catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 12, Num 1 :: 2013.01.04 — 2013.01.17


Ten lies artists tell themselves

1. “I can’t show this to anyone.”

It’s a romantic idea: the cloistered genius, sitting on a treasure trove of half-finished poetry, paintings, essays and Great American Novels, a secret to everyone but her.  One day, when she’s gray and weary, a friend or relative will happen upon a fragment of her brilliance and immediately publish it, inspiring the world for all time.

While the image of the introvert artist has a certain Emily Dickenson-esque sweetness to it, it’s not doing most of us any favors.  As creative beings, we need to interact with others about our craft and we need to allow others to interact with our art.  What works?  What doesn’t?  What are we communicating clearly and/or uniquely and what’s impenetrable to everyone but us?  We’ll never know until we take the leap and share our art with others.  Terrifying, sure.  But it makes us better.

2. “I need to focus exclusively on self portraits for awhile.”

If we’re being honest, there’s always a tiny bit of narcissism associated with most creative endeavors.  It’s inevitable.  We’re all experts in one very specific subject: ourselves.  We blog, we tweet, we status-update about the minutiae of our day.  We compose poems and ditties about Our Very Special Pain.  We draw and paint pensive images of ourselves and spin fantasies about what we’d rather be doing.

Nothing wrong with any of that, but it can easily turn into a creative addiction.  And make no mistake, people and situations we know intimately inspire some incredible art, but it’s often a great idea to get out of our own headspace once and awhile.  Imagine a person we’ve never met or a situation we’ve never personally experienced.  Where does that take us?  And why?  It’s astonishing what we can explore and the sorts of walls we can knock down when we’re willing to leave “me” out of it.

3. “My work needs to be a little more crowd-pleasing.”

It’s an axiom many of us have heard, but it bears repeating: write the sort of book you’d want to read, not the sort of book you think others will want to read.

It’s easy to over-think our art.  We fool ourselves into imagining it’s possible to come up with just the right combination of style and ideas to produce something that appeals to everyone: the intellectuals, the low-brows, the hipsters, the old codgers, the critics and the everyman.  And as believers, our task is doubly complicated.  Creatively, the Christian status quo is guarded with great rigor and it’s probable that many of our wilder ideas and struggles would provoke and upset some very sincere and well-meaning fellow congregates in our church body.

So we water it down.  We don’t say what we really want to say because someone may not be happy.

Unfortunately, making everyone happy can often be a recipe for some very forgettable art.  Clearly, we need to be cognizant of offending or causing weaker brothers and sisters to stumble.  On the other hand, it’s our privilege — maybe even our duty — to challenge those around us.  The very best art invites a discussion.  Take a chance on saying what you mean once in a while and be prepared to listen to what others have to say about it, particularly if they don’t like it.

4. “A few more tweaks and I’m finished.”

A friend of mine is working on what I’m fairly sure is the third or fourth draft of her novel.  It’s her first book and she understandably wants it to be absolutely perfect.  She’s flipped every chapter, every scene upside down and sideways so many times that she’s admitted to going a bit batty.  There’s always a better verb or adjective.  Always an overwritten paragraph that needs to be gutted.  Finally, I laid it on the line with her: “it’s time to give yourself a deadline and be done with it, warts and all.”

Every creative individual understands the pain of letting art out of the nest before it’s ready to fly.  “If only I’d spent a little more time, it would have improved things 1,000%.”  To avoid this awful experience, we erase and edit.  We change the order.  We delete, redo, delete and go back to what we originally had.  Round and round and round.

Writing is re-writing, no doubt about it, but we rarely realize when we’re making something better versus when we’re simply making something different.  At some point, it’s time to defer to the tired old cliché: “Let go and let God.”

Oh, and my author friend?  She tried to protest a little, but I held firm. “You’ve beaten this one into submission long enough,” I told her.  “Besides, you’ve got another book in you and it’s time to get started on it.”

5. “I can manufacture the perfect creative environment.”

As of this writing, I’ve discovered roughly 4,000 reasons not to create.  A few favorites: the room I’m working in is too cold.  I’m out of the kind of tea I like to drink.  I’m expecting something from FedEx.  I still haven’t e-mailed my sister about my niece’s Christmas present.

One of our greatest fictions is the notion that we’ll somehow facilitate a perfect scenario for optimum creativity and focus, resulting in work that will more or less produce itself.

It will never happen.  We’ll prepare and we’ll research and we’ll wait for the Right Moment, but the Right Moment will simply refuse to arrive.  Create anyhow.  Do it.


6. “My creative process should be similar to my favorite artist’s process.”

I’m a junkie when it comes to tracking down online interviews with writers, illustrators, musicians and filmmakers I admire.  I love peeking behind the curtain for an eyeful of what and how they do what they do.  What’s often surprising is how little they seem to have in common with each other in terms of their respective methods and practices.

I read an interview once with an author I respect deeply and his advice to other writers was, essentially, “Write a terrible first draft.  Even when you hate it, keep going.  When you’re finished, go back and rework it into something great.”  So I tried that.  It was, in every respect, an exercise in frustration.  I couldn’t push through, no matter how hard I tried.  The sad fact is I can’t begin chapter two unless I’m at least moderately happy with chapter one.  It doesn’t need to be perfect, but that’s how I’m built.  If I invest 20 hours on that first, tiny milestone, I can typically finish off each subsequent milestone in relatively short order.

But that’s me.

I know some storytellers who have to have every plot point laid out on note cards before they begin.  I know others who can only work if they have no idea what’s coming next and their process is one of continuous surprise.  The main thing is, don’t berate yourself for working a certain way.  As long as you’re creating and keeping a measure of energy and spontaneity moving through the work?  Go, baby, go.

7. “What worked last time will surely work this time.”

We’ve all been there.  The copy of Leaves Of Grass next to our keyboard combined with the Wagner channel on Pandora was the perfect springboard for one of our best-ever poems.  So we assemble the exact same recipe for a brilliant follow-up, this one twice as glorious as the last.


What produced lightning in a bottle a year ago seems tired and trite this time around, so what happened?  Nothing wrong with going back to an old, reliable source for inspiration, but it may not work again.  You weren’t exactly the same person and the world around you wasn’t exactly the same place when you wrote Poem #1.  Adapting is good.  It keeps us young and makes our work better.

8. “God gave us art, so all of my art should be God Art.”

My dream as a youngster was pretty simple.  I wanted to have a job someday that paid me to draw pictures of Batman.  Sure, it was a long shot, but somebody somewhere had that job and why not me?  Then, when I was 13, I was convinced by some missionaries that I was setting my sights far too low.  “Think what could be done for the Kingdom if you shifted your focus from superheroes to Christ!  God wants your talents!”

And I’m not really proud of this, but I began doing drawings and paintings of biblical scenes out of grudging obligation.  Don’t get me wrong, it was a good experience for me to expand my horizons, but it wasn’t my passion and I found myself sneaking sketches of the Caped Crusader into the backs of my notebooks to unwind from the stresses of doing Kingdom Art.

Here’s the thing: if Christ is your love, your savior, your passion, he’ll find unexpected ways into your art and into your life as an artist.  In my experience, you needn’t force it.  In fact, in some cases, you may not even be able to stop it.  I’ve known too many gifted Christians who’ve convinced themselves that God is in the business of taking away the things they love most as some sort of loyalty test.

And since you asked, I still love drawing Batman.

9.  “I’ve peaked.”

You haven’t.

10.  “Money/publishing/notoriety will make my art legitimate.”

Bad news first: one day your favorite anthology will finally decide to print your work and you’ll find a comp copy in your mailbox.  You’ll phone up your sisters, your parents and a handful of your closest friends because, at last, you made it in.  You’ll uncork whatever beverage you’ve been keeping on hand for the last several years.  You’ll sit down, heart racing, and you’ll open it straight to your page.  You’ll read it.  Your words in a place where you’ve always dreamed your words might someday appear.

And, well, yep, that’s it.  That’s what you wrote.

It’s slightly deflating.  Soon, the moments in your submission that have always bothered you are now all you can think about.  Then, a terrifying notion crosses your brain: this is easily the most exposure your work has ever had and it’s probably going to stay that way.  This sloppy, imperfect piece of garbage you dashed out one Saturday morning is now the world’s one and only impression of your abilities.  What were you thinking?  BEING PUBLISHED IS THE WORST THING EVER.  Why did you ever want this?  Whatever made you think you were built for this?

Professional writers and artists will often tell you that their favorite reason for getting paid to produce their art has little to do with the fame or the fancy openings or the lunch meetings with prestigious publishers.  All of those things are great, but the glow wears off sooner than you’d think.  At the end of the day, the sweetest thing about being a professional creator is the fact that they’re now able to spend more time doing what they love: creating.

Here’s the cold truth: if you haven’t already, you’ll need to learn to love your art even more than your identity as an “artist.”  You’ll need to see your latest blog entry as an endeavor equally worthy of your time and attention as your magnum opus.  Concentrate on great work and it’s amazing how little “legitimacy” starts to mean.

You’re a created being.  What’s more, you’re a created being who was created to create.  If your work finds an audience, be grateful.  It’s a blessing, not just for you but for your readers, listeners and fans.

Reflect the God who made you.  Be daring.  Be honest, wise and different.

Make art.  And when you’ve done that, make more.

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