Which Artwork Should You Be Creating?

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pounds of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work-and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, David Bayles & Ted Orland

This was the first of three pieces of advice that I’ve encountered recently on the topic of artistic creation. They’ve conspired to accumulate and in synergistic fashion approach the same question, albeit from different angles. I suspect that they will be equally valuable to other writers and artists, but as you’ll see, even knowing these things, doesn’t mean that we will always and reliably follow them – external prompting helps.

Now, I could almost quote every other sentence of Art & Fear, but rather than doing that, I recommend that you buy yourself a copy. I can guarantee you’ll read and then re-read it, particularly if, like me, you’ve never been to art school or equivalently taken a degree in creative writing. This book can in part form a surrogate for that missed experience. The book explains what it is to be an artist (in whatever medium – paint, musical notes, words), and how to continue to create art in the face of doubts and external indifference.

The second piece of advice was given by the Irish novelist Colm Tóibín, in an interview with the Guardian. When asked, what advice would he give a young writer, he answered:

Finish everything you start. Often, you don’t know where you’re going for a while; then halfway through, something comes and you know. If you abandon things, you never find that out.

If it’s true for writing, it’ll almost certainly be true for other artistic disciplines as well. That’s two pieces of worthy advice then, but without personal intervention they are easy enough to ignore.

In a recent post, Anyone For Some Innovative Fiction?, I mentioned a piece of work that I was going to submit to a writing competition, with the brief of “innovative fiction”. As of now this story is just over 9000 words in length. But in no way was it conceived as a whole. In fact, it all sprung from a tiny idea based on a piece of grammatical wordplay, nothing more than a single sentence. This pun only forms a small part of the finished story, but without it the rest of the story would never have emerged. However, it took four different stories before it finally found a natural and finished home. Colm Tóibín was right.

I say it’s finished, but that’s no longer true. The story was finished, then submitted, put aside, finally hands washed and back to the keyboard to commence the next project. A project which has been stewing in my mind for some time, and which I believed to be the perfect one, my own single perfect pot.

What’s strange is that in that being so open-minded as to avoid, for the most part, conventional narrative prose, I had become quite closed as to the larger possibilities of the work – an artistic myopia. Feedback on this work, graciously provided by Mark Nelkin of BeautifulOrange, suggested that the story could easily be extended into a novella or novel. My immediate reaction was somewhat sceptical, allowing only that perhaps a novella could be a possibility. Perhaps.

He was right though, as within a week I had two sides of A4 of jotted ideas for new plot lines and the elaboration of existing ones, not to mention a host of innovative narrative structures and devices. Certainly enough new ideas to fill out, at the very least, a short novel. And with Colm Tóibín’s advice having held true thus far, I can hardly begin to ignore it now. Nor will I ignore Bayles & Orland; I’ll write many stories and explore many ideas, rather than fixating on creating a single, perfect one.

If anyone wants to read the aforementioned innovative fiction, just send me a message here or simply “like” this post if you have contact info on your blog/gravatar profile, and I’ll be in touch. Thanks!