The courage to create, from Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland

What keeps artists from creating? What makes people quit? In Art & Fear: Observations on the perils (and rewards) of artmaking (public library), David Bayles and Ted Orland, offer explanations, solutions, and encouragement for anyone with an urge to make.

The hurdles to creation aren’t merely about talent or technical skill, but about showing up everyday and doing the work. Why is this so hard?  Lack of external deadlines, lack of external validation, self-doubt, lack of confidence. Your early efforts aren’t very good. Your work falls short of your heroes. You fear that “you won’t finish what you started and you fear how people will react even if you do”.

Making art now means working in the face of uncertainty ; it means living with doubt and contradiction, doing something no one much cares whether you do, and for which there may be neither audience nor reward. Making the work you want to make means setting aside these doubts so that you may see clearly what you have done, and thereby see where to go next. Making the work you want to make means finding nourishment within the work itself.

To be an artist is to set aside these doubts and get to work: to focus on the present moment; to remember why you wanted to make something in the first place; to focus on how it feels to be engrossed in your work.

But this process is hard. Art is subjective; it can be personal. You might feel like your creations directly reflect you and thus, when your work sucks, you suck. Unhelpful critics (either indifferent or hostile) will happily reinforce this view, but at the end of the day, this perspective does not help you and must be discarded.

Making art can feel dangerous and revealing. Making art is dangerous and revealing. Making art precipitates self-doubt, stirring deep waters that lay between what you know you should be, and what you fear you might be.

In a general way, fears about yourself prevent you from doing your best work, while fears about your reception by others prevent you from doing your own work.

So how do we fight self-doubt and keep going? By doing work. Doing lots of work. Doing lots of potentially bad work. Learning from your work.

You make good work by (among other things) making lots of work that isn’t very good, and gradually weeding out the parts that aren’t good, the parts that aren’t yours. It’s called feedback, and it’s the most direct route to learning about your own vision. It’s also called doing your work.

Artists get better by sharpening their skills or by acquiring new ones; they get better by learning to work, and by learning from their work.

The most important aspect of art-making is making art. In other words, showing up everyday to practice.  David Bayles and Ted Orland have the following parable to illustrate the power of quantity.

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pounds of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work-and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

So, yes, even if your vision of every project falls short of your dreams for it — each piece is a “test of correspondence between imagination and execution” — the act of creating it moves you forward. Through this process, you will develop new questions and develop new ideas.  Each piece is a reflection of who you were and what you were thinking when you created it.

The work we make, even if unnoticed and undesired by the world, vibrates in perfect harmony to everything we put into it — or withhold from it. In the outside world there maybe no reaction to what we do; in our artwork there is nothing but reaction. The breathtakingly wonderful thing about this reaction is its truthfulness. Look at your work and it tells you how it is when you hold back or when you embrace. When you are lazy, your art is lazy; when you hold back, it holds back; when you hesitate, it stands there staring, hands in its pockets. But when you commit, it comes on like blazes.

Everything we make is a snapshot of a ourselves as a constantly evolving human being — not a symbol of our worth but a reflection of our thought process at a specific place and specific time.

This book focuses on artists — painters, musicians, sculptors, writers — but advice and encouragement within it is apt for any creative practice — or any practice-makes-perfect activity. It rings true to me for research and for engineering. I can only imagine its true for business or activism. Much of what humans do can only be perfected by doing.

This is a great book to motivate you to get started on a project you’ve wanted to do for a long time but for whatever reasons couldn’t.  This is also a great book for when you feel discouraged: when a risk you took didn’t pay off.  Time to get up. Get going. Difficulties are normal. Difficulties are part of the process. Better to be the man in the arena than to be paralyzed by self-doubt, sitting on the sidelines, and guaranteed to accomplish nothing.

PS – Thanks, Andy, for recommending this excellent book! You know who you are!