I believe you have had the misfortune to meet my self-doubt demons. I wanted to dedicate today’s post to one of them; a tiresome little guy I like to call the What-If-I-Actually-Suck Demon.
He’s not one of my regulars, probably because I have a strong resistance to his wiles; I have been lucky enough to build up enough external validation from “high-stakes” critics (agents and editors, for example) that I have a solid pile of evidence against his case.
I’ll tell you when he does tend to show up, though. He shows up when I am unimpressed by somebody else’s work. Especially when that somebody approached me specifically and asked my opinion of said work, and I find it sloppy, or not well executed, or just plain bad.
You see, self-doubt demons are highly skilled at creating paradoxical vortexes of shame. On one side of the vortex is the fear that I’m a snob: who the hell am I to judge someone else’s work as being “not good enough”? On the other side is the fear that we’re both in the “riffraff section”–it takes one to know one, right?
Look, there’s a grain of truth here: not everyone is a “great” artist. Not every person who dabbles in a creative discipline is going to become a master at it. There is a certain measure of talent that’s required, and talent is not something you can choose or develop, it’s something you were born with. It’s all well and good for me to say, as I do in the Creative Resilience Manifesto, that “the only opinion that really matters is your own”; but what if your work does suck and you can’t see it?
On surface level, it’s a legitimate question.
But let’s look a little deeper.
Art Is Subjective
In the academic world, what they consider “high-quality” art or literature generally lives up to a certain set of “standards”. However, the thing about those “standards” is that they are subject to change. Once upon a time, if your piece didn’t resolve neatly into classical harmonies, it wasn’t music. If your poem didn’t rhyme or fit whatever meter was fashionable, it wasn’t poetry. These things aren’t objective; they change all the time.
So what does all “great” art, literature, and music have in common?
Can greatness be measured objectively?
A Matter of Taste
The more I’ve learned about literature, the more I’ve been able to put words to what I enjoy or don’t enjoy about a piece. For example, I probably won’t enjoy a story that doesn’t have a solid plot structure, good character development, crisp, believable dialogue, and the kind of writing that reads smoothly and engages the senses well. I also happen to prefer stories that convey a nuanced and complex message–preferably a hopeful one, but not Pollyannish. That’s my taste; it’s developed through my own encounters with literature, as a reader, a student, and a writer.
Some of the things I appreciate in literature are fairly “standard”. If you take a creative writing class, your teacher is likely to help you develop your skills to create pieces that have many of those characteristics. But that doesn’t make them objective requirements for great literature. Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse has, like, no plot. Charles Dickens was paid per word, and you can tell from his pages and pages of descriptions that any sane writing coach in the 21st century would take a serious hatchet to. Heck, even J. K. Rowling, who was my heroine as a teenager, could definitely have done with a frank conversation about conciseness vis-a-vis the latter books of the Harry Potter series. (What editor let her keep that epilogue in book #7?! Seriously!!!)
So What Makes Art “Great”?
If greatness doesn’t have objective perimeters–what makes something great?
One thing, and one thing only: it resonates with people.
That is, people connect to it and find it meaningful.
The more people the piece resonates with, the more likely it is to be considered “great”.
This is very fickle and impossible to predict. Because even the same person might feel completely differently about a piece of art if he has a different background, or different information, or is influenced by fashion and the culture around him. That’s why artists, writers, and musicians are often grouped by era; what they were doing resonated with people who were influenced by the times. Bob Dylan would probably not have won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1905. Then again, if he had been raised in the late 19th century, the stuff he’d be producing would probably have been very different.
The Quality of Your Work Isn’t Static
If what you’re producing now is not the kind of work that resonates with a lot of people, that doesn’t mean that will never change.
Talent is only a small part of what it takes to make art that resonates. Hard work, experimentation, technique, and practice have a much bigger part in creating impressive art.
You’re on a journey. As long as you stay open and willing to learn and experiment, you will continue to improve, making your work resonate with more and more people. Take a class if you like; read about your craft. Never stop viewing, reading, or otherwise enjoying art in your field; you can learn a ton from the work of other people. I can’t promise you that you’ll excel and find hundreds of thousands of fans. That, as I’ve discussed in the past, has more to do with luck than anything else.
But your job isn’t to find hundreds of thousands of fans. Your job is three things:
- To remember that you are the highest authority where your work is concerned. It doesn’t actually matter what anyone else thinks of it. If you think your worth is worthy–it’s worthy. Period.
- To find your audience–even if it’s an audience of one. If your work resonates with someone, it may resonate with more. Find those people and use their support to inspire you and improve your craft. Don’t let it discourage you if your audience is small. What matters is that you are making someone’s life richer and more meaningful with your work.
- To keep growing, keep practicing, and keep “daring greatly”.
The Bottom Line:
“What if I actually suck?”is not a helpful question.
This shouldn’t surprise us; it’s a self-doubt-demon question. If anyone sucks at anything, it’s self-doubt demons at coming up with helpful questions!
Here are some better questions to replace it with:
- What am I trying to accomplish with my work?
- Is my work achieving that goal?
- How can I move toward that goal?
- Who is my work resonating with?
- Do I want it to resonate with more people?
- How can I make that happen?
Remember item #1 on the Creative Resilience Manifesto?
I create because creation is an act of love.
Not greatness. Not success. Not talent. Love.
So get out there and show us some love.