Sunday, May 20, 2012

A Young Artist's Guide to Playing For Keeps, Part 18

You’ve chosen an uncertain path.
You’ve adopted an inconvenient lifestyle.
You’ve embarked upon an unconventional journey.
You’ve felt the voice inside you growing more urgent.
You’ve committed yourself enough so you can’t turn back.

IN SHORT: You’ve decided to play for keeps.

This is the critical crossroads – the emotional turning point – in the life of every young artist.

I’ve been there myself. I'm still there myself. I even wrote a book on it. But for now, here’s what I've learned lately: 

1. Bring life to what might be. We can curate, opinionate, calculate, commentate, evaluate and instigate until we’re blue in the face. But only when we round the work out, only when we actually create, physically bring life to something new, from scratch, from our hearts and for the entire world to see, can we have the greatest possible impact. Hugh MacLeod is a hero of mine. He said that if all our songs are about writing songs, we shouldn’t expect anyone to listen to them. He said the problem with writing about creativity is that it’s usually more lucrative than actually being creative. Guilty. As someone who’s written and spoken extensively on artistic topics like brain candy, playing for keeps and writing is basis of all wealth, Hugh’s message is a timely reminder to keep the ratio down with my own work. I remember that my primary responsibility as an artist is to actually make good, interesting stuff. Is your creation subordinate to anything? 

2. Pick your punctuation wisely. The problem with everybody having a voice is, nobody remembers how to be a good audience anymore. When we walk into a room, enter into a conversation, tune into a program, sit down with a book or log in to an online community, most of us are looking to validate our views, not welcome something new. This posture hurts us. It suffocates our curiosity, limits our learning and lowers our receptivity to new ideas that might be better than the ones we’ve already convinced ourselves are the truth. Personally, I want to be disturbed. I want to be provoked. I want to be called on my shit. I want to be confronted by something so contrary to my train of thought, so far outside of my comfort zone, that I have no choice but to be changed forever. After all, that’s why we deploy our voice the first place: To move people. Seems to me, if we plan on taking the stage, taking the page or taking the airwaves, then being a good audience member is the other half of the job description. Otherwise we’re just a world of exclamation points. What punctuation are you? 

3. Bad isn’t good, bad breeds good. My parents always said that I was an unplanned pregnancy. That used to bother me, until I learned that many of the world’s most important inventions were accidents. Chocolate cookies, rubber tires, hot tea, pacemakers, waffle cones, paper towels, maple syrup, penicillin, soap bars, stainless steel, all accidents. Purpose, schmurpose. Besides, who are we to judge if an idea is good? That’s not our job. As artists, our job is to notice. As artists, our job is to render our unique experience. As artists, our job is to treat everything we discover with deep democracy. Only time will tell if it’s any good. Millions of people thought Christianity was a bad idea – but they still wrote it down. Later, over the course of hundreds and thousands of years, that idea went on to change the world forever. How many bad ideas did you have last week? 

4. Geographic displacement fuels creativity. Sometimes size really does matter. About a year ago, we began a conversation about relocating. It was a massive shock, but to my delight, the mere idea of moving to a big city gave me permission to think bigger. Even before we physically relocated, my creativity had already left town. Ever since then, I've been chasing down ideas that the old version of my brain never would have given the time of day to. Tackling unfamiliar genres, writing with different voices, embracing new technologies, taking more performance risks, adopting opposite routines, even resurrecting adolescent whimsies that my adult brain had long since forgotten, all of these things were made possible by thinking big. Kind of makes me wish I’d started sooner. Do you need to get out of town? 

5. Firing blanks is healthy. It happens to all of us. We hit the wall. We reach the end of our creative rope. We realize that running on fumes can no longer get us anywhere. And we start firing blanks. Discharging wildly into the darkness, scaring inspiration into hiding and soaring past point of diminishing returns. It’s a seductive release. It might even feel productive. But we all know the logical solution is to stop the work entirely. Because staring harder isn’t going to help. So we walk away. We go see a movie, hit the gym or rock out to some live music until our ears are ringing. We go perpendicular. And we completely empty our minds of anything work related. That’s the path for coming back fresh. It’s how we return to the work with renewed strength and a sense of perspective. Without it, there’s never a chance reload the creative chamber. Have you struck out lately? 

6. Easy does it. It’s hard not to be hard on ourselves. We get frustrated for only writing a bit, even though it’s not as much as we’d like. But we have to put it in perspective: A bit is better than a blank page. A bit is better than procrastinating. Or planning all day. Or talking our ideas into the ground instead of taking creative action. A bit is better than running away from the canvas, terrified of what we might learn about ourselves if we actually sat down and did the work. In fact, a bit might be the most we can bring right now. And we have to learn to be okay with that. Besides, a bit at a time leads to a bunch over time, which builds a body of work in time, which leaves a legacy when we eventually run out of time. Are you taking it easy? 

7. Execution is the measure of man. If we never ship anything, it doesn’t matter how talented we are. We may as well be winking in the dark. As creators, our primary task is to create. But a close second is to circulate. To share as much as we can, with as many people as we can, as often as we can. That’s why we got ourselves into this whole mess in the first place – to be heard. Steve Wozniak, someone who was constitutionally disinclined to share, still had a mandate to circulate. He knew he had to ship or risk fading into obscurity. Fortunately, his pal Steve Jobs came along to nudge the sharing process. And they shipped one of our world’s most important innovations. We can never let the fear of failure trump our desire to express. What are you afraid to ship?

REMEMBER: When you’re ready to play for keeps, your work will never be the same.

Make the decision today.

Show the world that your art isn’t just another expensive hobby.

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* * * *
Scott Ginsberg
That Guy with the Nametag
Writing, Publishing, Performing, Consulting
scott@hellomynameisscott.com

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