And that competition… is me.
Now let me ‘splain… Last week I finished up the song “Intimacy and Solitude” and was very pleased with the way it turned out. To say even ‘very pleased’ is a bit of an understatement – it’s one of the best songs I’ve recorded to date. My reaction afterwards was probably closer to: ‘Wow… I did this?’ And that’s one of those times when all the agonizing one does during the creative process (oh, the angst! – back of hand attached to Velcro on forehead) is really worth it – when you can amaze yourself by what you’ve done.
At those times, the image I keep in my mind, if not actually on my wall (when I’m not living in limbo between two states), is the cover of Joe Walsh’s greatest hits anthology, “Look What I Did!” While the title may seem somewhat self-congratulatory, there’s more than a certain amount of tongue-in-cheek here, which is why I like to have it handy as a reminder. Joe has always been one of my favorites – great guitarist, great, memorable songs, and he always cracks me up, even when he’s being serious (think the beginning of the song “Meadows”, which is on this anthology, btw).
The thoughts that come up after the initial satisfaction, giddiness, and perhaps amazement are not nearly as much fun. Usually, they’re along the lines of: “What if I don’t have another one like that in me?”… “what if that’s the best thing I’ll ever record?… “what do I do next?”… “how do I ‘top’ this?” I had a few of those thoughts – especially the latter – pop up this past week. I remembered I probably felt that way about “Perpetual” this same time last year when Nights on Venus made its first appearance online. It’s one of those “uh-oh” moments when you realize you’re now in competition… with yourself.
You may be in competition with the Maroon 5’s and Michael Bublé’s (hey, I remembered the accent over the ‘e’) or whoever elses of the world, but your fiercest competition will most likely be with yourself. With the next creative effort, you could come up with something equally satisfying, or you could fall flat on your face and/or take a couple of steps backward (oh no, we’re back to the suffering artist – run!).
And usually, that’s when the other ‘voice’ – the rational, logical one – has to step in and put the kibosh on that kind of self-talk right in the bud. And forget trying to ‘top’ or outdo anything you’ve done previously.
If you’re an artist or musician and none of this stuff comes up for you, great! – you’re my hero and consider yourself lucky!
But that’s how deeply ingrained and pervasive this idea of competition is in society – the whole idea of bigger, better, newer, faster, latest and greatest. The quest for the best. The relentless pursuit of perfection. Crushing the competition. Obviously, it applies in sports. The technology industry certainly feeds off of it and it carries over to most everything else. 3G, 4G… how many G’s do you need? Razor blade cartridges with five – count ’em, 5 – razor blades. Really? “Build a better mousetrap…” These are the messages. I don’t expect this will be changing anytime soon.
Potentially (usually) lost in this is the idea of process and journey – and a unique one at that – which is really what art and music is all about. When you put it out there publicly, it also becomes product/brand. So in creative work, you have to step back for a moment and see what’s going on in your head and remember process and journey… and then you get back on the horse and try out a few things, just play and experiment until something sparks your imagination/inspiration again, then you develop it a little, and see if it’s going to lead you where [you think] you’re trying to go.
I had to remind myself – going further back – how this little scenario played out when I was painting more or less full-time and similar thoughts would come up. I know after I painted both “Untitled No. 3” and “O Lazarus” – shown below – I thought those were the best pieces I had done at the time and wondered if I had another one of those in me in both instances.
Although I’m pretty sure what followed this painting was titled “Untitled No. 4”, I don’t remember what it was or even what it looked like now and apparently I don’t have a slide of it, so it must not have been all that great. Or memorable.
Probably my favorite piece that I did during graduate school, “O Lazarus” was one of those instances (rare) where I knew exactly what I was going for, how I wanted it to look, where the idea and execution just completely jelled and I felt like I ‘nailed’ it. There’s nothing quite like that feeling, whatever you want to apply it to. And then ‘Lazarus’ was followed by two ‘lesser’ pieces…
The point here being: sometimes you do take a step (or two) back, sometimes you can amaze yourself even further with the next creation, but it’s always self-discovery which it seems like any journey should be about. At any point I can think of in my artistic/musical career, the high-water marks always simply led to the next piece and no pattern exists for whether they were all not as good as the previous one or better. Creation is a mysterious thing.
Another thing that keeps me going during the times of “what if” or doubt is remembering that my best work is always still ahead of me.
And this is true – it’s not just something I tell myself or some “Jedi-artist mind trick.” This is one of the things that keeps driving me on besides the fact that I just love doing it. And as an artist you almost have to think this way to keep moving forward – keep pushing, keep expanding and exploring to reach new territory and at the same time territory that is uniquely your own.
At first this would seem to put you back in the world of competition or constantly having to ‘top’ yourself, but it’s something more along the lines of constant and never-ending improvement in what you do and re-inventing your work when you feel the need to or the work itself calls for it. In this model you never fully arrive somewhere. No resting on ‘laurels’ here… or dwelling on past ‘failures.’ It’s all a work in progress. You celebrate every milestone, rest up, and then start all over again.
I’ve thrown this last one in as it was the last painting I did a couple of years back. By the time I completed this one, I had been doing mostly ‘cloud paintings’ for the previous 8 years and it was kind of a natural stopping point at the time. You reach a few of those points if you work in some creative area long enough. When I pick up the brush again – probably next year – I’m not sure what subject matter (if any) I’ll be painting… but not knowing exactly what comes next or where it can take you is more than half the fun.