It took me a long time to start—and then to finish—Battling Boy, the first in a series by Paul Pope, of comics fame and renown. I don’t think the expected continuation of the series has happened, at least not yet. Other books in the series are prequels. This first volume ends pretty abruptly.
But Paul has always been adept at crafting future worlds very unlike the tropes of shiny, glowing science fiction films and TV shows. His are gritty, chunky, dark, and diverse visions, and I find them endlessly inspiring and fun. He always seemed assured and able, where I felt the very opposite of those things.
Paul was among the few creators, including my cousin and me, who did a co-signing event back in the early 90s. It was my first one, ever, at Comix Experience in San Francisco. Paul brought the first THB, a massive 104-page issue, and seemed to me both then and now to be something of a rock star. A rock star wielding a brush as his instrument.
But for someone so clearly destined for worthy praise and continued success in the field, he was always kind and encouraging to me and my work. Technically, he was a peer, though I looked up to him and his confident process for being miles ahead of me and my stuff.
It still seems appropriate, the rock star mantel, as he’s grown in skill and popularity over the years. His stories and art are wonderful and strange, drawing all his influences through his brain and onto the page. I loved entering this world, and I’ll be there if and when he continues the story.
‘Ey, clever, huh? What I mean by the title is that we all have crises of confidence, and they aren’t limited or even able to be headed off. But your value and contribution aren’t limited to what the rest of the world notices. It seems like the human condition to doubt. I’ve written about confidence and your work before, more than once, and I think it’s interesting how this blog is becoming a little less dogmatic over time.
It’s my hope to be wise, but beyond that to be a sympathetic and understanding teacher of—well, something. We tend to listen to the voice of success, that is, the voices of the famous and those who sell a lot of work. But everyone who’s been doing their work for a long time has valuable and insightful things to say about how to do it and why you should.
I think it’s a common human good to make art and put it into the world. I think it expresses and enhances our collective humanity and enriches and informs your own life.
What you’re doing, whatever form of art it is, has value, and I hope you find ways to keep doing it.
I read this ranging interview with artist Ai Weiwei and smiled a lot. He’s really just concerned with doing his next thing, not how standing in the art world, or celebrity, or much beyond tweaking some foibles and defying expectations. Worth a read, fellow would-be dissidents.
I think it used to be fear. It still is a huge problem, but most of us face distraction to a degree never seen before.
Like calling yourself a writer because you write, if you make stuff, you’re a creator, or an artist. That’s it! No one can tell you when you’re allowed to be one, and by opposite turn, no one will stop you from not making. Indulge in distraction too long and it’s procrastination, then blockage, and finally you aren’t a creator any more.
It isn’t always easy, but it is a simple path. The most basic identity comes from what we do, and thus what we are.
There’s another approach to a daily work habit, and I thought of Yoda again—as any decent Gen X geek does—but specifically of putting a twist on a popular worn-out phrase:
Do, or do not. There is no try.
Which is kind of bullshit. Of course you have to try. Doing is a process and an observation, post-completion of a task. Once you finish a thing, you can say, “I’ve done that.” It’s logically impossible before you start. All too often, that phrase above is implemented as a substitute for any number of lazy coaching slogans, Vince Lombardi style: “everybody’s got to give 110%!” These logical impossibilities are supposed to manufacture confidence and assuage doubt. Yoda was doing this to Luke, who was too headstrong and impetuous to hear something more subtle.
But I think confidence is overrated, up front. Tricking yourself into it might be okay sometimes, say, when you’re going into a firefight (or even an actual fire). But for making art, it’ll come later. At first, all you need is to trust your own discipline. If you can get yourself to start, and then do that again tomorrow, and then again and again, day-after-day, you’re doing it. And doing is being: you’re the title you seek, artist/musician/writer/actor/dancer. Doubt is irrelevant, which is good, because there’s usually going to be a lot of it while you get started. This is normal. The work is what’s important, getting it going is the main goal. Then finishing. You should finish things.
So, the twist? I think I’d rather say, stepping in for a much wiser and shorter and older person, “there is only try. And the same again tomorrow.”
Now that the olds among you have that eponymous hook stuck in your heads for the rest of the day, let me follow on from yesterday a little bit.
I said in yesterday’s post that the creative things we make are only shadows of the ideas in our heads. It’s been said by artists of all types—and often—that they only get maybe 10% of their original vision into the final thing. Whatever the number, that’s what I was thinking about, but to me it seems needlessly obfuscatory the way I phrased it all.
It just makes no sense to despair over this. Everyone has the same experience. Imagination is strong, but the flesh is weak. But if we all have the same limits, we’re all still at square one unless, of course, you don’t make the things.
Yoda. The little crotchety green bastard was insightful and perceptive, and I thought he was right about a lot of things, if I didn’t buy completely into his mysticism. That was in the old times, before things got weird.
There are chunks of applicable teachings from him, among them the idea that you shouldn’t be taught his ways if you aren’t fully present.
All his life has he looked away . . . to the future. Never his mind on where. He. Was. Hm? What. He. Was doing.
You can be—and often are—your own worst enemy. Anger, fear, and aggression are the dark side, beware.
You must unlearn what you have learned.
. . . which is different than not learning things. It’s similar in art to saying you have to know the rules in order to break them.
I’m not down with all Yoda says. I don’t believe in The Force, or that it’s believing hard enough that creates success. But if you make some of these saying allegorical, there’s the idea that you can defeat yourself before you begin by focusing on your potential to fail. And, of course, that appearances are often deceiving.
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 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.
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.