How you feel on a day of making isn’t important.
Working to deadlines is often necessary. Time is the one luxury we can’t invoke more of with greater resources, it just gets reallocated.
But, as in every other aspect of creating that requires shoving other things and obligations aside in order to do the work, even a short time is better than none. Here’s where the habit comes in: it takes over when stress and lack of motivation are high.
And, sometimes, we can only produce a small amount of something. Some times are filled with despair and uncertainty. We can only trust that these are transitory. Everything passes by. What might make a difference is that it’s rare something has to be finished in one day. Mostly, work is done in stages, building on things that were done on previous days.
We trust that the pile we’re throwing today’s work upon is going to look better, eventually. It isn’t about today, nor tomorrow. And that holds true even during times we feel good about the shovelful we’ve made in any one day. When there’s flow and inspiration and a sense of insight, it’s still only a passing day’s work to throw on the heap, and it’s little different whether it’s hours’ worth or a few minutes. You won’t be able to tell when you got a little done or a lot, it’s still one big, lumpy pile of work. Consistency is always better. And the rest is editing.
What’s bad writing? It came up after I saw quite a lot of comments about the upcoming Ready Player One movie. I said at the time to a couple other Generation X geek friends that I was liking the book, but also that I felt it impossible to separate my assessment of its quality from the onslaught of nostalgia porn. Every reference didn’t resonate with good memories, but enough of them did that the rest just helped keep me in the time period. Which, as those who lived through it (specifically, the 1980s) can attest, was often a scary, chaotic whirl, musically, fashion-wise, and politically. I was at least half-sure we’d immolated in a fiery holocaust of hastily-lobbed ICBMs at any moment. My feeling didn’t change after I’d finished, either—I liked it, but was it good, or just pushing my vanished adolescent buttons?
And it’s very, very hard to define “bad writing” objectively, without using specific works upon which one has ground one’s axe in the definition. As a friend said, “maybe it’s like obscenity.” You just know it when you see it. It’s necessarily vague and subjective, because we like such different things about various mediums. Beyond the obvious, like grammar and typos/spelling, there’s a lot of room for style and being idiosyncratic. Analysis ranges widely. Some think abstract painting is abominable trash, others think it’s more essentially artistic than any other style.
Applied to our own work, sometimes we worry about people trashing it, dismissing it. If we’ve worked honestly, with a goal of being our most essential selves, I believe it’s our truest expression, and what we should strive for. If what you’re offering is different than most or all others, there’s an audience for it who likes the thing you’re doing and possibly you, as well. It’s just a matter of finding the right means of exposure, having persistence, and some luck after that. Or, sometimes if you’re doing a thing lots of others are, if you’re a different enough personality, you draw them by being who you are.
What do you get out of the artists, writers, and musicians you follow? How much is really cool evaluation of its worth and how much because you just like the way their things are made? Or, simply, the people doing it?
Just as we’re sometimes disappointed in our work, we often find ourselves disappointed in the artists we look to for inspiration, either in their own art or for the way they carry it and themselves forward through the world. They make something we don’t like, or even that we think is categorically bad. Or worse, act in an inappropriate or appalling way to other people. It can happen for anyone we admire or want to emulate, our heroes and idols, public servants and officials. It’s often called “becoming disillusioned.”
Disillusion’s counterpart is illusion, often a key component of art itself. Paintings and drawings have from the beginning embodied that quality, and film & video carry it even further. The cinema phenomenon, sitting in what is basically a glorified cave watching flickering images on a wall, is a well-advanced example of the persistence of vision—a high-order illusion.
Illusion is a suspension of belief, in a way. The metaphor could be extended to the magician’s art: fooling us with misdirection or quick manipulation, or an undisclosed set of preparations to change the objects we think we’re seeing whole and unaltered.
We give in to what we think we perceive, even though it might be something else, something mundane and imperfect, underneath. Disappointment in what we once were fascinated or impressed by is often the result of seeing that ordinary reality. We watch a behind-the-scenes video of a favorite film, or of someone explaining how a magic trick is done, and it’s hard not to feel a little cheated by the revelations.
I’m not at all saying this is intrinsically bad. We love our illusions, but we also want basic levels of truth and justice and efficacy in the world. Living in a world of illusions is a temporary goal, and reality, as messy and boring as it can be, also contains untold wonders of experience and understanding. As we work to increase equality and awareness of justice in our world, it’s perhaps only to the good to accept our disillusionment as part of that process.
Just came across ResistBot. It links you to your representatives in Congress, “no downloads or apps required.” In case it was in question from the general tone of this post, my goal is not to be neutral on this blog. For Americans (I’d rather be more accurate, but United-Statesians is awkward), at least, it’s a way to keep our politicians aware of our stances on issues like social justice, sexual harassment, environmental pillaging, net neutrality, and everything else.
It’s inevitable we’ll sometimes feel like our work is crap. We’ll have imposter syndrome. We’ll feel as if we can’t do this any more, or that there’s no point, or that it doesn’t matter because no one’s checking it out.
It’s true that it probably doesn’t matter in a grand way—to the universe, to the world, to the internet. But that isn’t the same as having literally no meaning. It has exactly as much as we assign to it, no less. Others’ assessment of its worth (or meaning) can help support our continuing the work, sure, but it can’t generate the need in the first place. And given a need that was there before anything went out into the world, it follows that nothing more is necessary but to decide for ourselves.
And if the work is worth doing, in light of the need, the only way to have a chance at getting better at it is to keep doing it. That’s really the bedrock of practice. If nothing else, you’ll have something(s) getting better and better over time, the craft of the art experience. If we can focus on 1) satisfying the need by 2) doing the work and it’s 3) good to get better, we better 4) keep making it.
They sat at the small table in the corner by the window and sipped their drinks in tandem. She looked out the window and watched the passersby flood across their view, lost in their own frustrations and pressures. It was the first day after she’d finished reading the novel she’d started three years before. She thought it would feel like a triumph, but she just felt drained, as if she’d been at work all day. She shook her head and smiled.
He said, “What? Something funny?”
“Kind of,” she said. She sipped again, still looking ahead. “I just had an idea how I’d feel today, and it’s not what happened.”
He chuckled. “That’s me every day. Maybe better not to anticipate feelings.”
“I guess,” she said. “It’s just, some thoughts are automatic, you know? And for sure some feelings are. It’s just what happens. I think what’s important is not to put any judgment on what we think, just let it happen. Let it be.”
“Speaking words of wisdom?” he said.
She narrowed her eyes at him. “Nice, old man.”
“Old bands are always better.”
“That’s what the DJs want you to think. Nothing new under the sun, right? But—it’s better to make mistakes, to try things out. To believe you can find the new thing, or the different experience. Maybe that’s how we can move forward.”
“Like, your routine is you being stale? Moving back in on yourself instead of, you know, on?”
“Exactly. We get comfortable with the way things are, and that’s true of the way we think, too. We get stuck trying to be right all the time and defend our opinions like they’re scientific truth. We’re scared of getting something wrong. But really, we should be, I dunno, trying to be wrong, more. We get more chances to discover things that way.”
He considered this. “Interesting theory.”
“Could well be completely incorrect,” she said.
We, or rather, we in the “first world,” have a tendency to hold on to music from our adolescence or youth as we get older. The albums and songs we played over and over in our bedrooms, or heard a hundred times on the radio or music video channel, reach a gilded status when we’re long past that youth. We rediscover the music of that long past time, or it never really left our stereos, when we’re somewhere along the steeply sloping path to our (pathetically-titled) middle age.
I’m not sure why this is the case for so many. Maybe we’re trying to recapture a feeling of promise or potential before adulthood crashed into us. We might just want to experience a little of the energy or excitement of that oncoming juggernaut. Either way, or even given some completely different motivation, the strange, exploratory music being made now is very often ignored, brushed aside, or dismissed.
There’s no doubt in my mind we could extract new insight or meaning from the old stuff, the songs that filled us with emotion when we were younger. But there’s immense power and possibility in things being created now, out of the fabric of the reality which just passed. Giving it a chance might just be the wound-up spring pressed into our being, ready to uncoil into our next creations.
“Yes, I know that, but what does it do?”
“Doesn’t do anything, really. It’s just there.”
“So it’s useless?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that. It’s a deep expression of an internal impulse so strong it’s made manifest, interpreted in physical form.”
“Well, what’s the point of that?”
“It makes its own point. It births its own value in all our minds.”
“My appraisal is rather a low value for things that don’t have a practical function.”
“The beauty of the phenomenon is that everyone can give their own appraisal. It’s certainly true they have systems for generating income based around things like popularity, skill, and how long the one who made it has been making them, but that’s really a secondary attachment. What matters is that someone made it, out of that hidden drive, perhaps spending hours or days or years, and let it be seen by others.”
“I suppose I don’t understand. It all sounds very vague.”
“And so it is. Nothing is certain, in fact, the greatest financial gain most often comes after whoever made the things is dead.”
“Hm. So why bother at all if there’s no guarantee?”
“Whatever the reasons for that, and they say different things at different times, mind you, they’ve been doing it for thousands of years. There’s something inside them that not only fires the engine of creation, it sparks a flame in others. It’s both born of and a generator of that internal fire. If it does anything, that’s the thing. They consider it vital—even if they don’t always acknowledge its importance to their existence.”
Our friends are a boon to existence. They celebrate our triumphs and sympathize with our sorrows. We consider them a vital part of our lives, akin or sometimes superior to family members. We rely on them for news, shows we’re sure to like, albums we’ve GOT to hear, like, NOW.
They also get in the way of creation. They pressure us to do other things. They can discourage essential risks and be selectively available when we feel we need them.
This is all to say (and it looks harsh to me, reading it back) no one is all or nothing. There are always equations, and the math is intuitive, not coldly calculable. People are complicated, ourselves included. The work we want to do, the making that compels, is the thing always under our control. We need other people, but I think that need can overwhelm our resolve to do the work.
This comes back to habit. If we—I—can establish a sense of the daily habit I just do, regardless of what anyone else thinks or wants, I’m doing the work. It serves me now, it structures the future. It still gives me opportunity with and for my friends, and vice versa.
One of the things we find easy about the past is that—for ourselves, at least—it’s pretty much known. The future isn’t set, not in any serious way. There are probabilities and likelihoods the closer we are to it, but remarkably soon any certainty fades away. This is scary.
The past, on the other hand, can be traumatic, or sad, or disturbing, but it isn’t surprising. There’s a comfort in that, and it makes some of us want to keep indulging in it, reveling—or wallowing—in memory, and it keeps us from moving forward.
But the future is nothing if not endless possibility. These are times of great chaos, anxiety, and, yep, uncertainty. When we shrink from the work, overindulge in nostalgia for the past, or reject what-is-yet-to-be-determined, we toss aside the possibilities that hope and our practice are creating in front of us. It probably seems wishy-washy. It might even seem mystical. But there is freedom in abandon and that’s quite real. There are always new chances in the future we can’t know, so long as we’re alive.