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Finding Joy in Imperfection and Obscurity December 31, 2020

For Christmas this year, my husband gave me two Audio-Technica microphones with boom stands and a MOTU M2 interface for recording music. He spent a lot of time researching the equipment and a lot of money buying it, so I could record my flute and piano arrangements without sounding like I borrowed an omnidirectional conference call microphone from work and faked the "stereo" sound by messing with left and right balances.

Photo of piano recording setup with boom mics

I should have been ecstatic. I should have been playing with the equipment all day and gleefully reveling in the quality of the sound.

Instead, my reaction to this very nice and expensive gift was anxiety. I was afraid to touch it. I didn't want to hear what my piano or flute playing sounded like on a studio-quality track.

Why? For the same reason I rarely use the Wacom drawing tablet I begged my husband for two years ago, used the nice set of Prismacolor pencils he gave me for a previous Christmas only once, and never opened the calligraphy brushes I ordered specifically for myself. And the same reason I seize up in terror just thinking about writing fiction these days, and this entire calendar year I wrote exactly one chapter of my novel in progress.

Because the things I create will never be "good enough."

Throughout my childhood, my parents paid music teachers thousands of dollars to point out everything I did wrong. I practiced both flute and piano for hours every day to get better, but always a teacher or judge noticed something I was still doing wrong. I should have taken a breath here, not there. I stumbled on that arpeggio and cracked on that third-octave E. I need to spend more time on the exercises, pay more attention to the tuner and the metronome, try harder and have more discipline.

Most of these teachers were just doing their jobs to turn me into a decent musician. But some thought tearing children down was clever and fun. One man who fancied himself heaven's musical gift to Southern California impatiently waited for me to finish playing a flute piece so he could crow with satisfaction, "Mozart would hate the way you played that!" One unhappy woman who judged the city's youth piano competition every year wrote her evaluations in the cruelest language she could muster. A child didn't simply play a piece more slowly than she thought it should be played—they played it sooo slowly it was legally torture, and she couldn't wait for the pain to end.

Once when I didn't win first place in a regional flute competition, my teacher said, "It's good for you to lose sometimes." I was very confused, because in my head I lost every day. By high school nobody had to tell me everything I did wrong, because I could see and hear every imperfection most acutely. Every practice session, lesson, and public performance was a battle against my lack of skill, and I always lost.

Wise people say talent has little to do with whether a person succeeds in an artistic career. The writers who publish bestsellers, and the performers who "make it," are just the ones who didn't give up. This is an accurate statement, but it's framed in a way sounds like the ones who gave up lacked tenacity. They couldn't handle rejection, they didn't believe in themselves, and they didn't have the passion to keep trying.

But most have plenty of passion, or they wouldn't have tried to become artists in the first place. They gave up because the process of becoming "good enough" in the eyes of others sucks the joy out of any craft.

In my early twenties, I loved nothing more than writing. I resented every hour I had to spend doing something else. After ten years of receiving rejection letters detailing all the reasons my novels aren't good enough to publish, writing is now like playing music. I can't draft a page without seeing everything literary agents would call a fatal flaw. I want to finish my manuscript, but every time I even think about sitting down to work on it, my body rebels and runs to the television to play Animal Crossing instead.

The people who stop doing something that doesn't make them happy anymore are probably smarter and healthier than the ones who pressure themselves to keep going. In movies and biographies, we build this romantic myth of the artist starving and self-destructing through years of dedication until their hard work pays off. We go so far as to claim that self-inflicted misery proves an artist has talent and drive. How messed up is that?

Two weeks ago, pop violinist Lindsey Stirling posted a video of herself playing a piece while "hair hanging," which is as horrific an act as it sounds. Suspended by nothing but a harness attached to her hair, she swung around the stage in obvious pain while playing an electric violin and doing elegant dance moves. In a promotional vlog leading up to the publication, Lindsey faces the camera and sobs that hair hanging hurts so bad. She's so sore and miserable, she can't get out of bed in the morning. She says being lifted into the air feels like her scalp is going to rip off, and she has to convince herself every single time that she's strong enough to do it. And this footage of her suffering in tears is spliced together with an uplifting soundtrack as if it's a motivational training montage.

Screenshot from Lindsey Stirling's hair hanging vlog, captioned 'Is it worth the pain?'
The answer is no, Lindsey. It's not.

A snippet of the equally horrific comments from fans:

Your determination and strength is beyond belief. I cried with you watching this vlog of your pain and anxiety, your such an inspiration and talent.
Absolutely beautiful. The detication to being an amazing artist and achieving something so incredible. Don't tell her to stop...watch the incredible video she created. Artists like her deserve the highest of respect and love
All the people in the comments asking why she'd put herself through needless pain have failed to understand that it's the needlessness that makes it important. Anyone can endure torture and pain if they have to. Only a few have the existential courage to act against all genetic programming...and become human.

Anyone who wants to watch artists literally torture themselves needs to read Kafka's "A Hunger Artist" and reflect on their definition of beauty (and humanity, apparently). Lindsey could have achieved the same aesthetic in her music video by wearing a safe and supportive harness designed for aerial dance, so beauty wasn't the point. The point was to suffer. Hair hanging is a circus stunt in the same category as Houdini-style escape acts and tightrope-walking without a safety net—spectacles that appeal to audiences who are enthralled when performers put their health and safety at risk.

Becoming a popular artist today is all about the spectacle. Gotta get those YouTube views, Instagram follows, and Twitter retweets. Gotta ratchet up those metrics and get people talking. Gotta make daily content, bigger content, more shocking and sexy and bingeable content. Please like and subscribe, please buy my merch, please please please don't click away to something else.

To state the obvious, this kind of thinking about the arts is caused by money. Modern society tells us there's no point in doing anything unless you can make money, and in the arts you can make money only if you "stand out." Millions of people are good musicians, but only a handful in every city can do it professionally. Thousands of writers pen good novels, but only a handful in the whole country can support a household with royalties alone. You've "made it" in the publishing industry when an editor offers you $5,000 before taxes and commissions, paid out in little checks over four years.

People on Twitter often proclaim in righteous anger, "Stop saying artists should create for personal fulfillment instead of money. It normalizes not paying artists for their work." In fact, not paying artists for their work has been the norm since the invention of currency. Throughout history, in cultures worldwide, the arts of music and theater, poetry, acrobatics, and comedy were the work of roaming beggars, prostitutes, and court servants. Art isn't a commodity necessary for survival or convenience, so only the wealthy were able and willing to pay for it, and there were very few wealthy people.

In the twentieth century, we collectively grew wealthier and managed to build an entertainment industry that does make money for a few lucky stars, but still little or none for the other 99.999% of artists. In the twenty-first century, that industry will not suddenly become magnanimous and pay living wages to novelists who aren't James Patterson and singers who aren't Taylor Swift.

The arts enrich our lives, but they've never enriched our wallets, and they never will. So yes, we must indeed write for personal fulfillment instead of money, or the foolish pursuit of commercial success will poison our art and our sanity.

In my head, and probably the heads of many others, two kinds of "not good enough" get tangled together. The healthy "not good enough" means, "This story/song/drawing isn't yet producing the effect I want to create." Seeing where you have room for growth and learning how to improve is a good thing.

The poisonous "not good enough" means, "This story/song/drawing isn't marketable. The industry will say it's too amateurish, too boring, too common. Nobody will buy it. People on the Internet will say I suck." Fretting over money and popularity is not a good thing at all. That's how talented musicians end up swinging around a stage by their hair for the shock factor. Or flashing their breasts in YouTube thumbnails for the clicks and follows.

Cosplaying Pianist YouTuber Gains 1.5 Million Followers
There's sex positivity, and then there's debasing yourself to pander to the type of men who own anime-girl mouse pads with silicone gel boobs for wrist support. (Source)

Untangling the two types of "not good enough" is tricky, because we create for an audience. You might say, "Just forget about what anyone else thinks and write for yourself," but the point of all art is to create an experience for others that communicates your vision and ideas. How can I tell if a piece truly needs work because the audience isn't feeling what I want them to feel, or if the piece is acceptable and I need to ignore the imaginary voices telling me I suck? How can I flush out the poison of this analytics-driven world and recapture the joy of creation?

I'd like to end this blog post with an answer, but I don't have one yet. At least I managed to fire up my new toys and record a song. It's highly imperfect, and doubtless some unhappy music teacher somewhere would tear it to shreds. But I have a temporary antidote: I turned off the comments and display of likes/dislikes.

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