I’m writing this on May 29th, which marks exactly one month since Forefront 2017. If you weren’t able to make it, Forefront 2017 was the festival and conference where we combined workshops and learning with some of the most amazing art and performances I have ever experienced. I walked away feeling more full and inspired than I could have hoped for, and I know many of you who came were blown away by the whole thing. But, I had this nagging feeling: how could I ever make art as good as that? Is it even possible? I think the answer is yes, and I want to share a few thoughts on why.
Before we get into it, I want to make one thing clear. My main point here is that we can pursue excellence from any point in the “quality of art” spectrum. If you are working and improving, even if you are dissatisfied with the current quality of your work, your efforts are worthwhile. I don’t want this to come across as a “I used to work a desk job but now I am going to live in a hammock and paint landscapes.” That has a certain appeal, don’t get me wrong! But for now I’m more concerned with the craft of improving what I do create than with how much of your life should be about art (but yes, more of your life should be about art).
“If you are working and improving, even if you are dissatisfied with the current quality of your work, your efforts are worthwhile.”
Going way back to when I was in high school, there was something I read in Make Magazine that stuck with me. There was an article about programming or some other technically demanding creative process, and the author posed the same question I’m looking at here: how can a novice or an amateur deal with the gap between their own work and the work of someone who has mastered that subject? The answer is that you’re not being realistic in your comparison. Instead of comparing yourself to someone who has been drawing for 10 years, try looking at some of their earlier pieces. See how they have progressed over time. With art, you can be absolutely sure of (maybe only) one thing: you can get better, and if you work at it, you will improve. Everyone started out worse than they currently are. The seemingly never-ending interest in publishing J.R.R. Tolkien’s early work is a great example of this. Some of it is pretty mediocre, but he kept at it and eventually he was able to produce some profoundly compelling writing. For me, that has been an effective way to keep myself from getting discouraged when comparing what I can make now to the work of someone more advanced. Look at where they started, consider what improvements they made over the course of their career, and apply that filter of realism to your own journey towards excellent art. You can also learn from how they improved, so that’s an added benefit.
Ok, so we don’t have to give up even if our art isn’t great, but ‘make it better’ only gets us so far. What can we do to improve our work? Here I have to get a little specific to writing, since that’s what I know best, but hopefully it will apply more broadly and you can take it back to your own art. There are two parts. The first is to be careful of what you consume, and the second is to embrace the drafting process. Put differently, you must evaluate what you allow in, and you must also evaluate what you allow out. Taking care to consume quality, edifying art is especially powerful. It will contribute to your own work getting better, but it will also improve your life. There is an overabundance of noise and impurity in the world, and letting that into your life can have all kinds of negative impacts. To take a ten second philosophical detour, consumerism and Western culture is in many ways the transformation of idolatry into a lifestyle and economic model. It is easy to allow crap into our lives, particularly in the form of the art/media/entertainment we consume. Fight it in any way you can. You will have more spare time, which is incredibly valuable, and you will get a lot more out of what you do watch/read/listen to. It’s not easy to kick our habit of casual consumption, but the benefits are clear.
“You must evaluate what you allow in, and you must also evaluate what you allow out.”
Next: drafting. It’s a cool word that evokes images of sketching and architectural drawings, but it’s a sore spot for a lot of us. Why? Drafting (revising/editing) school essays probably left a bitter taste in your mouth. It’s normal to want to move on once you finish something, so going back over it carefully can be a drag. But don’t let that deter you! The process of reviewing and editing your own work is crucial to improving your output. I was turned on to the power of revision after reading William Zinsser’s book On Writing Well. Not only do you fix problems and refine your piece with each new draft/run through, but you also come to better learn your own tendencies. You will leave that particular piece in much better shape, but you’ll also be improving all your future work at the same time. Some people get really excited by the idea of compound interest on their savings accounts; think of this as compound improvements. Everything you get better at will be reflected in all your future work.
This does beg the question though: what makes revising different than just sitting down and writing another article or blog post, and trying to make that better? The effort required for revision work is so much lower. Drafting is fantastic because you end up with higher quality work, but you also hone your skills without all the mental and emotional cost of producing something entirely new from scratch. In fact, it can be a lot of fun to try revising other artists’ work. Depending on the precision of their style, you may find that even small changes can ruin a feeling or will really change how a scene feels. Regardless, it’s a powerful tool that is easy to overlook or avoid.
Like I said, this is quite directly tied to writing. It’s not easy to take a full size painting and edit it, unless of course you’re painting digitally. But, there are some analogies. Painters, for example, could definitely consider doing color studies, sketching (whether with paint or with other mediums), and even re-sketching a finished piece to try tweaking its elements and composition. Performance art accepts the revision process seamlessly. My limited ability with guitar does give me enough exposure to know that as you run through a riff, you’re writing — you naturally repeat it over and over, tweaking it each time. That’s exactly what you’re looking for! Dance of course is similar, and theater too, but mostly when rehearsing alone, since you have the opportunity to run through each section at will.
This advice might all seem straightforward: make fair comparisons between yourself and the pros, consume good art and embrace the draft process. It is simple — but it’s not easy. Often, we mistakenly tell ourselves we’re rejecting advice because it’s too simple, when really we’re rejecting it because it’s hard. It’s hard to make fair comparisons. We are a comparing people, and we also tend to focus on the extremes, so it’s no surprise that we measure ourselves against those who excel. It’s hard to consistently seek out and consume quality art. Just think about how long we spend on Netflix, “looking for something good to watch.” Finally, it’s hard to force ourselves to iterate our work when we really just want to be done with it. I am certainly guilty of the “save it and submit it” approach to my work. I can blame the busy and stressful college ecosystem a little bit for that, but the truth is that it’s often just a lazy habit.
Sometimes, the most important steps aren’t complicated, they’re just tough. Wherever you’re at right now, take that next step toward excellence, and know that it’s a step worth taking.
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