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A Time for Reflection

Sunday, 19. December 2021 20:08

The Winter Solstice is the occasion for a large number of holidays, many more than the summer solstice, and many having to do with the ideas of rebirth, of bringing back the light lost during the waning year, and new beginnings. Also scattered among these mid-winter celebrations is the idea of remembering the past, either our own, or of famous historical and mythological figures who sacrificed in some way, gave gifts, aided the poor, or events that are considered miraculous. There is a feeling of wrapping up the old year.

In fact, the second most important holiday in Japan is Omisoka, or New Year’s Eve, a time for concluding the old year by “house cleaning, repaying debts, purification, and bathing,” among other activities designed to prepare for the “crossing over from one year to the next.”

In Western society we find a number of people remembering Christmases or Hanukkahs or other mid-winter celebrations of the past, particularly of their childhoods, or holidays with friends or loved ones who have passed out of their lives. Unfortunately, such remembrances can lead to holiday depression in some. For example, I knew a woman who could never get through Christmas Day without crying; she never explained why, but I’m reasonably sure that it was not happy memories. But not all memories are sad, and they are what many people treasure about holiday time.

Whatever our belief systems or celebration preferences, this is a time of wrapping up the old and preparing for the new. Unless we live in a cave, it’s difficult to get through the season without experiencing some of this. My suggestion is to embrace this transition.

Since so much has been written on new beginnings and renewal and fresh starts and all of that, I would like to talk about the wrapping up part: reflecting on the year past. There is much to be learned from looking back at the past twelve months, particularly for creative people. This is a time when the days are short and the nights are long, and that, in itself, aids reflection on the past: there seems to be time to consider things, to look at our successes and failures and trials and difficulties and evaluate our responses to those situations. Such is not intended to make us dwell on any one aspect of the past year, but to look at the whole—from a slight remove, so that we can evaluate the year objectively—and objectivity is the key to this activity. We can begin to learn what worked, what didn’t work, what changes we might have made to better realize our projects. When we have done this, we will be better informed about our own strengths and weaknesses and better able to move forward into the new year, armed with new knowledge about our creative process.

And that, after all, is the goal of reflection, not to reminisce, not to beat ourselves up over failures or gloat over successes, but to consider, to analyze, so that we can move forward with improved creativity to make new and better work. As I write this, the Winter Solstice is just days away, and the New Year follows shortly; if you haven’t yet taken the time to reflect on your creative work of the past year, I would encourage you to do so. Your creative output will benefit.

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Yes, Artists Must Be Judgemental

Sunday, 21. November 2021 21:41

In his blog this week, Austin Kleon said, incorporating a quote from Martha Graham, “That’s the thing about new work, it’s not really your job to judge it, you just keep the channel open and let the stuff come…” My initial response, based on my experiences as a photographer and stage director was complete disagreement. My experience has been that artists are constantly making judgements, sometimes large, sometimes small, sometimes correct, and sometimes incorrect.

After reexamining the Kleon quote, I finally decided that I had missed a key phrase: “new work,” and realizing that he didn’t really mean not to judge it, but rather not to judge its value while it was new. He was specifically talking about a series of collages that he was working on and had not yet decided what to do with them. But, I would imagine, that in creating those collages, he was making many small judgements about what to add to add and what not include in particular collages, involving decisions on what colors and images to use to make the visual points he was trying to make. If, after dozens of judgements were made, he didn’t quite know what to do with the finished product(s), that’s understandable, given that it was a new form of collage for him.

Of course, whether it’s new work or not, the artist’s job is to judge it—to decide what shape it will take, and ultimately what to do with it. This, of course, does not mean that those decisions should be made immediately. Here I agree with Kleon and Graham: with new work, the artist’s job is to “keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open.” That being said, the artist must make hundreds of judgements just to create the work.

The ultimate disposition of the work is something that comes later, and that decision too can be correct or incorrect. One is reminded of the young Stephen King trashing the manuscript to his first published novel, Carrie, only to have it rescued by his wife, who then encouraged him to finish it.

The goal of the artist is, of course, to make the work the best it can be made. Along the way are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of decisions, some small and some quite large, that determine the ultimate shape of the work. These are necessary if the work is to be realized. In some arts, directing, for example, it seems that making such judgements constitutes the bulk of the work to be done. They are not always the correct choices, but they have to be made, and made in a timely fashion if the work is to go forward. Sometimes, one is afforded the luxury of revisiting a decision and correcting it, but that is not always the case, so one learns to make the best possible decision in the moment and move the work toward completion.

So while artists, when moving in the uncharted waters of new work, must “keep the channel open and let the stuff come,” they must also exercise their judgement and make judicious decisions as they develop those new ideas. After all, the final product is, in fact, the result of the artist’s judgements.

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The Great Texas Anti-Pornography Crusade

Monday, 8. November 2021 0:10

We seem to have a pornography problem in the public schools of Texas. Or, that is at least what the governor and several state legislators say.  This past Monday, the Governor wrote the executive director of the Texas Association of School Boards, stating that “a growing number of parents are becoming increasingly alarmed about some of the books and other content found in public school libraries that are extremely inappropriate in the public education system.” He goes on to say that “the most flagrant examples include clearly pornographic images and substance that have no place in the Texas public education system.” Of course, he provides no specific examples of this content. A spokesperson for the Texas Association of School Boards said that the group was confused about why the letter was sent to them, because it “has no regulatory authority over school districts and does not set standards for instructional materials, including library books.”

And last week state representative Jeff Cason asked the Texas Attorney General to investigate “sexually explicit material in public schools.” He went on to ask the Attorney General to “launch a statewide investigation into that [Gender Queer] and other books that may ‘violate the Penal Code in relation to pornography, child pornography and decency laws, as well as the legal ramifications to school districts that approved these types of books.’”

One suspects that the Governor and Rep Cason were climbing on board the culture war bandwagon that seems to have been set in motion by state representative Matt Krause, who chairs the Texas House’s General Investigating Committee, and is a candidate for state attorney general. In October, Krause sent a letter to the Deputy Commissioner of school programs at the Texas Education Agency and several school district superintendents demanding that school districts across the state report whether any of the books on the list of 850 titles are in their classrooms or libraries He also directed that the districts identify any other books that could cause students “guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex or convey that a student, by virtue of their race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”

The Texas State Teachers Association was quick to respond: “This is an obvious attack on diversity and an attempt to score political points at the expense of our children’s education. What will Rep. Krause propose next? Burning books he and a handful of parents find objectionable?”

And about that list of titles—Danika Ellis of bookriot.com did an analysis of the list and discovered several interesting things: there are no reasons given for books being on the list, even the ones that are listed twice. Ellis broke down the presumed reasons for books being on the list as follows: LGBTQ 62.4%; Race and Racism 8.3%; Sex Education 14.1%; Miscellaneous (including pregnancy, abortion—not Sex Education, and Unknown 15.2%. 58.89% of the books are fiction; 41.1% are nonfiction. Ellis also notes that there were several notable titles on the list, including one Pulitzer Prize winner and several other award-winning books. She also cites what she calls the “most disturbing trend” on the list as the challenge to books about human and student rights.

There is, of course, no indication—at least that I can find—of where the list came from. At least one article suggests that it was cut and pasted together from a variety of sources, and probably never properly vetted.

Perhaps some of you are wondering why I have taken the time, energy, and space to report on what can be gleaned from a few internet sources. The answer is simple: when books begin to be removed from the shelves, it’s not only the potential readers who are hurt. Certainly, readers probably suffer most, particularly if they are seeking information that has become banned. But writers suffer as well, and by extension, all artists. We all are diminished when our works are forbidden their potential audiences. So in case you missed this, I wanted you all to know about it. Book banning represents an existential threat to artists, and we need to be aware.

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Politics and the Artist

Sunday, 12. September 2021 21:11

To be an artist means never to avert one’s eyes,” according to celebrated filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. If this is the case, how are artists to respond to the politics of suppression and public health recklessness practiced by the legislature and executive leadership of the State of Texas and some other states as well?

Should artists bend their style and practice to respond to such or should they stay their artistic course and protest some other way? Probably it depends on the artists and their art. For example, a painters of floral still lifes would be hard put to modify their art to incorporate a political statement, while news or editorial photographers would not. The inclination of the artist is also a factor. Some are so concerned about their style or brand that they do not wish modify what they are doing, regardless of their feelings about current politics.

Historically, some artists, particularly playwrights and filmmakers have responded by creating work that indirectly commented on the problem; Jean Anouilh’s Antigone and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible are excellent examples of this kind of work, as well as the number of subversive films made in reaction to  HUAC activities in the 1950s. Interestingly, this type of work was well-received, although it unclear whether audience members fully understood the connection between the work and the political situation.

Other work that is well received is by artists who respond to current events and find themselves becoming known for political commentary. Instead of shying away from the label, they embrace it. Both Shepard Fairey and Banksey come to mind.

Other artists may maintain their standard brand, but initiate a side-brand, perhaps of T-shirts or coffee mugs that are political in nature; sometimes these artists will even produce the political work under a different name in order to keep their primary brand “pure.” They might also use a storefront name on one of numerous online marketplace sites.

If the artists do not want to change their styles or subject matter, how might they respond to current situation? At least six creative people I know think that the problems are not just state, but national and are actively researching leaving the country; they plan to practice their arts either in a different location or via international media. Certainly that is a valid choice, even though some may consider it a bit drastic. Others are politically active in avenues outside their art: Several, including writers, directors, actors, and some photographers maintain an active political life on social media, commenting on the current situation and encouraging others to make their voices heard as well. One photographer/blogger I know produces a semi-weekly newsletter highlighting current events and decisions for his readership.

Some choose to ignore politics completely, but I am finding that these individuals are becoming rarer and rarer as US politics and pandemic reach out to touch nearly everyone. Paying no attention to these issues can be attractive and comfortable, so long as one doesn’t mind living with their head in the sand and with the understanding that the issues won’t disappear.

How any particular artist responds to political and national health issues is certainly an individual decision.  Artists need to decide whether to deal with the problems head-on or in a more private way. The one choice we as artists don’t have, at least according to Kurosawa, is to look away.

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Make One Just for Fun

Sunday, 1. August 2021 22:20

In the push for productivity, we often lose sight of our artistic goals and sensibilities. Rather than creators, we become artisans concerned solely with production of artifacts for our audience, often tailoring our output to the tastes of potential purchasers. While this sort of concentration on production often does much for the bottom line, it does little to satisfy our artistic needs.

In the build-up to this point we develop as artists, honing our skills, developing our craft, finding our own voice. Once that is accomplished, we can often go in one of two very different directions: (1) we can basically turn out slightly varying iterations of the same story, poem, photograph, painting—altering each new piece just enough to say that it is different, while at the same time retaining all those characteristics that mark our work as ours. (2) The second choice is to build on our development, creating new work that represents not just repetition, but growth. We create new things which may or may not appeal to our present audience.

For a number of reasons, many artists select the first path. For example, I know an artist who essentially quit making personal work. All her work now is either consignment or for her Etsy store. And, although it is quite good work, it all looks rather alike. Another artist, a painter who works in acrylic, produces excellent images, all of which very much alike; she has quite a large following. Many of us follow this path: singers whose songs all sound alike, photographers whose work is so similar it could have been shot all on the same day, writers whose novels are nearly identical, or at least follow the same formula.

Along the second path lies risk—what we make may not appeal to our current audience, and we are forced to find another, or change what we are doing. Thus it is more difficult to find artists willing to pursue this path. Several come to mind, but not nearly as many as follow the first path.

The first path is certainly more stable financially—and easier to follow, at least after those of us who follow it find our audience. However, one wonders if those who are essentially cranking out the same pieces over and over still retain the joy of creation. One wonders if they took time out from their schedules to make one piece of work just for the joy of doing it—for fun, it would make any difference.

And that is my suggestion: if we find ourselves becoming slaves to production—turning out piece after piece of all-too-similar pieces, that we take some time and make just one piece for fun—to remind ourselves why we got into this world of creation in the first place. If nothing else, we might get a little relief from the grind that almost always accompanies constant production. Even if we immediately go back to assembly-line production, we might do so with a fresh perspective. It might just provide a renewed approach to our productivity.

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“But the Book was Better”

Sunday, 18. July 2021 23:04

How many times have we heard that, and what does it really mean? Does it really mean “the movie was different from the book, and I liked the book version better”? Does it mean, “The film didn’t make me feel the same way the book did”?  Does it mean, “I am superior because I read the book and most people who saw the movie didn’t”? Or does it mean, “The movie wasn’t what I expected, (and I expected the book)”? Or is it some combination of these things?

Not long ago I found myself saying exactly those words in connection with Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I had just listened to the Audible audio book of Dracula (narrated by Alan Cuming, Tim Curry, Simon Vance and others). Then I followed it up by re-watching Francis’s Ford Coppola’s 1992 film version by the same name, which I had remembered as being quite good—and I remembered correctly.

The first question that should come up when making a statement such as the one in the title is: “better” according to what standard? If the answer is any of the ones presented in the first paragraph, it’s time to move on to another discussion because none of those, while they may be honest, are legitimate answers to the question of standards. In the case of Dracula, the book was better because of the level of detail and nuance available to the reader/listener in the book that was not available in the film.

There should be no question that the two versions would be different. They are presented in different media; therefore, they communicate in different ways. Description of locale, for instance, can take pages in a novel; the same information can be presented visually in a film instantly, thus allowing the film to be more compact than the novel. But again there is that issue of nuance; sometimes, directing the audience’s view to some tiny particular detail may be more difficult to manage in a film without being clumsy than it is when describing the scene in words. And if we were to consider a stage play version of the same material, it would be different yet, emphasizing certain things, diminishing others.

And the book does have the advantage of being able to be longer, not being meant to be taken in at a single sitting. For example, the audio version that I listened to is 15 hours and 28 minutes long; Coppola’s movie is 2 hours and 8 minutes. Just the idea of compressing hundreds of pages into such a short time frame is staggering. What is interesting about the film and novel in question is how closely the film follows the events in the novel, but is really telling a different story—no more or less interesting, just different.

And difference, I think, is the point. The book is not always better, but it is always different from the film, which is different from the stage play, which is different from the miniseries. What really matters is how well the medium fits the story being told. And each medium has its own impact, its own advantages and its own disadvantages, and we need to recognize that—particularly before selecting the medium for our next project.

As creators, we must select the correct medium to be the vehicle of our creation. Even though we could force the idea into a hostile medium, the best choice is to exploit the medium that the idea requires, even though that may not be our forte. The material selects the proper medium, and we must serve the material if we are to reach our full creative potential.

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The Importance of Structure

Sunday, 6. June 2021 23:10

Another blogger I know was recently having trouble with a post. The problem it seemed was that he could not get the material arranged so that it would make sense to his audience. He told me that he had tried four or five different approaches to the material, and nothing seemed to work. When I asked him how he was structuring his material, he said, “I just write it. I don’t worry about structure.” There, I thought, was his problem.

Often when art does not “work,” the reason is lack of structure. Structure, of course, is “the arrangement and relationship of the parts.” Structure comforts the audience and lets them know that the piece is organized, and they can understand it because the piece has a form which will lead them through the work, regardless of how complex it might be. Without structure our ideas, no matter how good, can be understood only with great difficulty.

Structure does not just happen; it has to be created along with the work of art. How a creator achieves structure depends on the type of work involved. Structure for narrative arts is usually found in the plot and/or character; those are the things that hold the whole together. Plot provides a support to undergird the whole, whether that is a short story or a novel.

In some rare cases what holds a narrative together is simply an idea or theme; works that rely only on theme often have a far more tenuous structure than those relying on plot or character. They may be far more difficult for an audience to follow. Still, any structure is better than no structure.

There are also non-narrative pieces such as essays or non-fiction. These also require some sort of structure. Often we find that the author will approach the material in a narrative form, presenting a story. There are, of course, forms of argument and logic which can be used to structure a non-narrative piece and can provide a very solid structure for the presentation of ideas.

All that can be said about written work can also be said about visual and plastic arts as well. Here, logic and argument do not apply. What does apply varies with the work. There is a theory that every piece of visual art should tell a story. In those cases, the sorts of structure used in narrative come into play, except far more subtly.

But what about those pieces of art that don’t tell a story or those called “meditations”? These non-narrative works, whether written, spoken, or visual offer thoughts on a subject or try to create a mood. Regardless, unless there is some underlying structure, something to hold everything together, then we are left only with disparate disconnected elements.  If the work is visual or plastic, often the structure can come from the principles of composition. These principles are not the only source of support, but they go a long way in providing cohesion.

But what If the meditations are in written form? Perhaps the idea can hold the piece together. But structure can also come from putting the meditation into a formal structure. For example, the author might put the meditation into a sonnet form and thereby provide the work with an external structural foundation. Or the author might frame the written piece using one of the forms of logic or argument so that the audience is guided from part to part and does not have to wander around among disconnected ideas.

No matter how grand or original or new our ideas might be, we must still provide a framework for our audience’s understanding. We must give them the structure to support our ideas, our images, our art. So, upon embarking on a new project, we would do well to first consider the structure that will support the work. If we develop solid underpinnings, our work will benefit.

Category:Aesthetics, Audience, Creativity | Comment (0) | Autor:

Collaboration with the Audience

Sunday, 23. May 2021 22:56

Neil Gaiman, in his book of essays and introductions, The View from the Cheap Seats, says that “no two readers will ever read the same book, because the reader builds the book in collaboration with the author.” In another place, he discusses other aspects of this collaboration, noting that “you bring yourself to a book, and children are capable of imbuing words with magic that not even the author knew was there.” He takes the idea further in citing an instance of someone remembering the excitement of a particular scene in a book, only to find, upon returning to the book, that the exciting part had been supplied by the reader. Gaiman goes on to say of the reader in a different circumstance: “then, perhaps, you will come back to it [a book] when you’re older, and you will find the book has changed because you have changed as well, and the book is wiser, or more foolish, because you are wiser or more foolish than you were as a child.”

This is not a new idea; it is one of the fundamental tenets of post-modernism. Gaiman, however, develops the concept further than most, boiling it down to the notion that each reader “builds the book in collaboration with the author,” and is likely to build a different book each time that reader comes to the book, even though the text remains the same.

You may have experienced Gaiman’s ideas yourself, finding that a book or poem or play that you had experienced was not the same as you remembered it. Or you may have had the experience of discussing a painting or performance with someone and wondering if they really had seen the same thing you did, so different were their impressions.

This notion of collaboration gives considerable power to the reader. The trick for the author is, of course, to create a narrative that will engage the imagination of the reader regardless of what the reader brings to the book.

The same is true for other arts as well. Whatever the art, audience members bring their preconceptions, feelings, and imagination to the interaction with the art work and thus build the meaning and impact of the work in collaboration with the artist. And sometimes, like the children Gaiman noted above, imbue the work “with magic that not even the author knew was there.”

If that is the case, how does the artist then create for her audience? She can make some assumptions about what response her work is likely to get, depending on what sorts of responses she has gotten previously. That, however, is no guarantee. She can, of course, manipulate her materials so that she has a fair idea of what reaction the work is likely to get. The fact of the matter is that she has no idea what the audience members are likely to bring to the collaboration.

So what we as artists to do? Exactly what our hypothetical artist above finally does: manipulate the materials so that we have a fair idea of the reaction the work is likely to get, and then put it out into the world without further expectations. The audience will bring what they bring, and while all the collaborations will be unique, there is likely to be enough similarity that we can judge our “success” or lack thereof. And if our audience finds things in our work that we didn’t know were there, so be it.

Perhaps the best that we can do is create work that simply satisfies ourselves, release it into the world, and then see what our audience makes of it.

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How Do You Measure Success?

Sunday, 25. April 2021 23:58

Sometimes when I tell people that I teach theatre, they will ask, “Have you taught anybody famous?” as though that were the ultimate measure of success for a theatre professor. I suppose the same gauge could be used for any field, but I suspect that it is used more for the arts, specifically the performing arts. Given that criterion for success, I would imagine that there are a number of quite successful arts instructors out there who would suddenly be labeled “unsuccessful.” Success in teaching in the arts is not measured by famous ex-students; that’s a marketing technique used by for-profit arts schools.

But that question raises other questions, the chief one of which is: how do we measure success in the arts?

If you are a producer is it a whole run of full houses? A run of three-quarter full houses? Breaking even financially? Making a profit? Winning an award? Making the audience laugh or cry? Bringing attention to a political or humanitarian situation? If you are a director, do you measure your success the same way a producer does or is there another way? And if you are an actor, is it the same measure? Or is it the response of an audience?

If you are a painter or a photographer, is success getting into this or that show? Is it winning an award? Is it having x number of collectors? Is it having individual pieces of your work featured on the cover of magazines? Is it having your work accessioned by this or that museum? Is it bringing in y number of dollars with your work? Is it making work that moves people? Is it making work that records world events or that comments on them?

If you are a writer, does success come with publishing your first book? Does it come with publishing your 50th book? Does it come with writing a “best-seller?”  Does it come with being published in this or that journal? Does it come with begin reviewed by the New York Times? Does it come with winning an award? Does it come with acquiring a specific number of readers? Does it come with being able to support yourself with your writing?

If you are a musician, is success measured by being able to play or sing a certain piece of music? Is it making and distributing recordings of your work? Is it making money from your work? Is it public recognition of your work? Is it performing before huge audiences? Is it getting a gold or platinum record? Is it being able to play multiple instruments? Is it winning an award for your work?

Other artists have similar problems in determining what makes for success. The quick and easy answer is that if we can make a living doing our art, we are successful. The difficulty is that we all know artists who do that who do not consider themselves successful because they have not created their masterpiece or accomplished this or that goal. At the same time we all know artists who do consider themselves quite successful even though they have to have a day job to survive financially. Then there are the artists who don’t trouble themselves with the question of success at all; they just keep making art. The obvious conclusion is that—at least in the arts—we all measure success differently. It turns out that it is a very personal thing that is tied to our artistic goals. And it’s likely to be different for each individual.

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Move at Your Own Speed

Sunday, 28. March 2021 22:29

Yesterday, a friend and I were talking about the difficulty of making changes in one’s life. “The thing is,” she said, “you have to move at your own speed.” So very true, and that same advice applies to art as well. We all get caught up in believing that we have to crank out piece after piece because the Internet expects it. We “need to have” x number of postings to whichever platform(s) we are on every day/week/month to remain relevant. And if the quality suffers, well, that’s just the way things are.

Except that’s not true. If the quality suffers, it’s likely that no matter how many pieces we upload, we will lose viewers. We need to move at our own pace, whatever that pace is. It doesn’t matter if we produce three novels or thirty, so long as we are satisfied that they are the highest quality that we can produce at the time. Each artist has their own rhythm. Each artist has their own workflow. And it is the rhythm and the workflow that determine the frequency of quality output of each artist.

And that frequency may be at odds with the “demands of the Internet.” And if it is, that’s okay. I follow some people who post multiple times per day, some who post daily, some who post weekly, some who post monthly, and some who post whenever they have something to say or show, and I find that I don’t appreciate one more than the other. In fact, I would much rather see the quality work of those who post infrequently than mediocre work of some who post daily.

After all, the “demands of the Internet” are nothing more than marketing ideas. Admittedly, we have to market our art, but we don’t have to follow marketing ideas slavishly. Indeed, there are a number of artists who completely ignore Internet marketing advice who do quite well. The question is: are we trying to develop a large social media following or trying to market our art. Those two are not necessarily the same thing, regardless of what social media marketers say. And we need to remember that being active regularly on social media does not necessarily mean posting our work; it can also mean commenting on the work of others or the political situation or any number of other things that keep our names before our followers.

So, perhaps instead of feeling pressured to produce at a rate determined by outside forces, we might take note of our frequency of quality output and then determine the frequency of our public posting of work based on that.

That way we can indeed work at our own speed, and be far more comfortable in producing work of quality instead of feeling pushed and prodded by an external system. Additionally, we can remind ourselves that our speed does not have to match anyone else’s.  Maybe then we can produce and market our best work, saving less successful pieces for reworking and revising until they too meet our personal standard of quality.

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