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.