Don’t Suffer for Your Art

Don't suffer for your art

Don’t Suffer for Your Art

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Once a year, on or around my birthday, I like to go ice skating, a tradition that started when I was a kid and that I for some reason still feel an urge to do every December, as if it’s part of the holiday season. I’m not terribly good at it, as you might imagine when I do it only once a year. And except for this annual tradition and the occasional Ice Capades show of my youth, I’m not an aficionado of the sport.

But thanks to my current Succession obsession, I clicked over to this story about professional skater Ilia Malinin, who won the Men’s World Figure Skating Championships to a routine set to the TV show’s theme music (gift link so you can access).

And then I watched the whole thing, including the minutes after Malinin’s routine as he waited for his scores. When the video ended I realized I was choked up and teary.

My reaction wasn’t because of Malinin’s routine or performance, although both were spectacular. (Like, seriously—watch this thing. You can’t believe human bodies can do what Malinin does…and in fact before this routine no one had: He is the first skater to land a quadruple axel in competition…and he does it six times.)

But as awe-inspiring as his performance was, it was for me the moment at the end, literally the second his routine finished, when Malinin covered his face and collapsed to the ice that yielded my emotional reaction. There was something so pure and beautiful to me about the fact that he seemed to realize immediately how well he’d done. How proud he seemed to be of himself. How happy his own performance had made him. 

I’m getting emotional just writing about it now, and my own strong reaction surprises me a little. I think it’s because so many of us, creatives especially, are so quick to downplay our accomplishments.

As artists (hell, as humans, a lot of the time) we beat ourselves up. It’s never good enough. We focus on our mistakes instead of our triumphs. We move the goalpost. We downplay our successes and amplify our failures. We efface our own ability, whether out of misplaced modesty or a desire not to seem arrogant or self-doubt or not wanting to jinx it.

But God, I loved seeing this kid just revel in his own mastery of his art form. I loved seeing him and his father (also an Olympic skater, as is his mother) throw their arms around each other in celebration as he came off the ice. I loved the look on Malinin’s face when the scores came up and he realized he’d attained the highest score ever for a free skate. He looked happy, laughing with what seemed like pure joy—but not surprised. He looked as if he knew he deserved it—and he did—and was simply savoring that fact. 

The Trope of the Tortured Artist

Recently our pottery teacher was talking about the movie Whiplash, joking about how mastery and art require that kind of gritted-teeth, clenched-fist determination and the constant flogging to be better. I found Whiplash to be a painful, violent movie, one that made mastering a craft feel like a chore that felt entirely divorced from the passion that animates most artists when they discover what they love.

I went back and watched Malinin’s video more than once, and I know I’m extrapolating and can’t know what he was feeling, but it seems to me as if all throughout his routine he’s enjoying it, reveling in his own prowess and ability, approaching every insane quadruple turn not with trepidation or even determination, but what seems to be clear delight and an anticipation of hurling his body into the air and spinning. It reminds me of the kind of dancing we do when we’re children or when nobody’s looking: free and uninhibited and joyful.

I’ve never liked the trope of the tortured artist. I’ve never understood why, if your art is torture, anyone would choose to do it. It’s not what I felt when I first realized I loved the written word. I came to it with joy and anticipation, the same feelings I see in Malinin’s routine. I still do. I often joke that my worst day at work is still a pretty good day. I’m doing what I love to do most every day of my life.

That doesn’t mean it’s always easy, and I have plenty of days where I dance with the demons who like to tell me why I should be working harder, why I’m not good enough yet. But I’ve learned to realize that that’s that awful Whiplash voice inside me, trying to strip away my passion and tell me that there’s more work to be done, that I can’t rest on my laurels.

Read more: I’ve written about wrangling your demons hereherehere, hereherehereeverywhere!

And of course that’s true in many ways. As an artist or craftsperson of any kind, in which I include my work as an editor, most of us do want to always be improving. We want to edge ever closer to mastery of the craft we love. We all want to be Ilia Malinin doing that astonishing, gravity-defying, record-breaking routine.

And maybe we’ll get there. But it’s not the purpose or the point or even the meaning of our art. What makes a creative career isn’t a single performance—even if Malinin’s is what he may be known for to most of the world, and the thing that puts him on most people’s radar.

But what does that mean, really? What does it add to his life except a trophy and a notation in the record books? Our day-to-day lives aren’t about those things. They’re about the everyday experiences we have.

As an artist, I want to be doing the thing I love to do, knowing I’m good at it and getting better all the time. I want to enjoy the process, which makes up the vast majority of the time I spend pursuing this thing I love, not the product, which is a fleeting moment of it, and one not within my power to control.

We can choose to Whiplash ourselves into the tortured-artist stereotype, thinking it’s what makes us a real artist, or that it’s what’s necessary to get us to the heights of greatness. But consider that Malinin’s’s routine was just a few minutes long. It may have brought him acclaim, but practically, concretely what it brought to his life was four transportive minutes of doing something he loved in complete and utter flow—and every moment of every day leading up to it and afterward that he pursues his art.

That’s the experience that as an artist I want to have—as often as possible. I want to be doing the thing I love to do, knowing I’m good at it and getting better all the time. I want to enjoy the process, which makes up the vast majority of the time I spend pursuing this thing I love, not the product, which is a fleeting moment of it, and one not within my power to control.

Read more: “Measure Your Success by What You’re Doing, Not What You Want to Do”

I can have a measure of control over what I do and how I do it and what my day-to-day life as a creative looks like. I want to have Malinin’s feeling while he’s on the ice doing the skate, and the way he delights in the performance of his craft even before he knows how well he did or didn’t do according to the judges. Their scores just confirmed what he already knew: that he killed it out there.

But what if they hadn’t? What if for some reason the judges had decided to count off on some technicality, or in their subjective opinion they simply didn’t think it merited top scores? Would it change what Malinin did out there on the ice? Would it change your reaction to it, the beauty of it, his mastery of it, or the audience’s clear delight in it with him?

No one’s response to your art has any bearing on your experience, enjoyment, and fulfillment in creating it.

Read more: “Are You Creating Your Writing Career or Someone Else’s?”

Dare to Be Happy with Your Work

But the Whiplash mindset suggests that that attitude will make you complacent, satisfied with your work so that you don’t continually strive to be better.

I take issue with that for two reasons.

First, I don’t believe that celebrating your success leads to stagnation. Just the opposite: I think allowing yourself to feel pride and delight in your craft is what keeps you coming eagerly back to it day after day, which is what keeps you constantly improving.

Be honest with yourself: How do you feel when your daily writing time approaches? Are you chomping at the bit to get in there and start weaving your imaginary worlds? Or do you dread it, worrying about whether you’ll hit your word count, whether you’re any good, whether the story is working, whether anyone else will ever read it or like it?

Which approach do you think is more likely to entice you back to the desk? Which do you think is more likely to put you in the relaxed, open state of mind required to tap into your fullest, freest creativity?

Allowing yourself to feel pride and delight in your craft is what keeps you coming eagerly back to it day after day, which is what keeps you constantly improving

The second reason I object to the complacency argument is the assumption that getting complacent is a bad thing. Why? What’s wrong with being satisfied with where you are and what you’ve done, no matter what level you’ve done it at?

I will never be Ilia Malinin on the ice, but I can promise you that every single December, the moment I glide out onto it I’m transported. I’m flying on my feet, and I go into the same kind of deeply present mindset that I strive for in the best of my creative work. I can’t speak to what’s going on inside Malinin’s mind while he’s skating, but I know that what’s going on in mine feels a whole lot like what he’s doing looks like, even if my version is hopelessly remedial by comparison to outside eyes.

Read more: “When Will You Be a ‘Real Writer’?”

So what? If other people’s opinion or definition of success is the arbiter of its worth then I’m putting that power in the hands of everyone except myself, which is guaranteed to shatter any enjoyment I might have been feeling in my own simple skating.

So what if your book is never published, never becomes part of the literary canon? So what if you never even finish it? Does any of that change the experience you had in writing it? And if that was meaningful and absorbing and enjoyable and fulfilling for you, what else matters? Maybe you’re Malinin, and maybe you’re me, happily taking the ice once a year to simply revel in the delight of doing it.

Celebrate Yourself and Your Work

Let yourself love what you do. Let yourself remember, every single day when you sit at the keyboard, that spark of joy and anticipation that drew you to this craft in the first place. Let yourself enjoy the process of doing it; lose yourself in the worlds so vivid in your head and the thrilling privilege and challenge of trying to convey that on the page.

Celebrate that you are learning, getting ever better at your craft. Even if it’s not at the level you want it to be, celebrate the doing of it.

Celebrate your creativity, and celebrate yourself as a creator—not just in your big, splashy public successes, but every single day you create.

Let yourself notice and relish your abilities, how much you have grown and continue to grow with every day you spend at the keyboard. Let yourself celebrate your successes and triumphs, no matter how great or small—from signing with an agent to putting 25 words on the page that didn’t exist yesterday. From becoming a New York Times bestseller to getting that first copy of your self-published memoir in your hands. These experiences are equal as far as what they add to your life.

The results and other people’s opinions can be rewarding (or gutting), but they’re not what your work is about. The day-to-day doing of it is. Be present for that. Be as present and joyful in it as Ilia Malinin is from the moment he takes the ice. Be as sure of yourself and proud of yourself as he is. Know, even before any judges tell you so, the worth of your work.

Talk to me, friends–do you let yourself celebrate your successes, or are you moving each bar as fast as you clear it? If celebrating yourself and your art is hard for you, why? A feeling it’s immodest to do so, or a fear of seeming cocky? Fear of “jinxing” it? A feeling of needing to keep pushing yourself higher? If you do let yourself celebrate…how?

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8 Comments. Leave new

  • Christina Anne Hawthorne
    April 4, 2024 1:17 pm

    If I had to point to my biggest accomplishment, and the one most difficult to achieve, it was celebrating my milestones. That would seem absurd because it’s such a simple thing to do, but I had to fight my way through my upbringing where I was taught to remain in the background. Even on social media, if I acknowledge the fact that I do celebrate myself, other writers are often shocked that I’d admit doing such a thing in public.

    How sad, really, how tragic, yet I wouldn’t allow myself to celebrate any accomplishment for most of my life.

    At some point, not so long ago, I asked myself, “Why not?”

    I live alone. I spend most of my time writing and editing. If I don’t celebrate myself, who will? I still push myself—probably too hard—but I also post affirmations around the apartment. Each evening, on a white board, I right encouragement to my morning self. Those messages have reduced me to happy tears a few times.

    Why not?

    I still push myself to do better, but why not acknowledge when I do? Why not do something special when I finish a draft or finish a targeted edit? Why not take a moment to appreciate the fact that a mistake I typically make—I just avoided?

    Writing is all the lonelier if you aren’t there for yourself.

    Reply
    • Christina, I read this with the biggest smile that you celebrate yourself and your achievements–of any size–so openly. I agree–why not? Life’s full of plenty of challenge, and as you say, if we won’t be our own biggest champions, who will? I think a lot of us maybe fear becoming cocky or vain, but I think most of us are a long way from that…in fact often the opposite, especially with creatives, I’ve found, who if anything tend to downplay their accomplishments and talent and skill. I keep what I call a “cookie file,” where I paste in lovely comments people may have made about my teaching or writing or editing. I reread it anytime I feel self-doubt or need a pick-me-up–like your affirmations and white board (love that). As you say, it doesn’t mean we don’t still strive to improve. Thanks for sharing this joyful post!

      Reply
  • Thanks, Tiffany. This is another great post about taking a step back and evaluate our successes. The older I become, the more I appreciate my little victories, accomplishments, and successes, no matter how small or mundane they may seem to someone else. I grew up in household that encouraged children to be silent and unseen, so celebrating these joys in creating and sharing my craft has been something I’ve had to learn to embrace. It didn’t come naturally. Thanks for reminding us that we are never too old to experience that feeling, to be that unrestrained child and do the happy dance, full of joy and accomplishment!

    Reply
    • I don’t know your age, Patti, but I think there was a whole generation of us (Gen X) raised that way–“Pipe down, don’t be full of yourself.” It’s hard to unlearn that, to silence that self-effacing voice and just let ourselves enjoy our work and our achievements. But it does feel good! I’m glad you are able to celebrate yourself and your successes. It makes life nicer. 🙂 Thanks for sharing this.

      Reply
  • Hi,
    I really liked the way you put it–don’t write for judges (or critics). After all, what’s our measure of success? publishable material? money? the Nobel Prize?
    Not that I celebrate–I’m horrible at it (that’s why this post made so much sense). Yet, even if we achieved our most ambitious goals while not cultivating joy in our daily writing,–what’s the value of these achievements?
    And as I read the post, these questions made me stop and reconsider writing–not so much as a task but as an artful embodiment. A practice that isn’t automatically joyful, but one we get to cultivate.

    Thanks for the post!

    Reply
    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this, Armand–I’m glad to hear the post helped you think differently about the joy of your writing for its own sake. I hope you let yourself celebrate that a bit! 🙂

      Reply
  • Rose Perlmutter
    April 29, 2024 12:05 pm

    Dearest Tiffany, I tried to start my day by reading your blog post on stakes. Problem was I couldn’t read the stakes piece because I couldn’t get my computer screen to show it full size. Don’t laugh, but no matter how I opened it, your post was down to big print inside a two inch box. I’m afraid to use the W word that describes the glassy things around my house that have screens, and are being covered with yellow pollen. I love to write, and when I read this post about Tortured Writers, right after fighting with the W word with 11 and everything technological that is a challenge to a 79 year old, I laughed and smacked myself upside the face. I still don’t know the difference between a file and a document; save, save as, save a copy, download, upload, and anything to do with versions, but I keep on going because writing and reaching that stage of flow while doing it, is a true joy for me. Thank you for your wonderful advice.

    Reply
    • Oh, Rose, this is a delightful comment! I’m glad you didn’t let troubles with the W-word keep you down. 🙂 I don’t know what I’d do without my techie hubs–I’d be in the same boat with you, but all we can do is keep trying to keep up, right…? Thanks for sharing this, and I’m glad the post you could view was the right one at the right time. 🙂

      Reply

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