I painted this cat several years ago. It sucks. It’s really, really bad. But I had fun painting it, and it served its purpose.
I love to doodle. I draw all the time–faces, little cartoon animals, aliens, even my happy little elephant butt (see below).
I come from a family of artists, some of them professional, most of them wicked talented. For years, I never “did” art because, frankly, I didn’t want to put it against the work of family members who were much better than I was. So I just scribble little cartoons in the margins of my notebooks and have a good time with it.
This week I donated a six-string guitar my father gave me to the local LGBT Community Center. The official reason was that we didn’t have space to bring it with us in the car to Arizona. The underlying reason was that in the two years I’ve had the thing, I never learned to play. I would start, suck, stop, start again, suck some more, and stop. (Sorry, Dad.)
Things have always come pretty easily for me. I did well enough in school. I can carry a tune to the point where singing isn’t painful for those around me. I can write stories and blog posts. Yes, I worked at these things, and yes that effort improved my abilities over time. And yes, I have failed tests and bombed songs and written excruciatingly crappy stories.
In essence, I sucked.
So why do I persevere through the suck on some things while letting it defeat me on other things, like art and playing the guitar? What is it that causes us to continue in some situations while we give up on the others?
I am not sure why it doesn’t bother me that sometimes I suck as a writer. Everybody sucks, now and then. But I keep writing. I know that, to a certain extent, it’s a numbers game. For every sucky story I write, I’ll probably write a good one to balance it out. I think my sucky song ratio is about five to one on the good side, and dude–try to stop me from learning. No, I will never be an archaeologist or an astrophysicist, but that’s not going to stop me from learning about both subjects.
I think what really matters is how much you want to do the things that you suck at. While I enjoy doodling, it’s not important enough for me to work through the sucking part. And it was cool strumming the guitar and actually getting a chord to sound right, but not enough to get calloused fingers and put in the effort.
To truly excel at something, you have to be willing to suck at it–possibly for a good, long time. You have to be willing to get bad grades, reviews, feedback. Hell, you have to accept that you might even be made fun of from time to time.
This sucking is the price you pay for becoming really good at something. Every C-minus, every rejection letter, every painful wince as you struggle to reach that high note is a due you pay to get where you want to go. Every crappy drawing you crumble up (or stick under a fridge magnet as a reminder of your suckitude) will spur you on, if that is where you really want to go.
If you are not willing to fuck it up, and royally, you will never get through to where you truly become a master.
So, let’s fuck it up, ya’ll. Let’s make bad art, and bad music, and tell really really crappy stories. Let’s share them with the world, so everybody understands it’s okay to suck. And when we’ve done that, let’s do it again–only a little better this time. And do it again, a little better, the next time. Until we really have something worth sharing.
I’m going to keep posting, and I’m going to keep drawing, and I’m going to keep singing. I hope you will, too.
Good night, Dear Souls.
Today I thought a lot about fear and about joy. About the urgent desire for excellence, and the weight that driving force puts on the shoulders of anyone who seeks to create.
There are a lot of people out there who think, if you’re not brilliant, if you’re not bringing your A+ game every single time, then you need to shut up and sit this one out. I read an article today bitching about the ease with which people are able to share their writing with the world, and how that has resulted in a whole lot of crap. The article made me angry. It made me sad.
The author of this article was one of those skeptics who seems to blame all the world’s mediocrity on medals for participation, as if only the winners of a game are deserving of recognition and praise. This mentality crushes me, because I truly believe it is the death knell to real creativity.
In order to write, or sing, or dance, or paint, or cook, or do anything even slightly creative, you have to first accept the fact that at some point in time you are going to suck. Your work will be dreck. You will read your words, or listen to the playback, and cringe.
Trust me. I know this.
And yes, there are some people out there who have committed atrocities against the creative arts (some have made enormous sums of money doing so). And there are people out there who reach a certain level, get comfortable enough, and never again push themselves to improve.
But to say “bring your best or go home” and then appoint yourself as sole judge of what “best” is? That’s bullshit.
During the 90s, I enjoyed a modest amount of success with a singing group called The Duras Sisters. We were (as we put it) three fat chicks from Phoenix who liked to sing about science fiction. We were completely clueless that what we were doing was difficult, so we just did it. Sometimes it worked out brilliantly. Other times, we fell on our asses. But we loved singing, we loved writing and arranging music, and we loved the way our music made us feel.
There are a lot of people who would listen to those CDs and rip them to shreds. I say fuck em. We had fun and we did the best we could.
One of the great parts of being a filker (sci-fi/fantasy folk singer) was participating in filk circles, either at conventions or in friends’ homes. There’s an old joke in filk–“Talent is greatly appreciated, but hardly a requirement.” Over the course of seven years, I sat through a great many filk circles. I’ve heard songs by people who could have easily gone pro, and I have heard performances by enthusiastic amateurs (often in the key of R-flat minor).
The beautiful thing about filk was, unless you were in a crappy circle, the person who warbled out a seventeen-verse Bardic ballad a cappella and off-key was usually given the same respect, courtesy, and kindness as the guy who ripped out guitar riffs like Eddie van Halen. It was about the joy of singing, and the joy of science fiction and fantasy, and the creative and communicative force of music.
Many of those filkers I only saw once or twice a year, but I still consider them friends. Some I consider family. The author of the article that ticked me off today would have probably sent half of us (myself included) home.
I think what I want to say is that there has to be a balance. Yes, you want to be the very best you can at your craft, but you should never get so wrapped up in your craft that you forget the joy of just doing it.
Like anything else, what is the kindest thing you can do? Berate yourself or someone else because they have not reached a level of proficiency to your liking? Or rejoice in their creating, celebrate the courage it took to present their work to the public, and encourage them to continue learning and growing?
We are all works in progress. We are all going to be crappy at things from time to time.
But no one should ever get sent away from the table just because they suck. If you don’t like the performance, go to the bathroom. If you don’t like the blog post or article, click a button. Nobody says you have to endure something that makes your teeth itch.
But don’t tell them to go home. Even if they’re really, really bad. That’s just being a douche.
Peace, ya’ll. I’m off to Skype with my former singing partner.
P.S. Here’s a track of my singing group, from our CD Rubenesque.
Anna Deveare Smith has been showing up a lot in my sphere these days. It started with a review I read of her book, Letters to A Young Artist: Straight-up Advice on Making a Life in the Arts for Actors, Performers, Writers, and Artists of Every Kind.
It’s not often I get teary-eyed at work, but the excerps from the book had me sniffling at my desk several minutes after break ended.
Smith showed up again in my Facebook newsfeed, when my darling and insanely talented friend, Monique M. Jones, posted a link to another passage from the book.
At this point, I had an empty Kleenex box and a burning desire to own this book. Fast forward twelve hours, and my partner Fey had surprised me with the Kindle version.
A single passage in her introduction did it for me, because it pretty much voices what I’ve been feeling all my life:
I am addressing you if you are interested in change, in social change, and if you see yourself, potentially, as one of the guardians of the human spirit. In fact, I’m not just addressing you; I am calling you out–asking you to make yourself visible. We need you here!
In this world, it is no longer enough to just live day to day, guided by marketing, public opinion, and the status quo. We live in a crowded, noisy, disheartened world. Those of us called to change have to be awake. We have to be authentic. We cannot just phone in our lives, waiting for other people to fix things.
We are those people we’re waiting for, or at least we need to be those people. We have to be the ones who are asking the hard questions, telling the truth, finding the solutions.
Dear heavens, we are THE GROWN-UPS now!
I know you may not want to hear this. I don’t really relish admitting that I’m a member of that oft-maligned and rarely appreciated group. I cherish my immaturity and all the wacky complications involved with that trait.
But I also know that I am present here in this place, in this time, and I’m called to do something to make a change.
Anna Deveare Smith gets it, and she’s put it down on paper. I can’t read her book quickly–there is too much crammed in to every page for me to process in a hurry. I am sure I will come back to it over and over during the next few weeks.
In the meantime, I ask you–are you awake? Are you called? Do you want to make the world a better place?
Because the time for idle spirits is long, long past.
Peace to you–Deb
P.S. You know the drill–share if you care!