I wonder sometimes what metaphors will fall out of use in the future. Most probably will, many have come and gone in the past. We’re (we in the West) reducing reliance on fossil fuels, and by consequence, the internal combustion engine, in general. Or vice versa, depending on how you view the push-pull of problem and solution. Time to really solve the big issues can seem short, indeed, at least to my sense of existential gloom.
“Gas” as a concept will likely go the way of the mammoth, and what then of phrases like, “man, I’m out of gas,” to mean, “I’ve run out of energy.”
That one struck me as I thought about the notion that we can feel burned out creatively. That we have no fuel, sometimes. Ideas are scarce or seem boring. Motivation to work something out is zilch. Time itself is leaking out at the seams when we need to get something made.
The difference is that we aren’t just machines. Not simple ones that operate on a no-fuel, no-run equation. There’s always something in reserve. If the gauge is truly empty, we cease to be, we are ex-parrots. But no, if you’re conscious, you can do something.
I like to keep reminding myself: something small is still something done, and many small things can add up to a big thing.
It’s sort of secret because it’s not talked about much. Artists who are just beginning to learn how to do what they want to do usually have periods of elation and frustration as they practice and discover. The funny—or scary?—thing is that experienced artists still have those phases when they try new directions.
Novelists, painters, musicians: if they’re beginning a new book, series, album, go through that push and pull of feelings, too, even though they might have done it many times.
The fear of the unknown isn’t just fear of failure. It’s primal. Creating truly new things than you’ve made before puts us into a weird and vulnerable state. That’s okay to feel, it’s normal. Just something to be aware of, that we all have those stages of growth. If we’re lucky—and willing to expose ourselves all over again.
Now and then, if you make art, you probably get to a point where you’re over the type of thing you’ve been making. Maybe you think you’ve said everything you could. Sometimes you’re bored—if it’s that, you probably should stick with that thing a bit longer.
Being bored, artistically, is the genesis of a thousand new possibilities. Boredom in general is a rare commodity these days, with endless distraction and tools available.
But hang on. Wait a while. Keep making. Then you may find you still have things to say with your current practice. If not, dream. Think. Wonder. Something will strike you, and offer the next compass point.
I realize that could come off like a platitude. I mean it, though! We contain myriad potential. There’s more in there. We can’t always get out of our own way quickly, but it’s in there to find.
There’s Value in Just Going to Bed When It’s Been Too Much
Today was full of ups and downs. While any random day could fit that same description, I mean it. Today was exhausting.
The day job was its own rollercoaster. After work, I needed to finish editing the show. Podcasts are fun, but the post-production takes time. In this case, I spent a good while carefully cutting levels where I was careless recording with the A/C blasting. Music and pop culture clips are a big part of the show, and there were quite a few this time.
I finally finished the edit, and then mistakenly closed the wrong window without saving it.
Losing hours of work due to a dumb mistake is disheartening, but the thought of doing it all over again was almost too much. It reminded me of when my cousin would run into something similar, occasionally. His solution was to shut everything down and just go to bed early.
There’s wisdom in that approach. It’s draining and stressful to work through a disaster. Sometimes you have no choice. But when you do, I say go to bed. Things look better in the morning. You’ll be rested. It will probably be easier to start. Maybe, just maybe, you can laugh at it all.
I keep thinking of ways to improve posts days (or more) after I publish them. They’re often incomplete. I feel this way about the art itself, of course. The images are always off in some way I can see to fix.
But there’s only so much time. You can’t just perfect a piece over and over. You have to finish things, or you’re stuck in the same place. You never get better at one thing, and you never fully move on to the next thing. It’s a limbo of perfectionism, a mania of improvement that leaves you and work static.
There are would-be perfectionist artists out there. Sometimes they produce the thing they’ve been perfecting in the studio, sometimes for years. Sometimes they’re beautiful.
Often, though, they’re stiff. There’s not as much life in them as less polished works. Life is movement, and it’s sometimes messy. But it’s got power and feeling. I think some of that can get drained away if you spend a lot of time making a thing as perfect as it can be.
And I’m not saying to go fast. I’m not advocating rushing anything into being. Life itself is slow, after all. Take some time to make the work. But perfection shouldn’t be the goal.
I spent some time trying to figure out why my Firefox extensions suddenly stopped working. I tried endless permutations of wi-fi, browser/computer restarts, until finally searching and finding I’m not alone. So now I wait for the fix.
Frustration is a common emotion in both internet work (and time-wasting) and art. The thing you’re working on doesn’t quite measure up to your vision. The idea doesn’t work as well in reality as it did in your head.
It is good to recognize that frustration is normal and we all feel it sometimes. It can be motivation to do something else, or work on the problem. But you do have to keep working on the thing, until it’s finally finished. Art bugs get worked out in process. Or not. At that finishing point, maybe the frustration is still there, but you can move on. Getting caught in endless frustration leads to nothing. Let it alone in the bug fix queue and keep moving.
You’re Not Too Old: Sheila Hicks, Strange and Intense Work at 84 Years
It’s easy to think you’ll be overlooked if you’re no longer young, the stars of the art world mostly fawned and obsessed over in their 20s. But cheer up, most of us will be overlooked! But if you’re thinking you might be past it, Sheila Hicks is 84. She’s a fiber artist making some of the best work of her life. Yes, she started younger. As Mayer Hawthorne said: You’ll never be as young as you are today. It really makes no difference. The sooner you start, the sooner we get your work.
Sheila’s is beautiful, gloriously saturated, and it makes me feel like I should let my eyes take a nap from experiencing so much visual joy.
We aren’t making art to be a star. That might be a nice bonus, and have fun if you get that. But it’s in human DNA to make art, and if you’re alive you’ve got some of that. Do it. Sheila will be.
I don’t like a lot of my individual things. I do tend to like my work in the aggregate, when I think of it or see it laid out together. But I’m my own worst critic. Sometimes I’m my only critic, because I’m the only one who’s seen the thing I made. This is normal, and you shouldn’t feel like you have to release everything up front.
But art never seen by any non-its-creator is incomplete. Art requires a second participant to be fully realized, to be whole. I think art is—in addition to being essentially human—a group activity when it’s “completed.” That is, once you’re done making a work, someone(s) else must experience it to finish it.
I know this is a bit convoluted. It seems like double talk. But as valuable as it can be to simply create on your own, your work is left unfinished until another person engages their senses with it.
It’s not pretty, this idea you should try to fail. Our culture in the U.S. in particular hammers the meme they everyone should desire materialistic success. It’s pervasive. We’re urged to be ambitious and driven, that modest desires aren’t enough, that hard work is the key to success. And so, get used to failing, embrace failing! You’ll find success quicker, goes the trope.
But I think that loses sight of what made us want to try at all. Failure isn’t fun.
I agree it’s important to try again, but not just because you weren’t successful. More so because it’s both not a big deal to fail, and because success comes in bits, almost never all at once, in blinding flashes of glory. The glory is piecemeal, the gilding takes years to apply, the lightning builds on itself until it seems like it’s always been intense.
Little victories are sometimes all you need. If you love creating, what matters is that you have enough ambition to continue. What matters is that you start again if you fall. The path is still where you spend all your time. Not the pedestal or the victory stage.