We creative types are very good at finding fault in our own work, which really isn’t much of an accomplishment, given the perfection of human imperfection. Still, we revel in our ability to find fault:
“Look! My dream of a perfect painting fell short again.” (Sigh)
“My story is… so not as wonderful as I had hoped for.” (Sigh)
“My poems are so… [[pick one: predictable, passe, lackluster].” (Sigh)
So let me suggest something new, something truly inspiring. Today (there isn’t really a tomorrow, remember? Never will be. Is that sinking in yet?), before you go to bed, look at something you’ve made without finding fault. It takes a certain kind of courage to do that, to say “This poem or song or story or quilt I made is good” (and then not add, “I know it could be better but”).
I can help with this:
Find a place where you will not be disturbed.
Put on some headphones.
Play a George Winston song, or if you don’t like piano music (what are you, an alien?) try something from Neil Young’s Harvest.
Put in a set of fresh eyes, the ones you keep on hand for looking at your best friend’s work, or that of your child or lover. You know, those friendly eyes that see with love.
Now look at a piece of your own work, knowing it is flawed but not caring…
…AND LOVE THAT WORK! LOVE IT the way you love your friend’s or child’s or lover’s, as if it is the only piece of art that will ever be created.
It takes a certain kind of courage to do this. If you can’t do it, you need more courage, because if you can’t love your own work, not even for a few minutes, all you will ever be is disappointed, first in yourself, then in others, then in the imperfect world you were born into and will die from.
Your back is against the wall, and that gun is pressed against your head. You have to make a choice – now!
Open Door #1 and you’ll enjoy the celebrity of success, the admiration of your peers, perhaps even wealth. The writing you did today – the outcome of your work – will definitely be recognized by others as “very good,” even though it practically killed you to get it there. Congratulations!
Open Door #2 and you’ll enjoy the satisfaction of doing, of drawing strength from purpose. The writing you did today – the outcome of your work – might only be seen as so-so in the eyes of others, but you still feel great about doing it, and you’re definitely coming back for more tomorrow. Congratulations!
Now let’s return to this choice when things are not going well, when the outcome of your work is – well, not good at all. No matter which door you choose today, the words you wrote will never be admired by others. It’s just one of those days – every writer has them – but that gun is pressed against your head again, and you have to choose – now!
Open Door #1 today and you’ll find deep disappointment, perhaps even self-loathing. After all, your words are no good, and your book will probably never be as good as Margaret Atwood’s, or John Grisham’s, or Milan Kundera’s. In fact, it’s obvious you aren’t a very good writer at all, which means you’re probably a rotten person too (heh, this isn’t me talking; outcome-focused writers are tough on themselves this way).
Now look what happens when you open Door #2. Surprise! Even when things are not going well, you’re able to draw strength from doing, from pursuing what you believe in. Your sense of worth does not depend on high-quality outcome; doing what you believe in is its own satisfaction.
A writer’s original sin – any creative person’s original sin – is placing outcome before process. Make that mistake and you set up a tortured path for yourself as a creative person.
See if you can answer the following two questions without peeking:
1. What kind of artist was Ansel Adams?
2. What kind of artist was D.H. Lawrence?
If you answered 1 – A photographer, and 2 – A novelist, you are right.
But you are also wrong.
Ansel Adams was on his way to becoming a concert pianist when he picked up a camera and started taking pictures. D.H. Lawrence was also a talented painter. Many of his works, which were often created with whatever materials Lawrence could find or afford, are still on display at the University of New Mexico.
Neither of these great artists let “brand” restrict him. Why would you?
Eyes closed, then screen dialed to black (yes, you can do that and still write) to turn my mistake monitor off. A strange feeling, this blackness, and at first it is hard to write without seeing words.
But it feels good to pay attention to something other than words, to breathe deep, to let my head rise and fall, to really feel what I am doing, to hear the world around me, that truck that just passed in the street, the almost Niagara-like sound of my computer’s roar, steady and strong, never concerned at all about what I am trying to do.
But then I hit that same dead stop I hit when the lights are on,
the most feared moment in the creative process,
because any rest introduces the possibility of running out of words, followed by the almost unbearable pain of having to figure out a way to start again.
I can touch the darkness now, and I can’t believe this, but I see a stalking lion, or maybe I’m just seeing what Jung wants me to see. Sometimes I wonder if the only archetype is imagination, but I was writing about rest and magic, rest and magic…
…and I want my eyes, my head, my neck muscles, my mind, spirit, fingers and heart to take me someplace else, anyplace else, someplace where flight is possible, where touching stars with burning hands and frozen fingers is real, where my mouth can kiss lightning and hold fire in its teeth, where day-to-day drudgeries and weight fall off in a world unrestricted by the gnashing constraints of life.
And for a moment I feel like I really can fly, and I really am free, until I start thinking about painting my Hook Man paintings, and my sister asking me
“Why do you feel so restrained?”
And that lets in the fight between wanting to be carefree and needing to be responsible, between moving somewhere I can dress in shabby clothes when I want to and shave only when I have to, and staying in The Comfortable States of America, where I can keep my reputation as a bad boy without having to be.
And now I let language and emotion lead, peeking at my fingers through half-closed eyes, watching them fly.
Until I feel how restrictive my keyboard is, how unlike my piano’s keys, how little room there is for dance. Once upon a time while playing my Fender Rhodes, the one I later sold to Bob Rhodes, I actually rearranged the parallel rows of black and white into sweeping fans stacked on top of each other.
Here’s a good Forbes article about why we have a hard time being creative, on the job, and personally. But in the end being creative, like everything else, is a choice we make. Decide it’s important to be creative and all these obstacles fall away. Decide you need a really good reason for not being creative and you achieve that goal with ease.