I think the hardest (and most important) task of being creative is sending your work into the world to be judged. It’s relatively easy to dream up ideas, outline them, and even work on them. That’s the part of a project that creative artists enjoy – the process of engaging with your tools (books, brushes, instruments, cameras) and seeing where it all leads you. The hard part is finishing and sending off your book/ painting/ album for people to either praise, criticize, or ignore.
So what usually happens when artists (or writers, etc.) near their deadline? The uncertainty about how their work will be received might make them:
-Panic and make changes and revisions that don’t improve the piece.
-Overthink things, which can lead to over-explaining something or over-emphasizing a certain aspect that doesn’t need to be.
-Suddenly doubt the core premise of the work and start cutting and erasing until the entire piece is gutted and ruined.
For me, ‘finishing something and then shipping it’ seemed like an easy concept to grasp, but was very difficult to execute. I had been working on my book Lessons for Creative People on and off for about a year. And the creative part – going to the library, researching for hours, and coming home to write – was actually enjoyable.
But creative panic had struck two weeks before the book’s deadline, which made me:
-Do some rewriting that turned out, the next morning, to be bad writing.
-Try to make my points clearer when they were already well stated.
-Question some of the ideas that I liked only a few weeks prior.
-Wonder if I should add in a section that I had taken out months ago (and for good reasons).
The above were not reactions of last-minute genius or sudden inspiration – they were reactions of panic. And it was all in my head. The material was just fine.
Luckily, my editor pointed out that I was doing a ton of thrashing, kicking and screaming, but not a lot of improving. She mentioned that if I were granted another two years to revise the manuscript, I would still feel like more changes could be made. Eventually, she said, you just have to ‘let your baby go’. Without her reassurance, I don’t think I would have had the courage to finish the book.
And I’m glad I buckled down and got it done, because doing so taught me three things that will make me better at doing creative work:
1. Artists are paid to create, not daydream
We are paid to hammer out our ideas to the best of our ability and then share it. We like to glamourize artists as being dreamers. But real dreamers are usually wrapped up in their own fancies – they don’t practice their craft enough or sacrifice enough to be heard. Instead they fritter their lives away in fruitless reflection. Real artists are doers – they’re paid for the pieces they build and then ship, not for the promising ideas lodged in their heads.
I watched an interview a few weeks ago of rapper Lloyd Banks. The show’s host asked, “Is it true that [rapper] Eminem never leaves his house, that he just sits there, in Detroit, looking at the walls?”
“Well, every time I see him he’s in the studio,” Banks explained. “He works a lot.”
Eminem might seem like a dreamer on the outside, but he’s a doer. He takes his daydreams and ideas and creates art.
2. Finish what You start
Do you watch hockey? Did you see the Toronto Maple Leafs collapse at the end of the season? The Buds were playing well for most of the year, and then went into sudden free fall. Leaf fans booed at home games and even chanted for the Blue Jays.
But no matter how bad the stench of failure and disappointment stunk up the dressing room, no matter how much the Toronto Media exacerbated the breakdown, the players continued to show up. They were resilient. To athletes, failing is not an indication to pack up and go on vacation – it’s a challenge to show up tomorrow ready to work harder.
We can learn from enduring athletes: whatever project we start, we must carry through all the way to the end (even if it turns out to be a disaster).
3. Art is a bird, not a kite
In other words, art is meant to be let go, not held on to. A lot of artists are perfectionists – they love to tweak and twiddle until their work is flawless. But taken to an extreme, perfectionism can become self-indulging – we do it to satisfy our egos, not to bring value to people.
Art exists to bring value to people. Artists make things for an audience. But when we hoard a project to ourselves so that we buy more time to make it perfect, we’re not being artists – we’re just protecting ourselves from being exposed and criticised.
The world wants to see what you have been working on, so share it and let and it fly – it’s probably ready. Then start the next project.
“Art is never finished, only abandoned.”
– Leonard da Vinci