‘If the artist life is anything, it’s fucking tedious. Can I just fast forward to the part where I only need to make like five pieces a year and I’m surrounded by supple young male interns and living in Stockholm or something?’ — from artist Alaina Varrone’s Facebook
There is darkness to living out a dream. It makes for a life clouded by doubt and self-analysis that results in paralysis. Creative stasis, if that’s a real thing.
There is excitement and thrill as well but then there is also the work of it. Those hours it takes to create what the dream-life is based on. A musician can’t just write one song and be done. A comedian can’t tell one joke and call it a life. A musician creates an album, a concert – the comedian has a set. Writes a new hour. A novel is more than a few words, a dash of lines. There is work to be done to build that life you want.
Working with writers I see a lot of beginners talk about scenes and the story and maybe they’ve written down a few notes and heck, they’ve probably written a first draft that they worked on for months. But that first draft isn’t done. It’s the sketch before the painting. It’s the tuning of the strings before the show. There is still more work to be done, and they hate being told that.
Alaina’s comment hit me because it’s true – there is tedium to the creative life. You wrote a novel? Great. Now re-write it and then write another and re-write that one until you have a body of work to build a career on. I remember being in bands and the excitement of writing the first song, the second, the third. You want to play a show at a bar or anywhere but you only have three songs. The first were born of enthusiasm and the rest will come with work and doing the same thing over and over.
It’d be interesting to know how much time an artist spends working. For every word a novelist writes, how many of them are in the book? How many drawings are in the garbage before the final poster or painting is on the wall? What percentage of the time spent working actually goes into a final product?
When I get home from work I usually water the plants and clean the house up a bit before sitting down to draw or write. Some nights I’ll have no ideas that grabs me, so I’ll just start something to not waste a night watching television.
Below is a sketch I did on one of those nights — I wanted to draw but had nothing I was eager to make, so I found a photo in a magazine to use as reference and kept working on it until it was time for bed.
This drawing is sloppy and the perspective is way off. It’s not a drawing I’m proud of and I’m a little embarrassed to show it off, but it’s an honest and raw example of my personal tedium with the creative process.
In order to get better I have to first work through the process of sucking. Failure after failure until hopefully something is made that is above average. This one drawing is only one of hundreds that I’ve done, and that hundred is a fraction of what needs to be created to be any good, and then once that happens, I need to consistently make great work and a lot of it.
Alaina’s tedium is different than mine. She’s at the level of making professional work that is both interesting and compelling. The embroideries that she puts out take hours, days — weeks. It’s her taste as an artist, as a creator, that makes her work unique and gives it depth. It’s inside of her and she honed the skills to make it a reality. That personal taste was there most likely since the day she was born. Continual hard work and dedication to her craft made her the artist she is.
Now, the dedication to honing a craft is both good and bad. For me, it’s good that I keep trying, but for every hour I spend working on sketches of stories and drawings is an hour I spend away from friends and family. My wife misses me most nights. I turn down nights out to stay in doors and I don’t have the quality final product to show for any of it. What happens if I keep working and don’t get any better? What happens if I move on? Give up?
There’s an Ira Glass (This American Life) quite floating around that sums up the struggle of anyone attempting to do creative work —
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not.
But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work.
Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.” – Ira Glass
When looking at the artists, illustrators, writers, whomever — that I admire, what connects them is their dedication. Their willingness and need to do the work that they do.
Call it a fight or tedious, or a tedious fight, but it is also a decision. Decide to be better. Decide to grow and learn. Decide to make yourself the best you can be, at anything. Decide to create great things.