Friday, June 27, 2008


Is there such a thing as "failure" in the Creative Arts?

This is not a philosophical or rhetorical question - and I'm far from some hippy-dippy Liberal who believes "everyone's a winner" - but I have often wondered if it is correct form to say that a project was a "failure."

As a visual artist, musician, and writer, I have abandoned a lot of projects - I mean, a lot. And I suppose, in retrospect, at least a few of them were "failures," but not in the truest sense of the word. Some of them failed to do as well as I'd hoped, some of them failed to meet the original intent, some of them accomplished their intention and were well-received but were nowhere near as good as I know they could have been.

Yet I learned something from all of these projects! So how can they be considered "failures"?

I think we creative-types need to take it upon ourselves to watch how we throw this word around (along with brilliant, genius, and a list of others that would fill at least one book); the only real failures are the projects we never attempt - but even that is an oversimplification:

I conceived a papier-mache project years ago. It came from a sudden flash - a simple, yet detailed, image that suddenly appeared in my mind - which came while watching a scene in the original The Omen. Obviously, I remember this entire sequence of events clearly. I sketched the idea and can still recall the image with clarity. I know the general approach to take, what is involved, and a rough ETA; the project would be involved, but not to the point that I could not finish it, and could conceivably be completed within a few days (if that).

But I've never worked in papier-mache and I am not a big 3-D artist; I have done papier-mache and I have done 3-D pieces, but I am not familiar enough with either to be comfortable enough to know this project would succeed. What I do know is I have failed at enough of these concepts in the past that my capacities are not up to the task and, if I tackle this project at this stage and the result did not meet the intent (and I would be surprised if it did - realistically, it shouldn't), I would not re-attempt it later and the project would be lost!

I learned this because I "failed" at other projects I knew were beyond my skills-set, yet tackled anyway and never finished!

Even the projects I abandoned taught me lessons - probably the most important being: know when to cut your losses! Most of the time, these projects are cannibalized for future ones, but even when they are completely abandoned - just stopped in-media-res and never resumed - I learned something from them which I took to the next project. And whether or not that project was a success, it definitely stood a greater chance because I brought to it what I had learned from previous "failures."

Maybe I overshot the intent, took on too big a project for the time allotted and/or my level of capability, lollygagged until I lost the impetus - but no matter the reason behind abandoning the project, I can rarely say, "That project failed" or, even worse, "I failed," because I can honestly tell you, "I never completed that because it turned out to be too hard; I just wasn't able to do what I wanted and did not want to turn-out an inferior result." I can say, "I quit that project because I embarked on it without realizing how much work it was going to be and I ran out of time or patience or just lost the passion that inspired me in the first place."

There is a whole school of thought that tells you to "just" keep going - "work through the block" and "don't wait for inspiration," etc. - and, to some extent, it is a good message. But only to that extent!

Don't you dare chug-along on a project simply to finish it: it will suck, you will hate it, you will become depressed, and you will use that project as yet another excuse for why you haven't started on this one, haven't finished that one, and are not more successful. If your work is better when you wait for weeks on-end until inspiration hits and returns, ad infinitum, then accept that that is your creative process and embrace it!

There are many fields and industries in which failure is easy to measure, but the Creative Arts is not one of them. Business models fail; products fail; a sports team can fail - a creative endeavor is not a failure, even if it is not exactly successful. But this is also not to be confused with the whole "everyone's a winner" philosophy; everyone is not a winner - far too many people are real, fucking losers - but you simply cannot measure your success or failure (or that of a project's) by someone else's criteria.

If you learn something from failing, then don't say you failed or the project was a failure, accept that you embarked on a project which turned out to be an educational experience. And this is not one of those Liberal plays on wording; this is an important change in outlook!

© C Harris Lynn, 2008
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