How to keep failing


Back when I was a young pup Shilling for the Man, I wrote a lot of ads for a certain mass-market sports beverage.

As in, a lot of ads.

Because while those of you who haven't had the pleasure of working in the salt mines of advertising might not know it, the ratio of ads-come-up-with to ads-actually-produced is crazy high. Or low. You get my point: creatives, as they are affectionately known, dream up and sketch out far, far more ideas that get shit-canned than make it to the airwaves.

As a result of this crazy ratio, and a particularly trying mix of difficult personalities (which was out of my control) and quarter-life crisis (which, to be fair and in retrospect, was probably largely out of my control as well), I started to experience burnout. The well ran dry of ideas (how many ways can you sell spiked water, anyway?) and I started to feel myself turn into a hack, applying what had been successful in previous go-rounds to the supposedly new challenges before us (which, come on: spiked water? there are no new challenges). I turned to a formula, such as it was, and my copy became sort of a caricature of its former self.

It scared me enough to start the wheels in motion for my escape. There were other contributing factors, egregious politics, rampant greed, physical burnout, but I could see I'd need some sort of major cranial overhaul to keep going in my chosen career, and while I don't think there's anything wrong with advertising per se, I never could get 100% down with the amount of resources it consumed for the value it produced. At least the typing monkeys were working towards a second Hamlet.

Success is terrifying. I mean, it's great for about 20 minutes out of the 2 million it took to get there, the peak experience of a big sale or shiny statuette or the equivalent is a serious head rush. But then there's that blank page the next day, and the mandate to fill it with something equally awesome or even more so. Death, death. But that's exactly what happens to creative after creative, artist after artist, blogger after blogger once they hit something like their stride. Reach a peak, or even a plateau of competence, and the pressure is enormous to stay there. Worst of all, you can even stay there for some time, convinced that you're evolving, that you're building on a solid foundation of hard-won knowledge instead of lolling about on your dusty, crackling laurels.

A while ago, I bookmarked a wonderful piece on this subject by fine artist Robert Genn (whose semi-weekly newsletter, The Painter's Keys, is one of my favorite regular reads). It's titled "Sterility," after Pablo Picasso's take on the eternally interesting (if confounding) topic. Sterility, Picasso said*, is the result of copying oneself, an infraction he considered far worse than copying others, because engenders artistic death.

The opposite of sterility is fertility, and Genn's argument (and Picasso's, by extension) is that fertility is a learned state, or at least, that learning and action can help keep one in a state of artistic productivity or fertility. This resonates deeply with my own experience, which I liken to having to throw myself off a goddamn cliff just as soon as I've caught my breath from climbing up there. It's terrifying, it's exhilarating, it's teh suxors, as some geeky kids somewhere said at some time. Flinging myself into the gaping maw of who-the-hell-knows what, again and again and again.

To you, reading this now, it may not seem so. You may see (or hear, however it works) some kind of voice or through-line. One post is enough like the other so as not to seem schizophrenic, but different enough (and either good enough or trainwreck-ish enough) that you're moved to read more than one.

That voice is more like a side effect of flinging, though. Flinging and exercising, in tandem. You write and you write (or paint and paint, or what have you) and you learn stuff: tricks, tools and such. The rules, if you like. Those are muscles, and they do get stronger. You build up a kind of tolerance for the climbing, and maybe a better sense of how and where to fling yourself. You might even learn a thing or two about how to land without blowing yourself into a Wile E. Coyote puffball of smoky smithereens.

It's the flinging, though, that gives you the voice. Flinging and flinging and flinging. And getting up, either on the next cliff or from that faraway ground, and prepping yourself to fling again. And 48 years into the game I'm here to tell you: the flinging? It does not get easier. It just gets so that you become reasonably sure you will not die (or go broke, or whatever your doomsday scenario is) as a result of the flinging.

Before I scare anyone off of making any kind of art ever again, please remember that little phrase a few hundred words ago about fertility being a learned state. There is stuff you can do to change it up, to challenge yourself and to generally keep up the "private search for 'new'" necessary for fertility. Genn includes a short list for artists of tricks, change your media; mix your media; change your working environment; etc, to be used singly or in combination that is pretty easily adaptable to other fields of artistic endeavor. And once you get the in mindset, you do get better of keeping yourself in the state of flux/growth, or at least, you learn where to look for help.

And then? Back to flinging...


Image by greencolander via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

*The actual quote, which I liberated from this very spicy bit on Picasso, is this: "One begins to copy oneself, and to copy oneself is more dangerous than to copy others. It leads to sterility."