Artsy at thirty
I do, thus I become.
When I turned 30 on August 6th, I had a feeling that this is my decade. I don’t know why, but I was quite excited, unlike many who might feel daunted by this age milestone. I, however, had a feeling that this is THE decade; the one in which I will discover myself and figure out what I really want to do with my life. And no, being a 4th year graduate student at MIT does not mean I have my life figured all out … not in the least.
Throughout my life, I pursued many interests. I was fascinated by science, enchanted by music, in love with folkloric and cultural dance, had a knack for creative writing, and dreamed about speaking so many different languages. But among the many interests and passions, science was the clear winner, so I didn’t have to think twice about pursuing it as my career. As for my passion for the arts, I realize now that I was mostly a consumer of it, but never a producer. I never delved in a creative project purely for the joy of art; I only engaged my creative side when there was an external prompt to follow. I guess I simply reserved the idea of spontaneous, self-driven creative art to ‘artistic’, ‘creative’ people… you know, those who live it day in and day out, will pursue it in college and build a career around it. In a nutshell, I, dealt with art as I did with any school subject: understand the task, fulfill the requirements, ace it, tap myself on the back and move on.
Fast forward to grad school at MIT, whenever I passed by that cool-looking art store in Central Square, Blick’s Art Materials, I’d look through the window and think, “Wow it must be really cool to shop here, I wish I was one of ‘those’ people….” But, I never went inside. I never had the inkling, because I had no business shopping there. What could I possibly buy? Beautiful colored markers? Professional sketchbooks? Paint brushes?? What could I possibly do with them?!
Little did I know that to become an artistic person, you actually need to “do” artistic things, even -and especially- when you have no clue what you’re doing.
I had the whole process reversed in my head. I thought that you needed to “be” an artistic person first, and THEN do what artistic people do, like buying a sketchbook, browsing the art store for fun, meeting other artsy people and everything else included in the “Artsy Person Package”.
Surprise, surprise. It turned out, that’s not how life works. And I’m glad it isn’t, else, I would have never ‘found’ my new passion for creative (or artistic) journaling, which is the act of documenting anything of personal significance — your thoughts, goals, books read, experiences, daily events, ANYTHING really — in a creative manner, by incorporating sketches, drawings, scrap-booking, collage-making, lettering or any other artistic medium.
You see, you build your identity by doing. To build habits that stick, you need to build a related identity. And don’t take it from me, take it from the author of Atomic Habits. James Clear breaks down the whole identity-habit relationship early on in his book, because it is simply the key to building new habits and getting rid of old ones. The interesting catch, however, is that the way to build an identity is by simply doing and re-doing the desired habit! You do it enough times until you accumulate strong evidence for your brain to say “Oh hey, I’ve been doing X for a good while now, maybe I AM the type of person who embodies X as part of their identity.”
Basically, it’s a positive feedback loop:
- “I’ve been doing creative journaling ~3 times/week for the past 3 months. I think I’m a creative journaler (is that even a word? I’m not sure, but ‘journalist’ is definitely not the right word).” Action forms identity.
- “I AM a creative journaler, so I’ll journal today.” Identity drives action.
Repeat the action over and over, and your identity gets reinforced each time, which encourages you to do more of the same action, and so on.
How is this whole ‘identity’ business related to that amazing yet intimidating art store? Well, one day, I forced myself to step in and shop to my heart’s desire. And as much as I felt like a kid in a candy store, I felt extreme unease the entire time. After returning home, I was so confused by my emotional state that I had to sit and reflect. Why was I incredibly anxious? It’s just a store, right? There was no door sign that said “Artists Welcome; MIT Science Students NOT Allowed”. But that’s exactly the imaginary sign I had created in my head. I felt incredibly awkward shopping there, like I was a fraud and didn’t obviously belong. I kept thinking that the salesmen definitely knows I’m totally clueless, and can see that I’m an artist-wanna-be. Every time I asked a salesman a question, I would start with something like “Hey, it’s my first time here, haha” or “Sorry, I’m new here”. While I was aware of how silly I sounded, I still blurted out such phrases. My self-consciousness was up to the roof.
I made that intentional trip shortly after I had discovered my knack for creative journaling, which started out of nowhere on my living room couch. All I had was a cheap blank journal and a pen. And that’s all you really need to start creative journaling (action) and become a journaler (identity). Four months later, however, I have grown a little art nook in my bedroom, with its own desk and supplies. I accumulated so many dot-grid journals, washi tape, dual brush pens, fineliners and things only journalers would find amusing. My point is: you become what you do. And no, it is not a serendipitous turn of events; it is rather a deliberate process that requires time and repeated action. I built my journaling station and art supplies collection little by little, in parallel with building my new identity as an artistic person, one page at a time.
So, what do YOU want to be?
A guitarist? A gym-goer? A talented baker? A quantum physicist? An activist? A minimalist?
If you think you have an answer, go do it.
Now. Drop everything and go.
The first time might be scary, the beginning might be messy, but it gets smoother and less awkward time after time, as you build your identity along the way.
Figure 1: Some of my journal pages that I started sharing in public right after my trip to the art store. You can check out the rest on my journaling Instagram account: @lubna.journals
a) Documenting a delicious Saturday brunch spread shared with friends. An example of keepsake journaling.
b) The first (and only) Instagram art challenge I participated in, where participants have a week to recreate a real image in their own style.
c) Journaling for important note taking, which can be used for summarizing any source of valuable information, such as films, documentaries, lectures and books. This page was on an eye-opening podcast episode.
d) Another example of keepsake journaling, documenting a beautiful fireplace set-up in a thanksgiving dinner shared with friends.
e) A ‘sketchnote’ of an interesting story about the importance of networking, shared by a panelist during a networking session.
f) Journaling for self-growth: Documenting the behaviors I would like to let go of and the ones I am working on developing, many of which are inspired by a life-changing book, ‘Not Nice’ by Dr. Aziz Gazipura. The left page is a tribute to the famous mural “Balloon Girl” by Banksy.
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