On Doubt, Fear, and Being a Professional Artist
ON GOOD DAYS AND BAD DAYS
During a writing day, I inevitably hit a point of diminishing returns. A point where any work I do will likely have to be redone the next day–because I’m too mentally, spiritually, or intellectually tired to continue doing good work. Usually it happens around 3PM–but some days, like today, it happens much later. It’s 7:06 right now, and I’ve saved my file under a new name and switched from coffee to a more evening-appropriate beverage.
But I find myself at one of those rare plateaus in my day where I am too fatigued to continue working on my book, but too exhilarated to stop writing. Part of that exhilaration comes from the fact that I had a very good writing day. An exceptional writing day. And I’ve been thinking about what separates the good days from the bad, and how I might endeavour to have more of the good ones.
It comes down to this: I know only one way to ensure more good writing days: WRITE MORE DAYS. Because, honestly, I have ZERO control over whether a day is good or bad.
I’m not talking about productivity here. I’m not talking about word count or page production. I’m talking about: at the end of the day, do I want to go downstairs and embrace my beautiful wife, or get in my car and drive into a corn field and weep like a five-year-old whose blankie has just been thrown into the fireplace. I’m talking about: do I feel worthy to call myself a writer, or do I want to fling my laptop onto the freeway like a frisbee and go beg the restaurant where I used to bus tables in college to give me my old apron back. I’m talking existential criteria here, not measurable in anything tangible.
I hear writers claim all the time that a bad day writing is better than a good day at their old job.
A bad day writing is worse than the worst day at any day job I’ve ever had. Why? Because it COUNTS more. Because it HURTS more. Because, when I have a bad writing day, I am convinced that the magic has left me forever, and that I am doomed to a life of never having been. That I was a wizard once, but now I’m just a squib, banished to live among muggles, to scrounge in the shadow of the power I once wielded, but am now unable to touch. That is terrifying. That sucks far harder than being told, “no” by a potential sales client. Sorry, guys. Hashtag: truthache.
A good writing day, on the other hand, is better than the best day of any other job I’ve ever had ever in the history of all days ever had. And for just a few of those good days per year, I’m willing to face scores of existential crisis-inducing, suicidal thought-provoking, shave-my-face-with-some-mace-in-the-dark bad writing days.
Here’s the thing. I’m going to try to communicate this on the intellectual plane, but it can really only be understood on the physical/emotional plane.
No amount of validation will ever be enough.
No amount of likes on Facebook or followers on Twitter or autographs signed or books sold or zeros in my bank account will ever be enough to convince me I am any good. No agent calling to offer me representation can shout over the voice of doubt that lives inside my skull. No giant publishing conglomerate reaching down from Mount Booklympus to gift me with a golden keyboard will ever shine bright enough to illuminate the black hole of doubt between my sternum and my navel that sucks at the world relentlessly and with voracious fervor.
No amount of love or sex or food or chemicals or anything will ever fill that hole. Will ever make a dent in that hole.
And yet, I hope.
But hope for an artist is like “just one more hit” for an addict. It is deadly. Hope never finished a project. Hope never got an agent. Hope didn’t get Andy Dufresne out of Shawshank Prison: he did it with a spoon*.
I don’t know that I can ever stop hoping. But I can refuse to put down the spoon.
That is what makes me qualified to be a professional artist. That, and modicum of talent and the circumstances that led me to place I now stand. I’m not writing those off–but I can’t claim them as my own, because they were given to me without my asking. Sure, I made some choices–but I made more bad ones than good ones, so can I really take credit for the good ones?
So really, it’s just me and the spoon.
So really, it’s just you and the spoon.
If your hand is empty, pick it up. If you’ve already got hold of it:
*actually, he did it with a rock hammer. See what I mean about diminishing returns? But seriously, though. It would have been way more impressive with a spoon. So I’m sticking with that.
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