Back to Sucking.

In Creativity and Inspiration, Life Is Short, Pep Talks, Rants and Sermons, The Craft, The Life Creative, Vision Is Better by David13 Comments

This weekend I’m off to the northern tip of Vancouver Island to dive in the giant kelp forests with sea lions and octopus. I can’t wait! After a year of taking SCUBA courses and, forgive the pun, immersing myself in a hobby more bewildering than even photography, I am finally taking my cameras into the water and it feels like going back to school. Not back to grade 12, either. Back to grade one. Back to clumsy. Back not to pencils but to crayons. The thick ones. Back to “I don’t know what the hell is going on.” Back to absolute beginner. Back to serial failure. Back to fear and a complete lack of what is familiar and comfortable. Back, with apologies to my mother for the crassness of the colloquialism, to sucking.

I don’t mourn this. It’s not a negative thing. Hard things are not the same as bad things and this is the only path I know to move forward in this craft (and life for that matter). Knowing my place in this new school makes me pay attention. Failing teaches me faster. It opens my eyes. It helps me see new possibilities. It is a blank slate. It is not a place of weakness but openness. I haven’t been this excited in ages. Nor as terrified.

I think sometimes we get so distracted by the felt pressure to succeed fast. To be masters straight out of the gate. What else explains the proliferation of workshops offered by people whose very first camera was a Nikon D700? I admire the moxy, and it’s true, there are some true prodigies out there, but for the love of light, can we all just be a little more OK with the journey and in less of a rush to hit the finish line? My god, are we ever in such a hurry.

When I was in comedy we often said of opportunities like Open Mic nights that “everyone needs a place to suck.” We all need a classroom where we’re the least experienced and wearing the dunce cap. Not for the sake of humiliation, but for the recognition that for whatever exams we’ve aced in the past, they’re not what will lead to our best work in the future. Challenge does that. New adventures and curiosity do that. We make photographs – indeed all art is made – in uncertainty. Uncertainty that it’ll work out, that it’ll express our vision the way we hope, that it’ll be well received, or that we’ll even be remotely good at it. I know of no better way to get comfortable with that uncertainty than to find a teacher to take us into new territory that has almost no common ground with our comfort zone.

That’s where I’m at now. And I’m not being modest. I wish I were. I just got back from Cancun and the photographs I made underwater there are truly, un-redeemably bad. This is my place to suck. There’s no shame in that. The shame is in never trying, in not being open to learning, and in showing up for the first day of class expecting to know it all before the lessons start. I don’t remotely know if I’ll be good at it, if it’ll prove to be what I hope it is, but man, am I excited to see if it leads somewhere. And if it doesn’t, I’ll have spent time doing what I love – which is way more about play and discovery and being in wild places than it is about making something others think is great. What freedom that is.

Wherever you’re at in the process – keep at it. Enjoy the places you have to fail in safety, to create truly bad work, and to be unashamed of it. There’s freedom there. Where there is no freedom, and in fact where there are only toxins for the creative spirit, is in expecting to find mastery without taking the hard road of learning that gets us there. A road, I might add, on which we are all walking together. Sure I might be a little further ahead of some, but there are others still further ahead of me to whom I look for light, and others steps behind you who look at you with envy. Doesn’t matter if the view from where we are is beautiful and meaningful. Look at this as an endless journey of discovery and you’re golden. Look at it as a race and you might as well stop now.

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  1. Pingback: Back to Sucking. – news.iNthacity

  2. Yet again, you’ve nailed it straight to my heart. This. So guilty of this, so very guilty even though I know better. I wish I’d learned to embrace failure earlier so I could have broken the expectation of immediate mastery sooner. In our house, failure is teasingly referred to as ‘snowboarding’ – thanks to the one time I tried it and expected to master it straight away – and failed in spectacular teary fashion. Thank you for the ever gentle reminder that we all need a place to suck. I’m going to go find one now. Perhaps that too will be added to the household vernacular!

  3. David…it is nice to have a someone out there that can finally appreciate what us underwater photographers go through. People think it is simple to take photos underwater, and we are never appreciated for the art we create underwater. I heard that underwater photos on 500px, for example, are the photos least viewed and/or commented on. So thanks for being our “spokes person” so to speak, and I wish you all the best with your new hobby….just make sure your diving skills are 100% secure before taking the plunge with a big SLR unit attached to your arms…

  4. This is great. Nothing like feeling like a fish out of water again. I would love to see what you consider “sucking” photos for yourself.

  5. David,
    I have been teaching photography (underwater and on Terra Firma) for that past 30 or so years and this post sums up what I have been trying to share. Your points are so important and I would like to, with your permission, share this post with past, present and future people I work with.

    Truly words to live by.. Thank you.

  6. I can remember, as a kid, a quote from one of the neighbor boys that has stuck with me.

    “If at first you don’t succeed,
    Keep on sucking till you DO succeed”

  7. Love this post – this came at just the right time for me. I have just enrolled in a writing course and am terrified of putting my writing out there for judgement – well that’s my ego speaking right there. What I will really be doing is learning from those who have something to teach. Thanks David.

  8. We have a well-known and very famous TV advertisement that was first aired some years ago to promote tourism in the far north of Australia – back in the 1990s I think.

    The words were “you’ll never ever know if you never ever go)”.

    Totally applicable here.

  9. Another great post…and also wanted to mention how much I enjoyed your article DISCIPLINE in your magazine PHOTOGRAPH. I so enjoy that magazine! Thank you and enjoy your trip!

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