Over It and Still Creating

I sometimes wonder what great creators later thought about their works.

Once I had a dream where I met John Steinbeck in an American diner in the 50s. When I looked around the room I almost missed him because he was waiting tables. Starstruck, I approached him and told him how much his work meant to me, how much I admired it, and how great it was in general. He looked past me and shrugged, then someone from the kitchen called his name and he put out his cigarette and went to get the tray.

Larry McMurtry, author of 45+ novels, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Lonesome Dove, said the following about the book later:

I haven’t held Lonesome Dove in my hands or read it in years. I just don’t think much about my books, particularly not ones that go back 25 years.

(Source)

In another interview with NPR, he said the following:

If you don’t want to be realistic about your work, fine. If you think that such and such a book is the War & Peace of our time, fine and dandy. Nobody’s going to stop you from thinking that. I don’t happen to think that way. I think I’ve written some pretty good books. But I don’t think I’ve written a great book.

(Bold mine.)

It would be altogether unsurprising to me to learn that most of the art that has moved us the most came to mean almost nothing to those who made it in the end. For one thing, self doubt is too pervasive for it to not be a factor for some. For another, if what the creator makes is good enough, it will require every fiber of their energy and persistence to see it through to the end, and by the time they’re done with it they may wish they’d never even conceived of it. Lonesome Dove is 365,000+ words long.

While I wouldn’t dare compare myself to the two authors mentioned above, as a video creator for over 12 years now, I know keenly the feeling of always being compelled to create and always looking back on what I’ve made with indifference. It’s strange.

Why So Immodest?

Some people can’t do anything without calling attention to it. Others stay in their quiet place doing things that are covertly amazing.

When I was 16 I had the privilege of traveling to Italy with some other students in my school. While riding the tour bus through the rainy Italian countryside, we stopped in a small town and went into a castle-like building that looked like an art gallery. The guide led our group up the stairs where against the far wall an old man sat hunched over a lamp. When we approached we saw that he was lost in his work, squinting through a jeweler’s magnifier which he held in place between his frowning brow and flexed cheek. In his hand, an ivory cameo was taking shape—a miniature work of art carved in ivory.

© Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 2.5

The next thing I saw was his thumb, which because of a callus seemed twice its normal size. The man was close to 100 years old and had been working at his craft around 80 years, if I’m remembering correctly. The strokes of his tools seemed effortless.

And there he sat, silently. He never said a word to our group. He was too diligent creating beauty that spoke for itself.

I want to be the kind of person whose value is discovered. So many in our time leave everything out on the table and there’s nothing left to mine, no thrill in the search, no sense of wonder when the full picture comes into view.

Modesty is underrated.

Why Art Doesn’t Explain Itself

If art explained itself it wouldn’t be art. It would be an instruction manual.

I’ve often been irritated that I can’t discern the meaning of a lyric or the significance of a painting, yet without this tension there would be no intrigue. User manuals are the most boring literature in existence.

There’s also the tension the artist feels. Imagine laboring over a creative work and knowing that most of the meaning will be lost on those who consume the work. The temptation to over-explain is intense.

Artists have to be content with misunderstanding. Mystery enables discovery—over time our perspective changes and we see the same thing in a different light—and mystery invites interpretation. I interpret a lyric one way, you see the same one differently. If the writer said too much about it, all that juicy speculation would be over, even though part of me still wants them to.

Artist or Entrepreneur

Years ago I was running camera for an interview with the founder of a major tech company and he made a distinction that stuck with me ever since.

He said there are artists and there are entrepreneurs. Artists make something, present it to the world, and when people give feedback they leave their work as it is and tell people they don’t get it. Entrepreneurs make something, present it to the world, and when people give feedback they reconfigure and present again. Then they get more feedback, reiterate, and present again. They repeat this cycle until they have a successful product.

Where you fall on that continuum as a creator is completely up to you. You might make things that never make you money in return and that be perfectly fine with you. Or you might be totally focused on profit. That’s perfectly fine too.

The big thing is, you don’t have to choose. Artists can make money, and if they want to be happy, they probably need to at some point. It’s not fulfilling to have a burning desire to make art and spend all your time working jobs that keep you from doing it. Few people have the means to stop working and create whatever art they desire. The smartest artists figure out how to get paid to make art—art which they are still proud of.

It’s romantic to talk about never being a sellout, and no doubt, industry has warped many creators. But a lot of upcoming artists actually need to learn how to sell out. You can’t sell out if your art isn’t good enough to sell in the first place. 

Maybe step one is getting good enough at something for people to pay you to do it.