The end of any journey comes with mixed feelings. Ask Joseph Campbell. It also comes with new knowledge. We’ve learned things about our companions we never knew, maybe good things, maybe not, but more. If we’re lucky, we know ourselves better.
Mentally, we’re abuzz with information and ideas and experience to process. Emotionally and physically, we’re drained. This internal tussle can leave us befuddled and even quiet. We reflect. We look at our familiar things with new eyes.
Apply these things to the artist’s journey, making a new piece. I’m kinda too tired to do it.
There’s a moment in any journey where you wonder if it was a good idea. You try to decide if the fun moments you’ve had outweigh the irritation of the discomfort from enclosed spaces, too much unbroken time spent with particular humans, terrible food choices. Time slows to a dreamlike quagmire, then speeds up to a whirlwind.
In Las Vegas, things blur together. Building interiors, eye-searing video boards, the ubiquitous hum of refrigeration, strip malls with outrageously kerned signage, infinite blacktop. Lights. Purposeless walking. Pink lava rock gravel spilling out of every housing development’s landscaping.
But this is just the center of the excursion. There’s miles to press on to, more things that will occur, more decisions you have to make about what you’re doing and who you’re doing it with. And then home, with your own food and habits and bed and cat.
There’s a longtime meme circulating in the business world, to the effect that one should fail fast, because we grow and learn more from failure than from success. At least, from early failure, or in many cases, testing raw ideas and methods. In creative circles, this has been labeled “fail faster.” It means we shouldn’t try to make things perfect up front, we should try out ideas and concepts to see what will best fit. The quicker we weed through our early failures, the more likely it is we’ll find the best elements of the thing we’re working on and succeed with the final version.
If the idea seems at first counterintuitive, there’s some other research suggesting why. Researchers published a paper last December that links social anxiety with a preoccupation of making mistakes. If further research holds this up, we have insight into the fear. Some of us don’t want to interact with each other because we’re afraid we’ll do or say the wrong thing.
But in art, there isn’t much that’s “the wrong thing.” You need to be better at trying new things, different things, crazy things than you were the day before. It’s openness to experimentation that knocks work into a new realm, a higher level. Make mistakes. Make them faster.
And if you fail, so what? That thing needed failing. It means you’ve got a clearer path to the work that will, well, work.
We do get into grooves. Some might say ruts, if they’re feeling grumpy, or cruel. But while the advantage of a groove is feeling the flow or at least extra productive, the downside is feeling removed or shallow.
What might help is a trick that’s helped me in the past: change the tools you use for your creation. Different implements and even methods of making can kick you out of the same well-worn track.
Switch it up. Play guitar left-handed for a day if you’re a righty. Use a pencil and notepad if you usually write on a laptop. If you paint, do what an insightful professor made me do when he saw I was being way too careful and timid applying paint and brushstrokes: paint an entire portrait using only a 2-inch brush.
New ways of physical making can spark new insights and ideas. Stay out of the ruts.
Reflecting on possibilities is an essential part of being human. Imagining leads to art of all kinds. It’s not just the impulse to make something new, it’s what guides that impulse and allows us some kind of starting condition. Art from a void is really hard.
I’ve always liked this moment from Star Trek: The Next Generation’s finale, when Q, the (allegedly) nigh-omniscient/nigh-omnipotent being, shares an almost tender moment with Picard. His curiosity about humanity has, at this point, been joined by a kind of admiration. But it’s the glimpse into another, larger universe that’s the most fascinating thing to me. In a series with a hundred instances of imagination writ large, here is one that could transcend the show and say something about what we might potentially find. And be.
About the Author
Marcus is a maker of things and thoughts. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.