In another lifetime I was a teacher. Not a fabulous one, mind you, but one who took what I did seriously and did my best to give my students, if not the actual practice that would make them more productive and skillful and happy in their making of art, at least the idea of what might be possible for them and perhaps the instigation of the will to develop over the longer term. Like every other teacher in history, I knew that most of the burden of improvement fell on my students and had surprisingly little to do with what I could or couldn’t, would or wouldn’t, should or shouldn’t give them. And like every other teacher, I heard from my students every excuse in the book about why they would inevitably fail to accomplish any of this, how they were powerless against the forces that conspired to keep them from making the assigned efforts or finishing their work. Having used most of the excuses myself, I had plenty of fuel to argue my case after spending the intervening years (or minutes) rethinking it all as I moved from student status to teacher. And I knew too that I would have to keep re-learning it all as long as I lived, since every teacher is only a different breed of student and Life is the biggest, craziest, toughest and most creatively optimal classroom of all.
So I made up a little page of possible excuses and a smidgen of food-for-thought responses to them–perhaps mostly for my own enlightenment and prodding–that I shared from time to time with my students if they happened to be getting a little too enamored of creating excuses to spend their creativity on drawing, design, writing, painting, studying, researching, making mixed media installations, critiquing or any of the other topics I was attempting to encourage them to learn. Here are a few items from my little list, because I am well aware that I still need to remember them myself and keep trying to blow past them with determination and, I hope, a pinch of wit.
1 GREAT THINKERS THINK ONLY GREAT THOUGHTS
(and I’m not a great thinker).
If this is true, explain why the Old Masters painted over or destroyed canvases, Einstein was virtually dismissed as a pea-brain by some in his school days and our early experts on astronomy believed the earth was flat.
2 GENIUS IS BORN, NOT MADE.
This may actually be so, but untended and un-exercised, genius has no value whatsoever, and many a great achiever has acknowledged beginning an illustrious career ignominiously and becoming expert through sheer will and work.
3 EXCELLENT IS GOOD, GOOD IS AVERAGE &
AVERAGE IS TERRIBLE.
(Corollary: Good is excellent, average is good, terrible is average!)
Creative and inventive people often have a penchant for self-disparagement and perfectionism that leads them (and often others) to devalue work of quality; it’s also a common temptation to simply fall back on the platitude of ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ and accept mediocrity because one is too fearful or lazy to be honestly critical and opinionated. Accept it and get on with things.
4 IT DIDN’T TURN OUT THE WAY IT WAS SUPPOSED TO.
Oh, come on. Almost nothing does. Sometimes it just isn’t finished yet when it seems to have Not Turned Out. And more often than not, the real result is an improvement on the original plan anyway.
5 IT CAN’T BE DONE.
It’s better to go down in flames of glory, for having tried, than to prove only that you couldn’t (or just wouldn’t) do it. And what if it does work?! Don’t you just love those rare chances to say I Told You So, anyway?
6 ALL THE GOOD IDEAS ARE TAKEN.
All of the good ones haven’t been invented yet, Silly.
7 I CAN’T THINK OF ANYTHING.
You don’t have to. Steal ideas all over the place. Just remember to cite sources, give references, and wherever possible, to thoroughly revise and synthesize things into your own particular combination or version of them.
8 WHY SLAVE TO HAVE IT ALL WHEN YOU CAN SETTLE FOR LESS.
Perhaps because apathy is as dangerous to existence as the threat of annihilation.
9 IT COSTS TOO MUCH.
Some of the same people who whimper over buying a five-dollar sketch pad and two ninety-nine-cent pencils (two weeks’ supply, say) think nothing of adding four dollars’ worth of popcorn and soft drinks to their seven-dollar movie tickets: that’s Whiners’ Math. But most art supplies can be hideously expensive, especially for those productive enough to use masses of them. So it’s a necessary and healthy part of the solution-oriented artist’s life that analogs and alternatives be a constant study. What can legitimately serve as a substitute for the too-expensive? Often the product of such inventiveness proves more exciting than the work as first conceived. Sometimes it’s important to make the commitment to spend the real money for the real thing, too: how serious are you?
10 I’M NOT INSPIRED!
Genuine inspiration occurs ZERO times in the average artist’s life. WHAT!!! Heresy! But truly, if we’re talking spiritual/mystical magic, most must instead rely on a painstaking and passionate process of trial, error, adventure and eventual coalescence to allow artistic completion and quality to arise. Don’t wait around to be inspired, in case it’s not in the cards: deadlines and opportunities wait for no one. If you’re the incredibly lucky one inspiration smiles upon, have conspicuous spasms of joy, make feverish use of the favor while it lasts, and get ready to work hard on the next thing when you become a mere mortal again. We’re lucky enough just to be able to be the real thing, Working Humans. Don’t knock it. There’s joy enough in that.
Stay tuned . . .