Art and Fear and Having a Genius

Several months ago Jason Kottke made mention of a book titled Art and Fear.  One particular allegory in this book struck me deeply, and the sting of shock and self-recognition remains - the story goes thusly:

At the beginning of the semester, a pottery instructor divided his class into two halves.  Each student in the first half was going to be graded solely on volume – the instructor didn’t care about the quality of the pieces, he just wanted as many complete pieces as possible.  The other half of the class was going to be graded solely on quality – each student had the entire semester to complete one perfect piece.

At the end of the semester the students who were graded on quantity had multiple perfect and near-perfect pieces in their vast collections, while those who were graded on quality ended up with only mediocre and good results.  Those who were in the quantity group made mistakes, learned from them, refined their work, and kept producing.  Those who were in the quality group analyzed and planned and got stuck in their heads, and were ultimately paralyzed by their self-imposed restrictions (they didn’t want to waste time making a load of work and choosing the best from that – they needed to focus their energy solely on THE ONE).

Huh.  The quality group mentality sounds embarrassingly familiar.  Who doesn’t follow through on most of her artistic ideas for fear of failure?  Who doesn’t take risks and try new ventures for fear of failure?  Who stops the execution of ideas before she even starts them for fear of failure?  Me.  Me, me, me.  I am outright terrified of failing myself, terrified of learning that I'm not good at something I love; terrified of letting people bear witness to my weaknesses.  I understand full well that performing on stage is ephemeral and a living, breathing organism that changes based upon any number of factors – but in all endeavors, not just the stage, I want to take comfort that I worked hard and know my shit.  I want to be confident that I’ll succeed.

So if I can’t be assured that I’ll succeed, I should just stay home, right?  Artistic Paralysis - 1; Leigha - 0.  With that mentality, the art dies.  The ideas die.  It’s like shooting a foal because it can’t run immediately after it’s born.  Yes, my art is a little baby horse, and I kill multiple little baby horses daily.  Ideas that could fail?  chik-chik, ka-BLAM.  Wrong. So terribly wrong.

Thankfully, there are some artists who have made it beyond the killing fields and lived to tell about it.  There is hope beyond little baby idea carcasses.  Imagine that.

Elizabeth Gilbert, for one - the author of Eat, Pray, Love - gave a fascinating speech at this year’s TED Talks about changing our vocabulary from “being a genius” to “having a genius.”  It’s taking the pressure off of people and placing it on the work – no need for constant perfection, just a need to go forth and artistically multiply.  To be fruitful in one’s work, to try new approaches, to learn, to experiment, to revise, to explore, to revise again, to feel fulfilled in the process, and to let the work be what it is intended to be.  Nothing more, nothing less.

The director of my present production, Burned, is another.  His approach has lent itself beautifully to my tippy-toeing back to dramatic works - it’s been nearly a decade since I’ve done stagework with an overarching serious tone and this water is a wee bit chilly.  Sean’s advice to begin a renewal of trust - trust in myself and trust in the process, allowing the product find its own way, has been a gift.  It’s okay to be ugly, it’s okay to make grand mistakes, it’s okay to grope until I find my way.  The director is there to walk with me and encourage me in the right direction, to shape my work in a way that fits the vision.  My internal director can go suck it.