Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Creative Life: Don't Wait Until You Know Who You Are to Make Things.

Technique Tuesday

There's an old wisecrack that, in this age of iPods, is fading into disuse: ask a teenager what instrument they play and they'll answer, "The stereo."

For a long time, the only music you had was the music you made yourself. Prior to the era of recorded music, refined young women were expected to entertain with their playing and singing. Now it seems more common for young people to not even bother to learn an instrument because even with a lot of effort they still don't sound as good as the $0.99 download from iTunes.

Austin Kleon's second point, in "How to Steal Like an Artist (and 9 Other Things Nobody Told Me), is, "Don't wait until you know who you are to make things." He says:
"There was a video going around the internet last year of Rainn Wilson, the guy who plays Dwight on The Office. He was talking about creative block, and he said this thing that drove me nuts, because I feel like it’s a license for so many people to put off making things: “If you don’t know who you are or what you’re about or what you believe in it’s really pretty impossible to be creative.”

"If I waited to know “who I was” or “what I was about” before I started “being creative”, well, I’d still be sitting around trying to figure myself out instead of making things. In my experience, it’s in the act of making things that we figure out who we are."
Kleon's argument that we figure out who we are by making things is a powerful insight, fully in accord with what I've been saying on Mondays.

Wilson, however, also has a point: we're not going to be able to add anything new to the conversation until we have some idea of who we are, what we know, and what we want to say.

I think the difficulty between the two is that Wilson is talking about product while Kleon is talking about process. As with an instrument, which you won't master without a great deal of practice, it takes time and effort to produce something that people other than your mother will acknowledge as creative. But you'll never master the instrument if you only practice scales and postpone making music until you think you're good enough.

If you've been focusing on short stories and writing exercises because you don't think you're good enough to write your novel, you're on a path that leads to self-fulfilling prophesy. Granted, short stories are a better way to prepare to write a novel than watching video games. But the best way to write a novel is to write a novel.

Put another way, Kleon encourages us to play and to, "Fake it till you make it." Children don't wait until they're good at something before they try it and it doesn't matter if they fail.We spend most of our time as adults either dealing with the consequences of failure or working to avoid it. But an all-or-nothing approach--we must succeed: failure is not an option--stunts our creative life, confining it to the tiny areas where we know we can succeed.

What, then, does Wilson have to do with Kleon's liberating advice?

Simply this: don't expect to write a bestseller the first time you put pen to paper. It takes a lot of work, including some soul searching to figure out what you have to contribute, before people will sit up and take notice when you play anything other than the stereo.


Image: luigi diamanti / FreeDigitalPhotos.net