I had a realization last night.
Well, this week, but it all came together last night.
I spend a lot of time reading and watching content online. YouTube channels, blogs, webcomics, social media… I have started and kept up a few of my own blogs over the years, but lacking any central theme or principal, they’ve tended to die off once more urgent things happen in my life. As someone who thought of herself as an artist for a long time, the realization now, in my mid-twenties, that I spend more time consuming than creating, has been a painful one.
Especially because I KNOW I COULD if I just put my mind to it. And I could even market it now, since I’ve spent some time in communications since graduating from college.
Yet, “just putting my mind to it,” has been, at essence, the very core of my defeat in the face of the sheer terror that accompanies creation. And it’s weird to me to face that terror, because if you put me in a classroom and gave me three props, a scene partner, and ten minutes, I would come up with something without hesitation. I wouldn’t vouch for it being any good, but it probably would be silly, and it would exist.
So I know it isn’t impossible. I want to create, and I know I can. So why don’t I?
With all the talking I do about wanting to make things, all the longing I have when I watch other people’s videos, all the inspiration I get—I often feel like a bag of hot air. I don’t make stuff very much. And when I do, like, for instance, when I actually make a response to an Art Assignment video, I end up half-assing it, too rushed to get to the part where I did it to start off by thinking about it. My self-critique kicks in hard at the end of these projects, but rather than spurring me to try again and improve, I end up giving up before I start the next time.
Fast forward to last night. I’d spent the evening like so many others: scrolling through posts in the Amanda Palmer fan community, catching up on Bad Machinery, watching Vlogbrothers videos and ViHart. The later it got, the more dissatisfied I got with simply taking in content. It was like eating too much ice cream. It tasted good and felt bad. Yet, the later it got, the more reluctant I was to get up and do anything. So even when Hank had me laughing my socks off and suggested writing UN Global Goals on my face and posting it on the internet I was like, “Nah…Tomorrow, maybe.” And proceeded to silently berate myself for not bothering.
Then the magic thing happened. Someone on my Facebook feed asked, “I’m going to do some writing sprints,* anyone want to join?” And I looked at myself and how my evening had been going, and said,
I wrote 623 words in fifteen minutes. 264 of those words were a story about a monkey and an elephant going clothes shopping. And part way through writing this story, which I was making up as I went along, I recognized that my characters were doing what bad scene partners do in improv theatre: they were saying, “No.”
Here’s how it goes:
The elephant and the monkey go to market to buy human clothes to wear for “Dress Like a Human Day” at work.
Okay, so far, so good. We’ve got two characters, and they’re a little weird. There’s some interest here…
But when they approach the Zebra at the clothing stall, who has a (very bad) Australian accent and is eating a sandwich, the Zebra tells them she doesn’t have any human clothes left and belabors the scene by emphasizing that a large group of monkeys just bought her out.
At this point, I had sort of unofficially given myself a rule that I couldn’t revise, so once I’d written something, that’s what was staying on the page. But I’d backed myself into a corner. What now? It’s kind of weird if they go to buy clothes and the person won’t let them. So the Monkey pulls a sheet off a pile of dirty socks I decide the Zebra had hidden (with no motivation) in a desperate bid to salvage the “integrity” of the scene. It doesn’t work, because who wants to buy dirty socks? And why hide them?
So then the two go try to buy clothes from the cat, who for some reason is stoned out of her mind, and completely uninterested in anything but the invisible spiders on the ceiling of the tent. After a brief back and forth dialogue, I gave up.
“Do you know why this scene isn’t working?” Monkey asked Elephant.
“What? Why isn’t it working? It’s not working?”
“Because all the other people in this market don’t say ‘yes, and.’”
A couple of things I learned from this: 1) I’m not half bad at coming up with bizarre combinations of things that have potential to make for interesting characters 2) It’s important to come up with conflict for your narrative that doesn’t unseat the narrative. A story about trying to buy some fun clothes turned into a story about trying to find someone in the market who wasn’t insanely unhelpful for no reason 3) I need to be a better scene partner with myself.
As I understand it, the rule of improv comedy is “Yes, And…” When you’re in a scene with someone and they say, “Oh my god! That house is on fire!” and you say, “No it isn’t,” you first of all aren’t allowing your partner to contribute to the scene, and second, you just stopped the action dead. And no one wants to watch a dead scene. So instead, when they say, “Oh my god, that house is on fire!” the goal is to confirm and then build – yes, and – “Oh, my god, is that a dragon?” Okay, so to quote Grace Helbig, “I don’t know.” I’m no expert in this stuff. But it is something like that.
Anyway, there are two pieces of advice I have received in my life that have really stuck with me and which I have also, so far, completely ignored.
The first is the old standard: “If you want to be a writer, then write.”
The second came from a fabulous director I worked with back in my wardrobe supervisor days in the theatre:
“Say ‘Yes,’ to the work.”
I plan to start taking that advice.
Why am I not making more art? Because I’ve spent so much time worrying about whether or not it’s going to be any good, and so every time I offer an idea some other part of me just says, “Nope. Don’t even bother.” And through my own self-sabotage, creating takes a herculean effort.
So I know this, and I have known it all along – every artist I admire talks about it at some point – that making art is not glory; it’s work. And doing it well takes practice. And it’s going to be pretty bad at first. And you have to just do it anyway. And I’m done being in denial. Just because I’ve “known” all this stuff, had this good advice, doesn’t mean I’ve been following it.
So, I’ve decided it’s time to get a better scene partner—a me who says, “YES! And…”
Because bad art is better than no art at all.
P.S. The image is me in creative dance class in the 90s. I was good at jumping, less good at keeping my tongue in my mouth.
*(For those not in the know, a writing sprint is where folks decide to write for a predetermined amount of time and try to put out as many words as possible in that time. I think it came from NaNoWriMo. THANK YOU to the AFP Patreon Patrons Writer’s group for the kick in the pants – look, I made something!)