I’ve been frustrated with myself lately. I’ve been looking over my body of work, both writing and visual, and when I try to see it with someone else’s eyes — as if I were examining a stranger’s art, and not mine — it seems tremendous; I think, “This person is so talented and has such an interesting perspective.” But then, from my self-knowledge, it seems that every good thing I’ve ever made came from a burst of inspiration, whether that was a 20-minute figure drawing or a 1-month (or 1-semester) project. And meanwhile there are half-finished projects littered all over the place, things I had no interest in completing once that initial excitement was gone.
There is a saying, told sternly to novice artists, that you can’t only work when inspiration strikes, or you’ll never get anything done. I have always nodded solemnly, to show I am not one of those haphazard artists who will never accomplish anything, but I’ve had strong internal misgivings. I do tend to work only when inspiration strikes… and, as you know, I get a LOT done, but is it somehow not enough? When I make something, it is because, in that moment, I want to (and “moment” can mean a literal moment or a short span of time). It calls to me. But after that? I’m through with it. I don’t revise, I don’t seek publication, I don’t expand it; to me its purpose has already been served. This is great as far as making lots of art, but when it comes to getting things seen by a larger audience, it’s an obstacle.
Over Thanksgiving I was talking with my cousin, who co-founded a successful startup, and he spoke of his fascination with people: their motives, their choices, their work styles. He said (I’m paraphrasing of course), “I think of it as like cats and dogs. Cats are highly independent and original. Dogs work well in teams and what they do is scalable. When the cats are working on something, you always want a couple of dogs watching. Then, when the cats get bored — and they will get bored — the dogs can teach the other dogs, and then you have a product. Meanwhile the cats have moved onto something new.” In this sense (but not necessarily others), I am 100% a cat.
I wish I could see this as something other than a moral failing. I mean, I do; I feel fiercely that my way is completely valid, important, and powerful. And yet there are the internal voices: “You’re just lazy.” “You’re spoiled.” “You don’t want to work hard.” “Real artists care about craft.” “Real writers plug away for decades.” “It’s because you never went to art school.” “You’re just a dilettante.” “You have no discipline.” “As soon as things aren’t fun anymore, you just run away.” I decided months ago that I wasn’t going to truck with these kinds of fears, anymore, but here they are cropping up yet again in this moment of self-awareness, when I’m looking at my working style and realizing its scope and its limitations (as usual, we fight our demons again and again). Moral failing or not, what do I do? Am I shortchanging myself by not working differently? Is it true what they say — if I just forced myself to return to something I’m no longer interested in, would it get better? Or would it lose whatever was good about it in the first place, the way my longer sketches are sometimes overworked?
How do you train a cat?
Of course, you can’t train a cat. But your issue/problem isn’t training or being cat-like in your attentions and bursts of actions. It strikes me that the issue has more to do with what you are missing or what you think you are missing. Do you want more publication, bigger audiences, financial rewards based on your work? Most people in the world work at something – anything – so they can eat. That’s what they want, so they practice the discipline of doing something boring, dangerous, exciting, challenging, nonsensical, important, routine, unpredictable, satisfying, mind-numbing dull, overwhelmingly critical just so they can have food. What nourishment are you seeking?
Karen, that’s a profound question, and one I constantly ask myself (without yet having arrived at an answer). But you’re right that it makes more sense to dwell on this question than the others. Mmm. Thank you for your wisdom (always!).
Or to put it more concisely, the way I understand your advice is: I’ve been trying to ask how I can work differently, and you suggest that I first ask why I want to. (?)
Trying to work differently may be like trying to not be left-handed. Perhaps if you understood better what you are after, the way you work won’t matter.
I think the strongest way to work is the way that you know will suit you best. For me, it changes a bit depending on where I am, but my work flow/inspiration/creativity always comes at the same times, same circumstances. If you know yourself, you’re halfway there!
Thank you, Jessie! I’m realizing (because of Karen’s comment above) that while I’m getting more and more adept at knowing how I work, I’ve only just begun to ask myself what I want — which is a different question. I’ve been doing some side inquiries lately that I thought were going to help me answer that question but now that I think of it, those were just me trying to find someone to tell me what I should want, rather than me really truly asking myself. Hmmmmm.
From one cat to another, hey hey! Luckily though I was born July 29 1982, Year of the Dog. So it’s there to be called upon when necessary!
Lisa, once again, you are really awesome at saying what’s already in my brain.
I am also all cat, and have been struggling with this lately too. I just started a project that I think I am going to have to abandon for now, due to life stuff and the needs of my day job, but also due to just becoming disconnected with the project itself. I haven’t been meeting my word count goals, at all, because the second I make measurable goals, I get rebellious and avoidant. But I don’t know any other way to make significant progress, other than waiting for a new burst of inspiration, and hoping that the burst comes during a time when I can actually devote the time to following it through to its conclusion.
The question of why/what result do you want posed already in the comments has validity also. I know personally that I’d like to complete a novel one day and have it published. But I find that I just haven’t yet had both the time and attention span to do the work necessary to complete it. I’ve started three books now, but can’t seem to get beyond the first few chapters before I either lose interest, or something else in life happens and I get derailed/lose focus, and can’t seem to pick up the thread of the story again. I’ve also struggled with trying to force myself to commit to something, then realizing I’ve over-worked it until it becomes lifeless (my first book, actually).
I don’t have an answer for you, but I look forward to hearing your progress, and the other comments on this post!
Lisa, all I can think after reading/looking at that last drawing is that you should do a graphic novel. That is not what this piece is about at all, but it looked like a page from a book.
Your work and words are wonderful as they are — keep asking the tough questions and they will move your forward. This is a comic I love on questions that has helped to guide me a bit in my creative work: http://kiriakakis.net/comics/mused/a-day-at-the-park
First of all, those sketches are great, completely great and very well captured! Secondly we all go through those fears on and on 🙂 I think that the most important is creating process not effect as much. This is what I try to imply to my heart when I am not happy with my work :). I struggle a lot now with finding time to create and that crave completely eats me up. I am looking forward to painting so much!!! Much love to you dear Lisa!
I really enjoyed reading about the cats/dogs breakdown. I think I’ve spent much of my life looking at the dogs in a bewilderment that alternated between shame and delight and fear. I don’t think I’m always needing to be independent with things. I also think there’s a real difference between collaboration that is about following procedure and getting stuff done (which it sounds like is your cousin’s description of dogs, and which also sounds really boring to me, most of the time, if it’s not connected to some deeply held value and if it doesn’t have an end in sight) and collaborating creatively, which is maybe like cats meowing in harmony. I just had a really interesting conversation with Ron a few weeks ago about creative collaboration. It’s a thing I wish I had more of in my life. I think maybe for me in comes down to what my values are, and how the work I’m doing relates to those values. Sort of going off of what Karen said–when I’m being a cat, it’s because one of my values is taking the time to be present with my feelings and experiences, and the urgency to document and explore and express those things comes and goes in natural, unpredictable ways. When it nourishes me to be a cat, I’m a cat. I think when I can do it from a place of honoring my values, and remember that that’s why I’m doing it, then I am less likely to think that I’m doing it wrong, somehow.