Overcoming Discouragement in Creativity
2018 was a fun year for me. Lots of ups and lots of downs. I’ve never been so proud of my art and I’ve also never been so discouraged by my art as I was in 2018. But I decided to share some things I realized while riding all these ups and downs. This is the first in a series of posts about recognizing common artistic and creative stumbling blocks and then knowing how to overcome them so that creativity can always remain a source of joy.
Drawing from my personal experience, as well as what others seem to experience, I’ve identified some stages that we all go through when trying to learn a new skill. First, you decide you really want to try some new creative endeavor, painting for example, so you pick up some simple supplies and with pretty much no expectation of how it might turn out, you try this new thing. It is basically guaranteed that you will be very pleasantly surprised by whatever you create because after all, you had no idea that you were even capable of painting (or drawing, or woodworking, or sewing, etc.) at all so you are very pleased and your expectations are far exceeded. You just created something out of nothing all by yourself! This high of being impressed by yourself and what you’re capable of lasts for a little while until you start to become more familiar with whatever it is you’re working on. Your ability to see that there are mistakes, that things are a bit sloppy, that other people’s work looks better (comparison is a whole separate issue), etc. starts to grow and you suddenly realize that you, and others, are capable of much more excellence than you are currently producing. At this point you have realized that you are not as good as you’d like to be, and reality sets in that you will have to put in lots and lots of hours of practice, learning, and inevitable failures before you will be as good as you now realize you could or should be. To complicate things further, you are not even quite clear on exactly how you will go about improving during all those hours and even though you are continuing to make things, your progress in whatever art you’re pursuing is becoming much more stagnant than you experienced at the start.
This is the point at which most people quit.
“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.”
When I read this quote from Ira Glass it was a total game changer for me. I finally realized why I was so discontented (and still often am) with the art I’m able to create. But he offers the formula for overcoming that - just create a lot of work. Everyday, all the time, be creating. Even if that work is not that great, keep on creating, keep on giving it your best. And when you do, you’re bound to create some real gems, pieces of work you’ve created that you’re so proud of. The thing is though, less impressive work will always find its way back in. Exploring new ideas and techniques, pushing through slumps, it’s all part of the journey. But the most important thing is that if you are creating consistently, the trend of your ability is guaranteed to be upward, despite all the ups and downs. Sounds pretty simple, but when it comes to implementing this day to day, really consistently, the real kicker is that it’s not easy! Most of the time it’s not going to be very fun. But if you can have this forward vision, perspective, and grittiness, knowing that if you keep trying you are guaranteed to get better, then that’s what will set you apart. That’s what will get you to where you want to go.
And while I know this applies to creative pursuits (because I’ve definitely experienced it first hand), I’m pretty sure it applies to a whole lot of other areas in our lives. We just have to keep trying, keep pushing, keep acting, doing, creating, etc. and suddenly one day we will realize that even our worst days are way beyond what we could have imagined our best would be when we first began.