There’s a feeling of dread that surfaces sometimes, when you’ve been working on something a long time and it just doesn’t seem to be successfully presenting the ideas you had for it. The vision you started with hasn’t come to be.
The feeling is often temporary, a loss of confidence we all feel now and then. But if it persists, you have two choices when that feeling arrives: abandon the project, or forge ahead. I can’t say which is best, it’d depend on the circumstances and the work. If you still believe in the vision you had, it’s probably best to live with the feeling for a while, but trust in the vision until the work is done. Only then can you look back with perspective at the whole and decide what serves it and what needs fixing.
If you’ve lost the vision, though, or the connection you had to it, you might do well to move on to something else. I don’t advocate throwing it away, at least not yet. But put it out of sight for a while—a month, a year—and get your newly-refreshed eyes on it later.
Unless we believe in the work, few or no others will. You can show works that you think are less successful, but don’t show anything you don’t believe in or that’s disconnected from your vision.
Working in silence, or nearly so, can free you from distractions. I always used to get a tremendous amount of painting done overnight, during deadlines at school when something had to be done for the next morning. Often, I’d end up working through the night, staying awake to finish a piece for class.
But while deadlines can be harrowing, there’s inspiration to be had when working alone. If you don’t have a studio to retreat to, it can be a similar feeling to have the place you live all to yourself, when everyone else is asleep. It’s just you and your work, you listen to the piece, it speaks to you, and your conversation goes on, in feelings and impressions rather than words.
Sometimes it’s helpful to pull an all-nighter, even when you don’t have to. Experiencing the quiet space around you is both calming and sense-heightening.
You get tired. Holidays are especially wearing, and stressful in ways that can’t be fully overcome by the excitement and joy they also offer.
So, what do you do about it? Same as everything else you feel, you accept it and keep moving. The only thing certain about life is that as long as it exists, it moves. It moves forward through time—at a terrifying velocity, sometimes—even when we’re sitting still.
Do small work. Do quiet work. Do deliberate work. Your work doesn’t have to be grand or frenetic all the time, it can move with time, as life moves. This is part of being kind to yourself and respecting both feelings and your practice.
Craving the new is a natural part of being a novelty-seeking species. We love innovation, new albums, the latest book by a beloved author, a new season of a show we’ve followed for years.
As the new year begins, though, you shouldn’t forget about what’s been left behind. It’s useful to our next work to occasionally take stock of previous ones, especially unfinished stuff. Dig out old sketchbooks, unroll stored drawings and paintings, see what you like in them and what wasn’t working.
The road ahead can sometimes be better chosen by looking back at where you’ve been.
What stops us from our work, from making things, is often fear of the unknown. What if they don’t like it? What if I’m a fraud? What if it sucks?
But that’s our fear’s job. It’s a valuable evolutionary trait and we need it, but not where art is concerned.
When editing and refining, you can consider and revise and judge. Deliberation when you’re working only stops the flow. Trust your habit and your instincts with the blank page, The uncarved block, the white canvas. Gut instinct is just another term for getting out of your own way.
You create something from raw materials: pigment, surface, stuff, ideas. Once made, the work is a new thing, almost like something alive you birthed.
We have this compulsion to bring new things into being, and we should show them to the world, in turn.
Then the rest of the universe has an entirely new thing within. You can be proud of it.
There’s a point in Brian Jay Jones’s Jim Henson biography I knew was coming: Jim’s huge disappointment over The Dark Crystal’s reception, after spending years conceptualizing, developing, producing, and finally co-directing and performing in it. It might have seemed like years of wasted effort, even though the movie made its costs back and then some.
But it wasn’t what he wanted. The artist had a vision of how his work might be received, and that vision didn’t match reality. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have expectations, or that it’s even possible not to. It’s akin to asking us not to dream. But when we are disappointed with how our work is received, we can mitigate it. Or, sometimes, we can accept it with grace, knowing one thing:
The work still exists and it is ours.
Even when sold, the thing we made is attached to us. Jim, crushed by his disappointment, still had the thing he’d made, and it is forever his, for all its flaws and triumphs. Even though he isn’t here, his work lives on. There’s much wonder in it. I have a wonderful volume of Brian Froud’s conceptual drawings on my bedroom shelf. I marvel at the breadth of what The Henson Company was able to create out of mere ideas. I read that there’s an upcoming 4K screening of the film in February 2018 in selected theaters.
What you’ve made is yours, no matter what people think of it. Sometimes, if you believe in the vision you made it out of, it gets another chance, or two, or ten. Opinions change, and art can always be seen by new eyes.
First drafts, like first attempts at anything, can succeed, even messily. But usually they don’t. When painting, we can touch up, fix wavering lines, or paint out the whole thing white again. When writing, we can cut massive sections, or tweak phrases and words in sentences till they look better, seem more true.
It isn’t in our first attempts that we deliver our best work, or our best selves, which is really at the heart of making art of any kind. Self-discovery is an essential part of our artistic growth, and parallels our (hopefully) growing skills.
Anxiety is natural, but so is a rewrite. You’re free to change your mind and your work as it gets done and you can see it more clearly.
Part of the reason we feel so strongly about Christmas and similar winter solstice events is that they come with attendant decorations, music, and themes. They repeat every year, rituals that defy cynicism and modernity, sometimes reaching autonomic levels of response to them.
You may enjoy these effects. You may hate them. What matters is that they affect so many of us in this way.
What are ways we can incorporate these feelings into our work? What elements and themes might make a piece so strong it evokes something like winter holiday nostalgia in its audience? Solve that deep problem and make a thing that is powerful and irresistible. Well, given the proviso that Xmas music fatigue is the flip side of the seasonal coin, maybe sprinkle a bit of balance in with that solution.
The iconic moment brought to my mind the most this year is this quotation pair:
“Happy Christmas, Harry!”
“Happy Christmas, Ron.”
Simple is usually best.
We live in a world that seems to accelerate with alarming regularity. Expectations of delivery and downloads is ever increasing, with every upgrade and iteration.
We can meet that expectation in our work. But there are advantages to going slowly: the pressure is lessened. We can gain perspective as we work, rather than in hindsight.
A daily habit, steady work, will always beat out frenetic flurries that require inspiration to kick them off.