I first learned of the 100 day project from Lucy Bellwood who's got quite the history of doing projects on numbered rhythms and building fascinating work within that level of constraint. But for me, it never quite worked out. I either never found the space to start, or I got going, became overwhelmed from the size of what I had decided to do, and burned out within a week.
There's still a folder of butterfly paintings I set out to do as my 100 day project in 2017. Here's day two, my favorite.
I made it eight days. That was the last time I tried.
I'm very good at making something much more than it starts as. Give me a seed and I'll make it into a forest, but sometimes I'm trying to make a forest in the desert.
Not everything has to be everything.
Today the maple tree began similarly, a drawing each day, but of the same tree, from the same vantage. It seemed exciting as a concept, but I know myself and that also seemed like another dead end attempt. So I scaled it back. What if instead I tried to describe the tree with just words, a few short sentences?
The span of when I realized the 100 day project was coming up until I got everything ready to go and began was just three days. There was very little time for me to overthink and bloom the entire thing into something monstrous and grand—something likely doomed to fail from being far more than I could handle in even ordinary times.
I realized it was coming up, decided on an idea, forced myself to scale it back, and then designed and built a space for it to live within, and by then wrote the first day's post. The first two days were just the idea and the scale down inner monologue of, "Are you sure that's a good idea? That seems like a lot. Less. Less! LESS!"
I think one of the best ways to know something is to write about it. But I also think that one of the best ways to find out things you didn't know is to write, period. Things seem to start showing up you didn't intend to be there. Thoughts, ideas, concepts, fears. They just drift in like a bird on your windowsill singing a song you didn't know you needed to hear.
The first week was easier than I anticipated it would be, I worried I had made things a bit too narrow. It seemed a bit too easy.
I sat and watched the tree, and wrote the posts as regularly as possible and decided that once they were written they were done, whether they made their way up to the website or not. That could wait. Somewhere within all this I felt this desire to make something and force myself to not immediately feel like it remained unfinished if it didn't go directly on the internet.
That was at times considerably harder than making the posts. I felt this immense sense of failure mixed with guilt each time I went a few days before updating the website. The entries sat on paper, in ink, buried in a notebook. I had them, they existed only for me, and somehow that wasn't enough anymore.
The nature of the way the web operates around art and the role social media plays in art making certainly has the potential to warp your view of creating. I knew this. It's not new, but I knew about it, so it didn't—it couldn't affect me. But it had.
So as I continued through the project I forced myself to begin dealing with it, acknowledging that I had made the entries for the day and I'd eventually get around to putting them up on the website. Sharing them wasn't part of creating, that wasn't the last step of validation. That was merely filing them away in a public archive for people to find, for others to enjoy when they stumbled upon them.
When I think of my grandmother I think of the passing of time, or the record keeping that comes with noticing each day. And as I moved through the project I found myself thinking of her regularly.
She would, each day, get her calendar from the wall and write down the weather that day, the temperature, highs, lows, and sometimes a little bit about something else. A birthday, the bean sprouts coming in, the last frost.
When she moved, downsizing into a trailer after being evicted from her home of several decades, all her calendars were thrown out. There wasn't room for them.
And she started over, marking the days with cheap bic pens, marking the weather, marking the little things she noticed about the season, and they stacked up in the corner of her new bedroom.
She taught me to notice things. The cicadas marking summer, the buttercups marking spring, the clouds that screamed of snow, the cows that warned of storms.
Each day I wrote down the little world around the maple tree and I thought of her and her calendar.
There's a rhythm everywhere if you watch for it long enough. Sometimes it swells with the season and sometimes with the day, but it's there. Soon there was far more than the maple tree, there was a little world, even in that moment I watched it and wrote each day.
How much we all miss when we're not paying attention.
There's ample parts in Jenny Odell's How To Do Nothing where she talks about the knowing that comes with doing nothing, with just sitting with a space.
I thought a lot about her and her book, and her birds as I watched the swallows arc, and the drama of the crows and the mockingbirds.
It was perhaps foolish, but I attached a little bit of hope to this project. I looked ahead, seeing one hundred days laid out and thought how far away that was. And as I looked around at the pandemic, at the growing danger and fear present in April I told myself a little story.
I was going to do this project. It was going to get me through this. And maybe, just maybe by the time it was over things would be better, there would be a way out, a way forward.
As the weeks stretched on it became clear the whole of things was just beginning and without a plan there was not a proper end in sight, so I clung to the act of making something.
Each day there was this moment, this quiet calm where it was only me and the maple tree. It was not a distraction or a dream. If anything it was a deep breath to keep going.
Three weeks in the habit of it all had an unforeseen side effect. Putting words down daily made me want to put more words down. And for the first time in a long time I began writing a work of fiction. Eventually I had almost 20,000 words of something that just kept growing.
And now I'm writing a novel, working through plot and pushing out words, something I never expected out of this.
Seeing myself work through Today the maple tree each day, even in that small moment made me see how precious even a few sentences could be, and I stopped dismissing the little moments I had to write that might only be a paragraph or a sentence. It was often only a handful of sentences. As it grew my own perspective shifted to see how much even the tiniest bit of work could add up if you can keep it going regularly.
In the final 10 days I found myself sad. I thought I'd be sick of it my now, but I wasn't. I began to ask, "What if I just keep going? What if I don't stop at 100? I could just keep going, make it a new habit and see how long I could go."
I held onto that idea for a bit, it felt nice to not let it go, but then I realized this was the final lesson I'd get out of this project.
I have a very hard time ending things. I'll read a book to the last chapter and then wait months or years to finish it. I'll hold on the finales of shows for months. There's this grief of it being over. And I realized that there's a sizable number of projects that sit unfinished not from lack of love or attention, or even motivation, but from knowing that a few more pages, or a few more images means it's done, that it's over.
I nearly walked back from it, but I'm glad I didn't. Day 100 came, the last post went up, and that was the end.
The whole of Today the maple tree is, and will remain, on my website.
I made this for me, but people have reached out to tell me how this meant something to them, how they enjoyed it and it brightens my heart to hear.
I'm still working on my story. I've been sorting out a few plot knots at the moment that I barreled into, but it's progressing. More words will go down today. It may be three, it may be three thousand.
The pandemic still rages and I still have little moments with the maple tree, and the birds, and the clouds. I just don't put them down in words anymore.
I know a lot more about the maple tree than I did before, and a lot more about myself. The rhythm of something, carried out long enough, can change the shape of your life.
- Having a plan is important, but giving yourself too much time to think before doing can stall everything out.
- Scale it back, try to make it something small enough to be easy to do, because not every day will be easy to you. The buffer matters.
- A single habit begets other possible habits.
- There can be a lot of value in a few minutes, and in working through small pieces of something. Ten minutes can add up if you can find time for it each day.
- It is enough to make something. It doesn't have to be shared with others or the internet to be valid.
- There is so much to notice, and so much worth noticing. You just have to keep looking.
- Ending things is an important part of creating anything.
I would very much like to collect the whole of Today the maple tree into something on paper, printed and bound. I'm looking into what my options would be for that. If you are someone that would be interested in such an object then please let me know on twitter or patreon.