The Discomfort of Creativity

The other day, a woman was telling me how much she enjoyed the show that I had just directed. In the course of the conversation she said, “It looked like it was fun. Was it fun?” Of course, I lied and told her that it was a great deal of fun.  I was pretty sure that she was not ready to hear the truth, that it was one of the most painful directing experiences I had had in a long time.  While there is a general interest in the psychoses of famous artists and their lives, I think that most viewers don’t want to know about the inner doubt or pain an artist may have had in creating this or that piece. They are not much interested in hearing that the delightful comedy they are enjoying was wrought with great worry and difficulty.

That inner doubt comes with every project. I don’t recall ever doing a project and not having, at some point, a really terrible feeling that the venture was likely to be a complete disaster, that it may have been a mistake to begin it at all.  But you keep working, and the feeling passes, and the project is completed, and you move on to the next one and repeat the process.  The only difference is the point at which those feelings attack you; it’s never twice in the same place.

For a long time I thought that these kinds of feelings with regard to creative projects belonged only to me and were a reflection of my natural insecurity.  They may be, but I have slowly discovered that almost everybody who is involved in any kind of serious creative endeavor has a problem that, if not identical, is certainly similar. Just last night I ran across a tweet by the quite successful Australian artist Hazel Dooney in which she says that “anything worthwhile requires discomfort and uncertainty.” It seems to be universal.

This brings up two questions: why does this happen? And why do we continue to do the sort of work that brings repeated levels of discomfort and uncertainty? The answer to both questions is the same: because it matters.

It happens because we think that what we do matters, if to no one else, to ourselves, and because it matters we want it to be the best it can be. Even though there may be precedents and guideposts, this is creative work and each project is a unique one-of-a-kind instance. That being the case, there is always doubt about the outcome. If, added to that doubt, there are unforeseen difficulties, it only exacerbates the situation. Given these potential problems, it is remarkable that anything ever gets made at all. But we push ahead in spite of the anxiety to create an object or an event as close to our vision as possible. Sometimes we succeed.

Why do we continue to do this sort of work, knowing that each project will bring disquiet and angst? There are hundreds of answers to this question, but they all boil down to the same thing: doing the work is important—definitely to us, and maybe to others. The work matters. We get to create. Some of us have no choice; we have to create.  And in creating, we get to entertain (in all the meanings of that word); we get to provoke thought and/or feeling; we get to comment on events, movements, fortunes, misfortunes, actions, inactions; we get to set forth our viewpoints; we get to evoke responses from people we may never meet. And that’s worth the pain and frustration; that’s worth doing.

Date: Sunday, 17. October 2010 21:19
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    Artists’ suffering is an enormous subject, much spoken to with much yet to say. Your focus on the doubt endemic to each project will register with most, e.g. me. I hope most also strongly agree that art matters, though another tale is told, primarily in academia. In fact, an awful lot of reality matters. For my two obols, I’ll postulate an involuntary habit of noticing much as characteristic of many people of genius, artists included. If you will forgive tenuous metaphor and rude coinage, take with me a little peripatesis (oh, sic yourself) to see how this habit makes for suffering in a certain kind of scholar.
    There’s a certain kind of student who scores perfectly on standardized tests, does extremely well—though not perfect—in school, and in the rest of life seems to do sort of okay, provided he marries well and doesn’t blow his brains out. His successes and failures result from his mind noticing a great deal very fast. He is perfect on standardized tests because the questions are well vetted, and one of the answers is definitively correct. After all, the trick of standardized tests is to notice the definitive way of looking at the question. As mentioned, he is an unparalleled noticer.
    Similarly, school comprises short-term assignments and tests designed and evaluated by a person into whose mind the attentive student has gained some insight. The situation is not so abstract and perfect a system as the SAT (Did I just call the SAT “perfect”?), but it’s a mighty long piece from the teeming, polydimensional sublimity we cozily term real life.
    In real life, this mind that notices much bogs down. It’s one thing to notice in ten seconds the seven possible ways of looking at an SAT question. In contrast, the extent, intricacy, and subtlety of, you know, the world, are a whole different wyrmlicum fah. Plenty of folks, including most artists, have some version of this much-noticing mind, even though they perhaps did poorly on the SAT and very well in life, these differing outcomes being attributable to any of the 27,611 known variants of cognitive outplaying, or one of the assuredly many more unknown variants. The point in common is that noticing reality has a tendency to smart. The salient characteristic of reality might be summed up for the Christian as “The Lord God therefore banished him from the garden of Eden,” for the Buddhist as “All existence is dhukka,” and for the literatus as “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” or, with clearer allusion to the cosmic egg, “ ‘Good night!’ screamed Avery. ‘Good night! What a stink! Let’s get out of here!’”
    In short, the artist suffers because her project matters and she has total freedom to direct it, and because a great deal matters and she has an even more radical freedom thereunto appertaining. And though she was dealt fairly, her deal’s ways of going wrong vastly exceed her control. And she damned well knows it.

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