Even though I have been an artist for a long time, I am still amazed by the emotional backfire that happens when I make things. One might think that by now I would be immune to the rush of insecurity that comes whipping back around when a big project is completed, like a carbon fiber boomerang, big enough to take me out. But I’m not, and as I get older the stakes get higher, and the feelings are more intense than ever. Maybe the ego grows bigger over time but I suspect that even if I managed to be as humble as a tiny speck of dust, the feeling that what I just completed and exposed to the world is a piece of shit, would persist.
Being a professional, or just grown up, means ducking when that feeling comes around and acting as though you believe in your project as much as you ever have, until the doubt passes.
It’s interesting to think about why it happens though, and when. It doesn’t happen with everything I make. I used to knit, and every time I knit something, I was pretty happy with it. Even if it was a hat for an infant that came out big enough to fit me, or a blanket that was more of a trapezoid than a rectangle, something about those mistakes made me love those creations even more.
Music is also, for me, a little different. When I write a song, even if it’s no good or not even remotely original, I still have a tender place for it and will coddle it like a spoiled child for the rest of its life. And songs tend to have very long lives.
I find that making artwork, be it a drawing, a video, a painting or a sculpture, tends to have this same boomerang phenomenon, and the scale of it depends on my investment in the project. A small drawing begets a small boomerang. A big one-person show that took months to complete renders a much bigger one. Interestingly, artwork tends to have a much shorter shelf life than say, knitting or music. I still love a few pieces that I made long ago, but for the most part, over time, the art I make loses its luster and in the end becomes easy to discard. I have thrown out plenty of photos that I thought were masterful when I printed them and drawings I was very proud of once upon a time.
Writing is different. It’s like making art in that I am expressing something personal, as opposed to knitting a hat, but it’s a much more direct expression than art is. It’s my voice, the physical place in my body where my inner thoughts are exposed to the outer world, telling a story, and recorded in a way that is fixed. For some reason writing songs, though equally personal, do not elicit that boomerang thing. I will explore that contradiction later, but writing a story, makes me feel more vulnerable than anything else I do.
Part of the problem is that there is little to hide behind. With art there is always some level of ambiguity or layering to get through in order to arrive at my idea or the point I am trying to make. With writing, there can be layers and ambiguity but the actual words are just there, naked on the page.
The mother of creative undertakings is writing a book, because it takes so long. An artist might work on a painting for years, I grant you that. But most artists can and will knock out a show inside of a few months, a year at most. The roller coaster of how I feel about the work as I am producing it is similar to writing a book. But a book generally takes more than a year if not a few and even though there are deadlines and agents/publishers who will put serious pressure on a writer, a book is really on its own timeline. It is finished when it is finished, and even then, it could probably be improved.
The combination of the time investment and the direct line that the printed words have to my own voice makes finishing a book feel like standing naked in assembly on the first day of school. (One reason a song is different is it takes only a few hours to write, a day at most. And songs never feel like they are mine. They seem to be delivered by the music fairies and float away as soon as they leave my lips.) Maybe it’s just that investment of so much of my life, in this case four years, that makes completing this book feel so huge. It’s a big accomplishment, one that deserves celebration, and along with that comes a whole smorgasbord of feelings, including elation, relief, satisfaction, joy, etc. but also a large dose of regret. The good thing about that, and maybe even the purpose of it, is that those feelings of regret or insecurity are what push me to do something better next time.