Creative, Part 2
In Creative, Part 1, I talked about the progression from Listener to Artist, and how each phase of artistic development calls for unique qualities. For years, I made the mistake of evaluating my artistic endeavors with the same perfectionism I'd used as student, only to find that an entirely different skill set was required if I was ever going to make something new, something only I could make. Drive, ambition, and mental toughness are all wonderful, necessary attributes, but they can so easily lead to self-critique, perfectionism, and an orientation more toward performance than to creating. The priority becomes the result - the output - and the value of the process - the input - is lost. For me, creativity is a result of freedom and joy and belonging, not a means to them.
Yesterday, I forgot all of this and climbed back up into my tree. Remember the Tree of The Knowledge of Good and Evil? People have been camping out up in there since the beginning of time. It's the place where we go when we doubt ourselves, when we think we have to be good and we're afraid of being bad, when we forget that just being is enough. Theologians call it Original Sin; I call it Default Mode. Up in the tree, I ascribe value to all the wrong things, and I ask 2 questions: "Why am I doing this?" and "Is it worth it?"
I've been working on this project for the past year, and in the beginning it was like running downhill. I felt inspired and confident and free. I honestly didn't mind if my little songs ever found an audience. I was just happy to have them. They are an authentic, spontaneous result of who I am, and I am proud of them. I didn't ask why I was doing it, I just did it. But with limited time and resources, I sometimes have to reconcile the discrepancies between the vision in my head and the reality. I'm writing everything, I'm playing and singing all the parts. I'm piecing it together. These days the downhill run feels more like a steep pull. After a year of effort and about 20 minutes worth of recorded material, I start to wonder if it's any good. Why am I doing this again?
Here's the trouble. My focus, once again, is on the output. The product. I'm looking at the result, the number of minutes and megabytes worth of material I've created, and I decide it isn't enough. I should have more to show for all of that effort. Instead of placing value on the process, of focusing on the input, I'm looking at the result and finding it wanting. Of course! No wonder I'm right up in my tree. Once again, I'm looking outside of myself for validation, confusing means with results.
So why is the process valuable? What does it mean to focus on the input?
My husband is a lifelong believer in the value of the creative process. He has been writing in his spiral bound notebooks since Junior High, telling stories and creating worlds whenever and wherever he can. When our daughter was first born, he wrote a 120,000 word novel by hand while doing a nightly paper route and managing a coffee stand by day. Over the past 6 years, 15 minutes at a time, he has written 3 novels, some short stories, and reams of poetry. He believes to his soul that creativity is important for its own sake, that artistic value is intrinsic to the creation. He tells me all the things I already know, but that I forget in the daily implementation. That necessity is the mother of invention. That he thinks it's bitchin that I'm piecing it together and doing everything myself. That if I didn't do it that way it wouldn't sound like me. That these songs are my babies, they carry my DNA, and they're all me. That this is what makes them valuable and important - the objective quality of the output has no bearing here. He thinks I'm valuable, therefore he thinks my songs are valuable. Even the misfires, because they all add up to one important thing: authentic expression.
So if all of those things are true, I just need to be me. I need to remember to focus on the input and the inspiration. It's ridiculous and self-indulgent and honestly kind of gross to get so caught up in self-evaluation. It looks like this:
Ew. Total buzzkill. Who can find inspiration in that?
Inspiration is not magic. It's elusive, yes, but it is possible to find. When I was working on my song, "Down the Mountain", which tells the story of my husband's grandparents leaving Oklahoma during the Dustbowl, he bought me a Depression-era enamel bowl.
He emailed me these photos from the Library of Congress.
This is the kind of inspiration I need, the kind that gets me out of my tree. Tactile, visual links to beauty and pathos and empathy. Who cares if what I come up with is any good? These are stories worth telling. This is art. This is worth it.