We’re stopping in Ottawa right now, after a couple days at the cottage, on the way to Labrador and Newfoundland to work on making images for my next coffee-table book. Emily, the Jeep, is in for service and tweaks, after 5500km and in preparation for many more on the rougher roads of rural Quebec and Labrador. What a journey we’re having. You can keep up with me on Instagram.
Read much about the art of writing and at some point you’re bound to wonder if a certain amount of masochism is required to enter the field. One reader on my blog, commenting on the way I’d been so transparent about my own frustrations (in this case concerning my photography) told me he was no longer interested in reading my blog because my angst exhausted him. And here I thought I was making it look easy. Making art is hard.
Very little work becomes, in the end, the thing we imagined it to be at the beginning. Like the artist that makes it, it evolves, reacts, and becomes something more than we once expected.
One writer said writing was easy: it only required sitting in front of a typewriter and opening a vein. Indeed. I think most things in life, the things that really matter, require us to bleed a little. To put ourselves so thoroughly into something can’t be easy. But if it’s so hard that we find no joy in it, why bother? For the joy of completion? For the praise of others? Those seem like poor incentives, given how often a work—whatever it is—never gets completed, and how seldom our finished work finds truly honest and lasting praise.
True, there’s a thrill in finishing the work, and seeing it published, or hanging on a wall, but too much time spent nurturing an addiction to completion risks rushing through the process of creation itself, sabotaging the very work we aim to see done. It is the process itself where we discover new things, and find the first hints about new directions. Very little work becomes, in the end, the thing we imagined it to be at the beginning. Like the artist that makes it, it evolves, reacts, and becomes something more than we once expected. Unless, in rushing to the end, we miss those chances to not only take the work in new directions, but to enjoy the process, and savour the challenge. It might not be enjoyment in the same way we enjoy a good glass of wine, but it can be a deep-down sense of being alive, of being stretched, of knowing you can do this without having the foggiest idea exactly how.
Creativity carries with it, necessarily, that sense of “this might not work” and freed from that, and from the frisson that comes with risk, putting yourself out there, and into this thing you’re making, whatever it is, the work loses its spark.
The same sabotage of process happens when we create merely for the praise of others. It’s true, even as adults, most of us long in some way to have our art put on the fridge and praised. There’s a thrill to knowing something we’ve done has struck a cord with others, and means something to someone outside our own heads. Who doesn’t long to be relevant, to be noticed? But if that’s where you find the joy, and not in the creative process itself, then it’s as likely as not that you’ll sabotage your own work.
Creativity carries with it, necessarily, that sense of “this might not work” and freed from that, and from the frisson that comes with risk, putting yourself out there, and into this thing you’re making, whatever it is, the work loses its spark. There can be no guarantee that anything we create will be praised, or even understood, so to labour through a process you do not love, and in which you find no joy, only to create something that may never bring you the adulation you want, or need, seems a waste of the few, uncertain days we have on this earth. Better to find something you love doing, and do it for the love of it, than to work so hard for an insatiable ego making something that might never feed it. Even when we do make something that strikes a chord, praise fades quickly and has diminishing returns.
Creation is work, at times hard work, and the product of our creative process often yields a low return on the investment. We sure as hell better love the process, and find some joy in the struggle itself because we’ll spend much more of our lives actively creating than we ever will looking at the final piece, or hearing how good it is from the lips of others. Pragmatically I’m arguing for more than just a feel-good love of the labour, though that’s reason enough to create. A preoccupation with the end product of our efforts takes us from the present moment in which we need to give ourselves over to the process, and robs us of the very thing we long for: finished work that’s bigger or better than we dared hope for. It is this way whether that work is a story, a painting, or raising a child. Art is created in the present, where nothing is guaranteed to us but the process of making it. If we stay in that moment and enjoy the full experience of it—if not because of the challenge then despite it—our work will be better for it.
Process & Product is an excerpt from my latest book, A Beautiful Anarchy: When the Life Creative Becomes the Life Created. You can now get the paperback for only $14 from Amazon.com You can read more like this on the Beautiful Anarchy blog here.
“A Beautiful Anarchy is a manifesto that has changed how I see the world. Read this book if you want to make more meaningful photographs and live a more complete life.”
~ Chris Orwig, author of Visual Poetry.
The angst is part of what draw me to you writing. Plus the good writing.
Ed Catmull said in a interview with Tim Ferris “the movie you start to make is not the movie you end up with.”
“Creation is work, at times hard work, and the product of our creative process often yields a low return on the investment” – very true David! I think it’s hard work most times!
p.s. That “angst” resides in each of us as creators! Show me an artist that does not have a build up of such! It’s this, when pushed through, takes us to that next level. The only difference with you, is that you share it with us – makes us family then. Keep on sharing to your community; the community that is interested and can relate.
This seems to be a central question or concern for you – as it is always for me. I appreciate your raising it in a variety of ways and contexts…I sometimes wonder if I am just too immature or (a whole host of negative adjectives)
I continue to admire your work, your courage to take each day on, to model what it takes to do what we love!!
Beautifully said! The last paragraph of this post alone is worth rereading many many times. As usual thanks for the great insight!
I have been reading your book, it has really helped me with struggles I have been having over a decision I will be making in the near future. I strive to be more creative and always find that I become more motivated in a place that I relate to.
That is why I am thinking about moving back to the town where I was born and raised (Blanc-Sablon). It is on the Quebec/Labrador border, so I know the attraction to the Newfoundland and Labrador scenery and culture.
I currently live in Ottawa and wondered if my struggles we’re something that not many people faced, thanks to your book I realize, not only should I not be afraid of them, I am embracing and working with them.
Thanks for your many books and video series,
I wish you all the best on your trip and enjoy it.
‘A Beautiful Anarchy’ is one of the best books I have read. It should be required reading for anyone who wishes to embark on an artistic journey, or anyone who is interested in life for that matter. Well written, honest and considered. Your passion, commitment and generosity of spirit are reflected in your images and your words. I only know you through your images and your words, which I always find inspiring. Thank you for sharing, and educating.
Thank you, Laura, for such kind words. Means the world to me that the things I write make some difference to people I love but have never met.
A few years back maybe 2-3 now I took to heart your New Year’s challenge to make “resolves” not resolutions.. one of those was my first book… but even as I finished it I knew it was just the kick start to get the feel of the process, not THE Book. Since then I have created 5 more that reflect the growth of grandchildren and a couple holidays. I have recently decided I need to do a formal book., and I started that process two days ago. This latest blog reinforces my desire to follow up on this resolve which I know means a lot more work. The ideas have bounced around for years, but now I am invested in some research on my “new’ topic. The purpose of the book is to satisfy my inner urge to complete a meaningful book for me. It will likely never go to mass production. It is a labour of love of photography. I believe it will help me better understand my own journey and consolidate and clarify my own beliefs. Writing does that… forces us to confront what we believe.
and unlike the person who went their own way because of your “transparency” I find it to be the subtle reminder that the thing we love is not work, it is life and that too can be tough and sometimes frustrating, otherwise how would we know when to celebrate the joy and success…
Amen! Life and Art are hard at times, but think of the alternatives….. the mystery is all around us, and I feel my job as an artist is to reveal a bit of it whenever I can. Your images do that, the one at the top is truly wonderful.
“The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery.”