Above: Correspondence Labs—Correspondence Project, a daily letter writing project from June 21, 1997 to June 20, 1998. Top left a list of people as I wrote to them. Middle left a small panel card which explained the project (I included this in each first letter to a correspondent). Bottom left the printed neon "official" envelopes. Top center and right the fanned out letters which show that while sometimes I may have written a page or more, many letters were only a few lines or paragraphs. Each was written on stationery and the day of the project appeared at the top left along with the actual date. Bottom center the wrap up note I sent to everyone several months after the project concluded, when I was already in the midst of my next year long project—which was to last much longer than I imagined. Click on the image to view an enlargement.
The other day a friend told me that she was participating in the Month of Letters Challenge for February. I love it when I hear people are writing letters. (While it's rather late in the month, it isn't too late to start your own month of letters in this spirit.)
It made me a little nostalgic. I grew up traveling so much with my family that the only way I could keep in touch with people was to write letters. (And readers of my blog can probably surmise that they were lengthy missives.) Before email entered the "game" and disrupted my postal production I wrote at least two or three letters a day to various friends. I also sent a lot of postcards. I would be somewhere and think of something and start writing a letter. I think I might have been a little compulsive about it. One adult friend actually asked me to write less. He felt overwhelmed. Additional investigation uncovered a sense on his part and on the part of other correspondents that I'd probably mentally proofread or even "edit" their letters. (I was working as an editor at the time.)
Funny thing is, when I read letters, I don't bring that type of attention to them. I read them for the joy, interest, news—just to hear the person's voice. There is something wonderful about holding a letter that was composed by a friend with details of his or her life—that person's thoughts exciting and mundane. I love it when they are handwritten, but typed epistles thrill me as well. I don't scan for spelling errors or grammatical mistakes. (I only give my own letters a quick overview before sending them out and I know I miss stuff!)
Letters to me seem spontaneous; and much more spontaneous than emails, which seem rather formulaic, no perfunctory, from most folks—just the facts, if even those.
I'm always setting myself daily projects. Sometimes these projects last several years like my Daily Dots, other projects last a month like my Bird-a-day project in 2007 or my carving a day journal or International Fake Journal Month.
It is very natural for me to do a daily project for a year because of my life-long journaling habit.
In the late 90s I noticed that my volume of letter writing had decreased. The letters I received had also deminished. I was loosing friends to the computer. I suffered neck injuries in a car accident (not my fault I hasten to add) and saw my concentration levels dipping on all projects not just letter writing. It seemed natural to me then to begin what I called "Correspondence Labs—Correspondence Project" And because I love the trimmings of a plan almost as much as the day-to-day aspects of a plan, I created logos and stationery and had neon green envelopes printed. I also created a custom rubberstamp with one of the logos and the tagline "Concocting New Methods of Writing Every Day."
From June 21, 1997 through June 20, 1998 I wrote a letter a day; 365 mostly one-page letters, which when stacked create a pile over 2 inches tall. To make the project doable I had a couple "rules." I had to write something each day. The letters couldn't all be to the same person, though throughout the year one person did receive the bulk of the letters. The letters needed to be on the official "stationery." (Some were handwritten others were typed on the computer—since college I have been very comfortable composing as I type.) I needed to say one thing about which I'd been thinking or doing that day—just jump in with no backstory. This happy rule resulted in several letters being only a couple lines or a few paragraphs.
Along with each first letter to a correspondent I sent a 4.5 x 5.5 inch panel card giving background information about the project and stressing I didn't expect mail in return. I usually did receive mail. Sometimes a friend would call me and chat instead. It was all good.
While I did complete the task ultimately I think the Correspondence Labs effort was a failure. While the initial effect was to pump up my letter quota, within a year or so I found myself sending emails instead of post.
But I bring this up because I think that from projects like this we learn several things about ourselves. First, we all go through times in our lives where certain things are important to us. As life (and technology) changes our habits may change as well. That can be a good or a bad thing and I believe we need to look at our lives every so often and ask "what's up." In that way we can correct behaviors that take us away from what is important to us.
Second we learn about the rhythms of our life—you can't not do this when you are trying to squeeze in one more daily thing into your schedule. I value this knowledge because it provides me with a map of when I'm most creative during the day. It also shows me where there are hidden pockets of time in my schedule that I can use more completely. (Remember productivity is important to me.)
And third, but not last (as there are too many points to post about) and definitely not least—doing a daily project for a year (or some other determined length of time) gives you the gift of seeing your way to your next project.
For me, because I had enjoyed the Correspondence Labs so much, I couldn't wait to start another daily year-long project. As the letter writing year wound down I started looking around to see with what I could replace it. The answer was sleeping on a rug next to my desk. On July 1, 1998 I started my Daily Dots project. I drew my Alaskan Malamute bitch Dottie every day for a year, and kept on drawing her every day for almost five years, until she died.
I probably would have started drawing Dottie daily even if I hadn't devised my personal Correspondence Labs project. But the letter writing project helped me ask myself questions of affection and life and goals—and that all led to an obvious choice.
A daily project needs to be constructed in such a way that it will stretch you, but also remain doable amidst the other constraints of your life. I painted a bird a day for a month not a year because I knew I could do it for 30 days, but not 365 days based on other life realities! But everyone can take a few moments to jot down something real about his or her life and send it to another every day. And everyone can steal a couple moments from his or her life to sketch the resident animal. If you can't make room for these types of "manageable" projects in your life you have got a slim hope of doing a more grandiose and involved one—without a lot of struggle.
When you do one predetermined creative act a day, every day, for the duration of your project, whether you feel shitty or not, whether you get a shitty result or not, something wonderful happens. You get to see how possible it is to work when you "don't feel like it," and that's the key to productivity. And for every shitty drawing I got of Dottie there are several more that make me sigh when I look at them now.
Training my dogs to track is another example. Initially you go out every day for at least 6 weeks and work with your dog doing a variety of tasks that increase your skills in communicating with and reading your dog. And if you're like me and really love it you keep going pretty much 6 times a week even after that initial phase. One of the important factors of going every day, regardless of how you feel is that you and your dog get exposed to every conceivable set of conditions. You don't just work when it's sunny and comfortable (for you). I had a slight advantage. As a runner earlier in my life I was accustomed to being outside every day at the same time in any type of weather. Because the girls and I trained daily I learned more about scent and how it responds to weather conditions, and most important, I learned how to communicate with my dogs and learn from their expertise.
When you put this type of effort into an activity, whether it's letter writing, painting, or tracking with your dog, on one level the activity becomes effortless and full of joy, even when you feel like shit. And the best cure for feeling like shit is to let a little bit of wonder and joy into your life each day.
I recommend, for all these and so many more reasons not stated, that you set yourself a daily creative task and do it for a month (work up to longer time frames). It might be that you see your journal habit is floundering. Well make a point to journal 15 minutes a day for a month—you'll jumpstart your habit. Perhaps you're having trouble using your brush pen—make a point to do one sketch with it every day for a month. That sketch can be as simple as you want it to be—you set the limits of your project. If you don't want to "waste" the lovely watercolor paper of your journal with the pen project buy a cheap notebook and work on that paper. The point is to get the project done without obstacles that hold you back; only you know what obstacles hold you back.
With that in mind, when you set a project for yourself prepare for the start date by gathering the materials you'll need. Don't make an excuse on day one because you haven't got your materials ready. Just start in.
Budget for your project. Are you like me? Do you need to design a logo and have stationery or bind special books, or whatever? If so, think about the costs not only of the supplies but your time. If preparing and executing the project is going to break the bank (and exhaust you before you start) rethink and redefine the project. The best projects are those which require a minimum of supplies or outlay of funds, because they are the most likely to be completed.
Most important, create a daily project that feeds you and your goals. Do something that matters to you. This means you're going to have to sit down and have a little chat with yourself. Prepare yourself, also, in advance, for dealing with your internal critic, who might decide this is a great time to come out and play.
When Dottie died the hole left was immense. I knew not having her to draw daily would be a difficult adjustment (towards the end of her life, because I knew she was dying, I actually started drawing her several times a day because I was aware of the imminent scarcity of her presence). Almost immediately, friends started suggesting other things I could draw daily. None of them drew (no pun intended) my interest.
To have the greatest chance for success on all levels I can't stress enough how important it is that the project be of your design. Yes you can join in with projects that are already "out there"—write a letter a day, write a fake journal entry a day (hint, hint April is coming), or write a novel in a month (I think that's November). Those are all good projects if the pursuits involved interest you because you can customize them all. Customize the project so that it suits you. If there are guidelines for a project, that's great, but within those guidelines you must also create your own unique guidelines that will tailor the project to your needs and your goals. Look for projects that line up with your basic goals. Build in ways that you can stretch. Delineate ways that you'll combat the "forces" that typically derail you if this has been a problem in the past.
Keep in mind future daily projects even as you are working on one. In the midst of a daily project you'll find it easiest to best assess how much time you realistically have to devote to a project, based on how the current project is going. You can finely tune future projects if you pay attention now.
Also, when your project draws to a close you will have ideas in place for your next project. You will be in the best position for capitalizing on the increased productivity.
As to whether or not you should announce to the world your intentions I'm ambivalent. I tend to keep my daily projects to myself until I'm finished—it's just easier. It helps me focus on what I want to do. (International Fake Journal Month is an exception for me. It was private for many years, but now that I have gone public with it on the internet I actually have to share some of it as it is going along.)
If you feel you could use the help of a friend or two to encourage you then you might find reasons to tell people what you are doing. Definitely you need to tell household members so that they know not to disturb you for that special "regular" time slot, or if you don't have a regular time slot at least they need to recognize what you're doing so they know enough not to interrupt you until you are finished.
There is so much I could write about this. I can look over my life and see how a little bit of time each day yields great benefits. Doing a daily project feeds your stamina and allows you to develop your abilities (related to the project at hand, but I bet if you think about it for a moment the skills are useful elsewhere in your life). I want to encourage you to find that for yourself, in whatever area of creativity you want to explore.
Think of it as a productive daily vacation.
Every skill in life happens a little bit at a time; today's a great day to start.