creative Work” by Larry G. Maguire

Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash

Some things matter more than others in creative work. These seven elements are perhaps the most important.

When we get caught up in the analysis of quantifiable aspects of work, an artist can lose their grounding. Elements such as profit margins, number of clients, hours worked versus commercial returns and so on, can be valuable and necessary from a business perspective. That is to say; if we’re going to play the game, we must manage our finances efficiently.

However, for an inherently creative mind, focus on non-creative things can lead us astray. It can dilute our attention and reduce the value of daily work to a mere transactional relationship.

Most people maintain just such a transactional relationship with work. Predominant ideas of work are based on the precept; I’ll give you hours if you give me money. Work becomes a means to an end with little value in of itself. Of course, there are exceptions, but I would suggest this is true even if we do not admit to it openly.

And so, work is toil. It’s a laborious activity forced upon us by big Other, an impersonal society that cares not for the individual, but the only the collective. Individuals, their needs and wants can be sacrificed for the benefit of the majority.

So creative people like you and I must be vigilant, and in doing so we have a chance to be different. Writers, visual artists, performers, musicians, poets, and indeed creative people in all domains; we have a chance to live a life closer to how it’s supposed to be. And we do that by immersing ourselves in daily work and refusing to join the masses in the insanity of everyday life.

One writer, in particular, stands out for me in this regard.

A Succesful Writer Who Still Inspires Me

A few years ago, I was designing and installing audiovisual systems and home automation. I received a referral from a business contact to view and price a cinema room project in North County Dublin. The client, Derek, was a writer. That’s all I knew. So long story short, I met the guy, designed the project and won the job. Thankfully for me, money wasn’t much of an issue and the awarding me the project was very much a matter of course.

During the project, he and I got talking about work, books, movies (usually Star Wars), and success. He told me how for years he was on the dole, living in his parents, working odd jobs on local farms, and if he was lucky, selling the odd script. At his financial low point, he had maxed out on his credit card and hadn’t got a pot to piss in. In contrast, these days he travels the world, promoting his books and talking to kids about writing and following their dreams.

Derek spent a lot of time in his own world, regularly failing to measure up to conventional concepts of success. “It’s funny”, he said, “the people who applaud me today because I’m famous are the same people who told me ten years ago that I should quit writing and get a real job. They told me I was useless — now they tell me I’m gifted”.

I’m paraphrasing here, but that was the gist of the conversation, and today, Derek is a worldwide commercial success.

The 7 Maxims of Authentic Creative Work

That conversation with Derek serves to reinforce for me the importance of, amongst other aspects of creative work, finding time to spend alone in the company of my own mind. It reminds me to persevere, to ignore others who would try to convince me I’m wasting my time, to ignore even myself and the voice in my head, the voice of the Other, that is focused solely on commercial viability.

That internalised voice tries to sterilise us of our creativity. It creates mindless drones of people suitable only to keeping to rules, followung the heard, being productive and dreaming of Fridays and two week summer holidays.

With this in mind, I have selected certain aspects that I believe are vital to the production of authentic creative work. These maxims are not unique; they have been spoken of before in many ways by many people. But they are necessary, and we must ensure they are a part of our creative practice if we are to experience the autonomy and freedom that is our inherent human right.

“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” — Pablo Picaso.

The seven maxims of creative work are not discrete. They do not stand alone, but instead, they overlap, intertwine, ebb and flow to varying degrees for different people and at different times. The creative self is a moving target.

Nonetheless, we can identify them in ourselves and try to remain conscious of their importance. So, the seven maxims of creative work are;

1. Skills

It almost goes without saying that skills and knowledge of the craft are the essential elements; they are the building blocks of a successful career in any and all domains of expertise. No matter what your chosen field, you must serve your time. You must serve your apprenticeship, learn the ropes, the basic skills of the game.

After a while, perhaps 4 or 5 years under guidance, you may have worked to a sufficient degree where you can go to the start line. This is day one, and this is when the real learning starts and creativity can begin.

2. Daily Practice

The time spent not only learning, but developing expertise, requires intense practice over a prolonged period. Anders Ericsson, in his much-cited paper, The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance (PDF) suggests ten years is required. That feels about right to me.

Ten years is a general rule of thumb and can vary depending on the individual, the age they start, and the domain they occupy. But I think it’s a good rule nonetheless.

Daily practice also needs feedback, either from you based on your subjective appraisal of your work, or from a mentor. If there is one thing that is certain about creative work, it is that we never improve unless we are dedicated to continued practice and pursuit of better.

The best results, however, are achieved when the work is engaged for its own sake.

3. Integrity

Integrity is a tough aspect of the self to pin down. I know for me, this certainly seems to be the case. If I could describe it, it would be that I feel unwilling to give up myself or a part thereof, for the sake of someone else’s interfering desire.

In other words, I won’t sell myself for the sake of applause or reward. Whatever deal I make and no matter the work, it has to have, by my own means of measurement, the potential to make me happy.

Integrity is subjective, and as such, it can never be dictated to and universalised by others. You may in the future be labelled a sellout by peers and contemporaries, but once you are genuinely content within yourself, you will remain integrated.

Be careful, however, because the surface level personality, the one that craves notoriety, can easily fool you.

4. Solitude

Last summer I converted the shed at the bottom of our back garden into and office/studio. It is there I go to work and study. Before I had the studio, I worked from a small desk in our bedroom. Needless to say, this arrangement was disastrous for prolonged creative work.

Distractions abounded, and both Joanne and I were on tenterhooks with each other. It was no good. Now I have a place I can go and be alone to do my work. Solitude, both physical and psychological, is vital for creative work. If either one is missing quality work cannot be done.

Physical solitude is finding a place where we can be without the company of others. Psychological solitude is the mental space where we can be without intrusion from commitments and obligations to those same others.

My kitchen in the morning before the family rises, or at night when they’re gone to bed, is one such place for me.

“The more powerful and original a mind, the more it will incline towards the religion of solitude.” ― Aldous Huxley

5. Timelessness

When I write or draw, I find that I am no longer conscious of time. Clock time passes so fast, hours are like minutes then suddenly I recognise that it has become dark outside, or I forgot to collect the children!

I take breaks in my work every so often, but I don’t time them. I get a sense that I need to come up for air. I need clarity, time to let settle what I have been working on for the last hour or so. Then when I come back, I can continue and make progress.

In this then, the creative process is a feeling thing, not something based in time or deadlines. That’s not to say that deadlines are necessarily a bad thing. Deadlines can help draw focus. It’s just that creativity seems to have its own agenda beyond traditional limits imposed by the social construct of time.

6. Detachment

For a time while we are in creative mode, we become attached to the work. We become it, and it becomes us. Often it is impossible to differentiate between the artist and the art. Now, this attachment is an essential aspect of creative work. However, there comes the point where we need to say; “enough”, and let the work go.

If we can’t detach from the work, be prepared to accept that we have given it our best, then the creative process can become destructive. I have felt this.

The first portrait I drew was an excellent first attempt, but in my vain effort to make it better, I ruined it. I worked the paper too hard, and it no longer took the charcoal. It’s still a good piece of work, but I ruined it by striving for perfection.

I’m still a perfectionist. I’ll always try to create the best I can, and sometimes that will work in my favour. Other times it won’t, so I just accept this now and keep on keeping on.

Which brings us to no.7.

7. Persistence

Keep showing up. Keep pushing yourself regardless of whether or not you receive a response, and sometimes despite the response received. We must persist if we are to do ourselves and the work justice.

Often, however, we confuse this persistence I am speaking of with pursuit of future goals. Remember, there is no time in creative endeavour — it is timeless. Time only comes into play when we rejoin the world and take up goals for the future, or regret for the past.

Persistence means being relentless in the execution of our daily work, for the sake of the work alone. Persistence does not mean being relentless in pursuit of goals and exterior measures of success.

There is a cumulative effect of persisting in the work. Suddenly, one day we look up from the work, and everyone is there. We have succeeded, and as such, success becomes an inevitable consequence. Paradoxically, when we cease taking score, the success we want shows up. I call this phenomenon Purposeful Accident.

The Undefinable Nature of Creative Work

Creativity and the work that flows from it is complex. No single definition can adequately account for all of its aspects and outcomes, and as such, creativity will continue to evolve and draw new definitions. The above maxims, therefore, are subject to evolution and change. But for now, for me, they capture something fundamental to the creative process.

Recognising these aspects of the creative process won’t make things easier. They won’t guarantee a stable income, help you land that gold plated commission or find success however you may define it. But they may help you find your centre, that place from which you can begin your work.

And this is all that matters.

What I have come to realise is that we don’t have to make it happen. It will happen on its own and it will surprise us too, if we allow it. Our only job, therefore, is to get into the work and stay there.

Thanks for taking the time to read my stuff. Every morning you’ll find me sharing a new thought on life, art, work, creativity, the self and the nature of reality on The Reflectionist. I also write on The Creative Mind. If you like what I’m creating, join my email list to receive the weekly Sunday Letters

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