I believe there is a definite link between art and exercise. The purpose of this article is to tell you everything I can (in 2600 words) about that link.
Get Your Art Mojo On
First of all, the best way I know to break out of a slump as an artist is exercise.
By slump I mean when you lose all will to keep going. When you exercise, you attack Pressfieldian Resistance head on. You assert your will to overcome. You get your mojo back.
(By the way, this approach can apply to everything. Exercise is also a great way to get your life mojo back.)
There were a few years when I didn’t really do any exercise. If I did, it was very sporadic. Funny thing—during this time, I took basically that same approach to my art and following my passions. Then one day, I purposefully changed from a sedentary lifestyle to one of daily exercise. And not coincidentally, since that time, I’ve written 2 books and 3 screenplays. I directly relate all of my creative work to my daily decision to exercise. I even get my best ideas while I am exercising, especially when I’m running. For me running is both a form of peaceful meditation and relaxation and a way to feel just enough pain and discomfort to be able to feel alive. The meditation part helps me get in touch with my Muse. The discomfort part helps me get out of my comfort zone and actually do the work of creating. (Like when I wrote a novel in 30 days.)
Breaking creative slumps isn’t something we need to do every once in a while. For me, it seems like it has to be almost a daily ritual. Otherwise my momentum dies out. Life shells out so much crap on us every day it’s easy to just throw in the towel and decide not to care, not to try. I was feeling that way today, before I wrote this article. Then I did my daily pushups. All of the sudden, I forgot about the things I was feeling down about and immediately had the idea to write this article.
Every one of us has to break our slumps in order to live the life that we want. This applies even more keenly to the artist or entrepreneur or dream-follower, whose only impetus is oneself.
Overcoming the Temptation To Not Give a Sh@#
There are two ways in which we can decide to not give a sh@#. The first is good, the second is really, really bad.
Not Giving a Sh@# #1: The Good One
This is where you finally decide to live life for yourself, and forget about the expectations of other people, whether those expectations be real or imagined. This includes pursuing those passions you may have given up long ago due to what other people (including family and friends) said. As long as we are making all our decisions based on what others think of us, we have no freedom. We aren’t being ourselves. We are miserable. We are not really living, but just pretending to live. You have to not give a sh@# (meaning #1) in order to really live your life.
Not Giving a Sh@# #2: The Bad One
While not caring about what others think is a good thing, not caring about your passions or your life in general is a self-destructive bomb. When you don’t give a crap about anything, you know you are in a place that you need to get out of as quickly as possible.
Let’s face it, life can really suck sometimes. I’ve seen too many friends cope with this fact by just deciding to not care about whether they are happy or not or whether their life goes the way they want it to or not. They capitulate. They intentionally stupefy themselves into a hypnotic trance where they aren’t really living, but rather, they are just trying to avoid feeling pain. They don’t chase their dreams because they fear that they will fail. They don’t pursue relationships because they feel that all relationships fail in the end.
“Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”
– Steve Jobs
(By the way, the full text of the speech that this quote was taken from, which is called ‘You’ve got to find what you love’ is here.)
Artists are typically associated with the stereotype of “the tortured soul.” While I am the last person to give credence to stereotypes, I’ll admit I believe there is some truth in this one. (Actually, there is almost always some truth in stereotypes. The problem is that stereotypes don’t tell the full story.)
Van Gogh cut off his ear and gave it to a woman at a brothel. He also created paintings which influenced virtually all painters after him in some way. Dostoyevsky suffered from extreme poverty and was once indicted and sentenced to execution. He was let go at the last minute. He later went on to be one of the most read Russian writers in history. Hideaki Anno suffered from clinical depression before creating Evangelion, the widely acclaimed series which revolutionized pop media, turning it into high art, as well as a study of psychoanalysis, archetypes and symbols.
I think the reason why so many great artists dealt with so much pain in their lives is extremely easy to understand. We understand things by their opposites. Can you define the word “hot” without using an opposite? I can’t. I can tell you that hot is not cold. But I can’t really tell you what hot in and of itself is.
It’s like this with life. We can’t really understand beauty or happiness without understanding their opposites. People who have experienced the extreme valleys of life are able to also fully comprehend and appreciate what it means to soar with the eagles.
“Suffering is justified as soon as it becomes the raw material of beauty.”
However, we should not and need not seek out pain and suffering. Life will dish out enough suffering for us without our trying to help find more of it.
In one of my favorite films of all time, Zoolander, Hansel (Owen Wilson) is asked who his favorite artist is, who he confides is Sting. “I don’t really listen to his music, but I respect the fact that he makes it.”
Well, Sting has some great advice for us on suffering: “I’d like to do my work, and be a happy man. I’ve got enough memories of pain, of dysfunctional living, a reservoir to last me the rest of my life, so I don’t really need to manufacture that kind of life to be creative.” But don’t worry, Sting, for you and the rest of us, more hard times are on their way. Being rich and famous doesn’t stop unhappy moments.
What we do with the unhappy moments is what defines us.
What does suffering have to do with art and exercise?
First of all, exercise introduces a little much-needed pain into our lives, so we can fully experience the opposite: pleasure. (See below on endorphins.) When our bodies are sedentary, they aren’t really experiencing any ups and downs. Instead, this tends to make the body (and thus our spirits) always feel down.
How do I respond when life makes me feel like crap? I used to eat more. I’d eat sugary stuff, fatty stuff, anything to kill the feeling of misery. It sort of worked, to a point. It helped me survive one of the roughest parts of my life, which was right after I got divorced. I survived to later become who I am today, and that’s a good thing. So I can’t completely knock this strategy. However, it also made me really out -of-shape and ultimately made me feel even worse about myself. There is a much better strategy.
If I would have known this during my period of depression after my divorce, I would have used it: exercise banishes unhappy feelings. I stumbled upon this truth about a year after my divorce, and it’s totally changed my life.
Now, whenever life tempts me to feel like crap and throw in the towel, I exercise. (I think that explains why my health improved so drastically! In the words of Homer Simpson, “It’s funny because it’s true.”)
I Am An Artist Because I Exercise
What is an artist? Obviously, it is someone who creates art. Anyone can be an artist, all they have to do is make art. Any can be a writer, all they have to do is write. Anyone can be a painter, all they have to do is paint.
The world is full of writers who never write.
– F. Scott Fitzgerald
What good is a writer who never writes, or a filmmaker who never makes films?
I went to film school, but for years after I graduated, I didn’t really pursue my art. I pursued video as a business, but I indefinitely procrastinated creating my own art. Until….
…I started exercising.
When I started running every night, it completely changed my outlook on life. I was overcoming Resistance in one area of my life—the physical— so that made it infinitely easier to overcome Resistance in other areas of my life. There is a link between art and exercise, and that link is:
Exercising and creating art both involve overcoming Resistance.
Both exercising and creating art are activities that are not for wussies.
Hitting the gym and creating a masterpiece really aren’t that different. Both involve getting off of our ass and actually doing something, instead of just talking or dreaming about it.
My ex-wife loved to call me a “dreamer.” I always took this as a complement, but it was only later that I realized that yes, I was a dreamer, but not in a good way.
Active Dreamers Vs. Passive Dreamers
There is a problem with the word “dreamer.” It can have either a negative or a positive connotation. The word itself is so vague that it can describe two groups of people who are the polar opposites. One group is full of crap. They are always talking but never doing anything. The other group consists of the people who are changing and creating the world we live in: the people who are actually doing, who are living their lives to the fullest.
Strangely enough, it is possible to move from the former group of people to the latter. Shadow dreamers can become real dreamers. The only distinction is that one is actively following his dreams.
Passive Dreamers have all sorts of plans that they love to talk about but never actually do. They are talkers. These people are a very common lot: we all have a surplus of friends and acquaintances who are passive dreamers.
Active Dreamers are a lot harder to come by. They not only have dreams but they follow them on a daily basis. Rather than talking, they are usually doing.
How did I go from being a passive dreamer to being an active one? (Note: I’m not saying I’m perfect in this regard, I’m just a lot better than I used to be.) I’d love to tell you it was sheer force of will, or that I realized my divine destiny and decided to live it, or that I’m just a total badass and that’s how I roll. And the first two answers would be right to an extent. However, the real answer is a lot more basic: I started exercising.
I go into full, vivid, sensational, agonizing detail about this story in my book Smashing Limits (soon to be available—stay tuned!). But here is a super simplified version:
I had hit rock bottom in terms of how I felt about myself and my life. One night I decided to go running. It was winter. I decided to run up a canyon near my house. I would have thought such an idea absurd in the past. However, I felt like I had nothing to lose. So I just did it. Somehow, it helped divert my attention away from my grief. I felt okay while I was running, even though I was freezing my gonads off. At least I didn’t feel like I wanted to die. So I decided to run again the next day, and the next day. I mean, seriously folks, who the hell needs a therapist when you can run in the freezing cold? It’s much cheaper and more effective.
Like I said, I go into much more detail of this story in my book. I owe a huge part of my transformation to Kurt Lee Hurley,* who was the fitness trainer for the TV show Baywatch. And to a certain female who inadvertently helped change my life by telling me to eff off. But to sum things up I ended up losing 40 pounds and looking and feeling like a brand new person. In fact, I at 34, I felt like a teen again.
Now that I had expended energy into something constructive every day and seen drastic results, I realized that I could do the same thing with my artistic dreams. I had dreamed of being a writer and filmmaker, but up until then, I had put a very minimum of elbow grease into making those dreams a reality.
All of the sudden, I had a new body and a new mind to match. Being healthy changes the way your brain thinks. For one, I smile a lot more now than I did when I was out of shape. Not only that, but my thinking is also sharper. Yes, being in shape makes you smarter.
However, even after becoming a new person and writing several books and screenplays, today I still felt tempted to feel like total crap. I was confused and depressed about several things in my artistic life and personal life. It happens sometimes. I personally feel that anyone who says they never feel like that is lying.
So what did I do? I didn’t want to, but I dropped and did my 200 pushups. Before I had even finished them, I felt completely different. I got the spark of the idea to write this article, and I immediately went to the computer and started typing. Writing this article helped me remember how much I have accomplished in the last 7 months or so in changing my life. But it all started with exercise.
They say exercise releases endorphins that make us feel good. I believe that. But I also believe that when we exercise, we tell life “I’m here, and I’m ready for you. I’m not a lazy ass. I’ll do whatever it takes to get what I want, and I’ll never give up.”
I think life must be a woman, because just as that attitude impresses females, it impresses life, and all of the sudden life rewards us infinitely. (Now if I could just get the females in my life to reward me infinitely…)
So whatever it is that you dream about doing, whether it’s being a comic book artist, or an astronaut, or a parent, I believe the best way to go from being a passive dreamer to an active dreamer who is making their dreams into a reality is to exercise. It’s cliché to say we all have a song in our heart to sing. But I think all of us have something to create. Whether it be art or something else, we are creative beings. We need to create to be fully realized. Anyone who doesn’t create something is not living their life to its fullest.
So, my friend, first….exercise. Then go and create your masterpiece.
…and feel free to comment below on your own experiences with art and exercise!
* This is not an affiliate link; I receive nothing other than the satisfaction of helping in your journey by providing it. 🙂