“Here’s a new song. I haven’t practiced it much and I don’t think it’s that great, but whatever. And I’m not even sure it’s finished; I still have to put in another verse. Also, I’m sick and bad at whistling, and I’ve never whistled in front of anyone before but this song has a whistle solo. Jeez, it’s hot in here. Sorry for talking so much. Okay, here we go.”
If you have been to any open mic or shows with first time performers, chances are you’ve heard some version of this infamous speech. This can also be seen in creative workshops for art or writing, where an artist or author wants to explain their intention and the point of their work before a single eye has been laid upon it. It’s understandable. I think we’ve all been there with something in life. I’ve been sharing music and writings with people for 10+ years and I still find myself in this state of mind from time to time.
We understand, dear artist, that you are nervous. We understand that you are comparing yourself to your peers and heroes and find yourself coming up woefully short. As artists, we want to share our work with others, but we can’t neglect our own relationship with our art and the steps we’ve taken to get to where we are as students of the craft. Today, we will look at the collective creative journey we take as artists in hopes to understand that our progress is our own (even when we share it with others). This way, we might find ways to be content with letting our art speak for itself.
There are experiences as a creative person that most everyone shares or relates to. We all have to start somewhere. Some people start earlier in life than others, some later. Some people have natural talent, others have to grind to keep up their chops. There are so many methods and processes for encountering, developing, and mastering craft, and each one of us will have a unique progression and context for these encounters.
The frustration that often comes from beginner or intermediate artists (or any artist striving to find some sort of commercial or colloquial success) is when we begin to compare ourselves with people on a level of skill or notoriety we’re not, expecting to meet or surpass that level and despairing when we haven’t crossed the threshold. The real problem is, if you are dedicated to your craft but are still so absorbed into this comparative/competitive mindset, you will find that threshold will never be crossed, but rather always one step ahead of your current position. It’s like when you realize CHVRCHES has only been a band for a little over 5 years and they’re a global sensation, while you’ve been playing just as long or longer and still can’t get your mixes to sound just right (*psst, Fallon, you’re projecting*). Or perhaps when those teenage Instagram/Twitter artists show off their sketches and you feel your 4th revision on a piece doesn’t exhibit half the technical skill or isn’t capable of getting a tenth of the credit.
Well, we’ve recognized how toxic we can be toward ourselves by seeing our inspirations run circles around us. This is the first step! If we can’t recognize these thought processes for what they are, we’ll be chained to them indefinitely, the elusive threshold of success forever just out of reach.
Remember all that stuff about unique personal progress? Well here’s where we analyze our own creative journey and realize that if we don’t own each triumph and each mistake, we can’t benefit from how they can help us move forward. If you think you need more practice, then practice! If you need instruction, there’s infinite resources on the Internet for cheap or free (I recommend searching around on YouTube or checking out a paid program like Udemy). If you need feedback, get a hold of a trusted peer (and if you don’t have one of those, shoot me an email or something; everyone should have someone).
And remember: it’s a wonderful and necessary thing to take influence from others. We can learn from their mistakes and analyze their triumphs to fill in some of the gaps we find in our own ability. If you find it is still too challenging to be critical of these things, perhaps it’s best to cut off the avenues for jealousy until you can establish that self-confidence. Social media is the first to go in a lot of instances!
For everything else, be glad for the success of others and thankful for your own journey, whose destinations and methods are not bound by the ones others have taken. Being confident in your work means letting your work exist for what it is, not what it could/should be. The nervous person at the writing workshop doesn’t want anyone to misunderstand what they’re trying to express in their stories, but the hard truth is that a well-written story can speak for itself (make sure the right audience is listening). Even poorly written stories have something to say, though it may not be a clear line of communication from author to reader. Even still, seize those misunderstandings, dig deep into what doesn’t work as much as what does, then take those elements and write another draft. When you compare the two you’ll see firsthand how far you’ve come.
It’s hard, often thankless work, I know. With so much incredible art that’s so easily accessible thanks to the Internet, artists are often fixated on things like hype posts and web analytics to secure personal affirmation in their work. Then when it comes time to put nose to grindstone, we become overwhelmed when the work we have to put in is harder and takes longer than we expected, that the outcome may not meet our ideal, and that the finished product it must sit in the company of so many who’ve established themselves. Don’t forget: they ALL have pushed through their own journey to get where they are. Find your focus and own your process.
There’s no formula to success in the arts, just ask Hans Zimmer. You are just as capable as anyone, and support for growing artists is plentiful. If you don’t feel that way, remember that if nothing else, your friends at Chroma have your back. Take a chance, drop your fear of failure, and write those drafts, record those demos, draw those sketches. This is how it all begins.