“It is said that distractions are too easy to come by now that most writers use computers, though it’s just as convenient to flee through the mind’s window into fantasy. In the end, a person requires a method. He must be able to distinguish between creative and destructive distractions by the sort of taste they leave, whether they feel depleting or fulfilling. And this can work only if he is, as much as possible, in good communication with himself — if he is, as it were, on his own side, caring for himself imaginatively, an artist of his own life.”—
Hanif Kureishi. “The Art of Distraction”. New York Times. 19 February, 2012.
This article is about T.S. Eliot’s “day job” in a bank.
Day jobs come up a lot in discussions about art. You know the spiel. A day job is a dead-end, low-paying temporary job that helps to pay the bills. It helps your artistic street cred if you absolutely hate it. It should be demeaning and represent a far cry from your potential, with no possibility for meaningful advancement. It’s temporary - until you “make it big” - and can be ditched with the slightest excuse. It gets in the way of your art, so it’s something to be endured, with enormous resentment. It adds to your persona as a tormented, anti-social artist.
As part of what I see as the continuing romanticism of the “tormented artist” stereotype, very little is said about “day careers,” even though these are actually far more common. Day careers are not necessarily temporary, often require high levels of skill and training, may last a lifetime and may be meaningful/enjoyable/challenging. I know - sacrilege! They may or may not use a similar skill set to your creative work. What’s more, they might be GOOD for your art…and not just because we all have to eat.
A day career can give you more creative freedom rather than less, provide support for you to take artistic risks, stimulate your brain, help you use and develop other skills and talents, and help to ground you, as well as offer a host of other benefits. There are far more artists with day careers who are reasonably content than there are struggling, tormented artists with horrible day jobs. And many people with day careers find themselves with MORE time, energy and headspace for their creative work than they ever did when they were “struggling artists.”
But there is still a strong popular conception, I think, that day jobs are “noble” and day careers represent “selling out.”
This article about T.S. Eliot’s bank job debunks some of that, arguing that “Eliot, the modernist upstart, was also a timid—and incorrigible—bourgeois.” And it didn’t seem to do him any harm.
I came across an art product for kids today that says that it lets you do “mistake-free painting,” so that you can be “really proud of yourself.”
Wow, it starts early, doesn’t it? The pressure that mistakes are something to avoid, or be ashamed of. And in painting!
I’ve been thinking about this idea of mistakes a lot recently. It comes up a lot in conversations about creativity, art, creative problem solving and innovative thinking. A school in the UK recently introduced “failure week” to encourage students to take risks and be willing to get things wrong. I applaud their attempts to counter “perfectionism” but am also a little stunned that it has to be a special week. But perhaps in a world where young kids are taught that “mistake-free painting” is supposed to be a good thing, I shouldn’t be surprised.
Aren’t mistakes and “failures” a daily part of life? When we come up with 50 ideas, and only implement one or two of them, are the others mistakes? When we suggest a creative concept and our production team vetoes it for some reason, is that a failure? If we send out 20 emails and get replies to only 4 of them, should we have only sent 4 in the first place?
We think of five books we’d like to write, but only write one of them; have a million ideas for what we could do with our weekend but only actually do a handful; or write 3000 words to find the 500 that we want to keep. Of course, sometimes it’s painful - we grit our teeth as we let go of a good concept, or grieve the loss of a favourite idea.But if this is failure, it’s also just a normal day.
What’s that Edison quote? “I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
Possibly I have too much of a cavalier approach towards creativity. On the one hand, I value ideas enormously. On the other, I (mostly) don’t mind throwing them away - there’s always more where they came from.
So, if given the choice, would you live “mistake-free”? If your creative work had no mistakes in it, would you be more proud of it, or less?
Recommended book: “Brainstorm: Harnessing the Power of Productive Obsessions” by Eric Maisel and Ann Maisel.
You might have come across Eric Maisel before. He’s the author of such books as “Creativity for Life,” “Coaching the Artist Within” and “The Van Gogh Blues: The Creative Person’s Path Through Depression.”
There are two things in particular that I like about “Brainstorm”.
Firstly, it argues that many obsessions are not the negative things that they are often seen as being, but can be productive, fun and meaningful, and are an important part of being human.
Secondly, it breaks down artificial dichotomies between different kinds of creativity. It includes traditional “artistic” creativity (such as painting, sculpture, writing or whatever) but also sees the same principles as applying to a range of other “obsessions,” including establishing a charitable foundation, working towards social change, figuring out string theory, academic research, or pursuing any other “big idea that lasts a long time.”
Anyone who enjoys devoting themselves to their obsession probably knows intuitively that obsessions can be productive; this book backs that up.
“To be sure of hitting the target, shoot first, and call whatever you hit the target”—
author and cartoonist Ashleigh Brilliant
This is tongue-in-cheek, of course, but I’m curious: where do you stand on this in terms of your creative work? Do you work with a “target” in mind? Do you do your best work when you have a clear goal and figure out how to get there, or do you “shoot first” and see where you end up? How important is it to be able to change the target along the way?