I talked to you about how to get more work out in the blog post before, but today I’m returning with a blog about a related topic. Creative survival. I might possibly return to this topic somewhen later in this blog, but here’s the wisdom I have to offer about this right now.
Why creative survival at all? Yesterday I finally finished working through concept artist Nik Hagialas’s “Art RPG”, a great introduction course to concept design. I’m immediately embarking on the follow up “Creature of the Deep” right now. The book doesn’t waste any time either, the first task is a profound one already. Before you even take a shot at the drawing tasks, the author wants you to think about a time you have overcome a huge obstacle and see what you can learn about your strategies – and then apply them on large creative projects that can feel like a huge calamity at times, too. I thought to myself, if I’m writing it down, why don’t I blog about it, so that others have something from it, too?
1. What is a strategy
First of all I had to do a websearch what a strategy is. Originally, this is the art and science of leading and moving an army. Imagine it like this – you and me can decide to go for a walk on a whim, but try to move thousands of armed people in a sensible way, even on a day march from one camp to another. That requires planning effort and foresight how the movement of the troops might impact the troops themselves, the locals, the area itself, what to do when something goes wrong during the operation.
Businesspeople have adopted the term strategy for the context of the development of companies, too. After all, leadership has to “lead and move” the employees and ressources of a company towards defined company goals and predict as well as possible how employees, clients, competitors, markets, governments or any other players will react, how it impacts the company assets, the environment and other circumstances and what to do when things go terribly wrong.
If you are reading this you are probably not an army or a multinational corporation. Most people don’t have or want a complicated manual on how to govern themselves and go about reaching their goals. Yet we could profit from looking into how they solve problems efficiently and successfully. You have goals you set yourself, too. You want to get things done, go places with your career.
Also, everyone will have a certain amount of survival strategies already without naming them as such. If you are in unexplicable and lasting strong pain you make a doctor’s appointment to find and eradicate the cause of your pain. If you run out of money you are looking for a job or apply for welfare to help you through the worst.
2. My academic paper nightmare
So how did I go on about big challenges in my life? Preferably one with lessons that seem like they could be easily applied to art, too? The first thing that comes to my mind was having to write many many papers in university. One in particularly, the biggest and last one that counted directly into my final grade, was a dreaded and awful thing, but I actually have no residual bad feelings about it. No grudge. It started off horribly. I had a time limit, although I’m not sure how long, I think it was a month. Day one when I got my topic the secretary accused me of forging one of my report cards of a previous course that qualified me to attempt this paper at all.
I did still brainstorm how to tackle my paper’s topic and collect some first ressources like I planned to in the library of the university the same day, but I also had to exchange some e-mails with university administration and student office and make a couple of visits in more offices over the next days. It did not help that I also some heightened pressure to succeed from an unsuccessful attempt before, I was absolutely not allowed to fail this one or I couldn’t graduate. But that day, that time, I employed a harsh strategy to go through the nightmare: I suppressed all my emotions, I shut myself out. People tell you, you have to acknowledge, respect and feel your feelings, yes, you do, but not in the circumstances I just described. If I had listened to my fear, my rightful anger (I hadn’t forged anything), my sadness, the agony of academic pressure I would most definitely have done or written or said something stupid and botched everything in the first week, even before and outside writing the actual paper. Or I would have deleted myself. Instead, I focussed on the work and work only. There was just proving my academic certificates and report cards were real and writing the paper, and I made sure to put most of my energy into writing the paper. I did not shut off my critical thinking though and have some thoughts on my university, the secretary, hierarchies and other topics, but that here is not the place for them. Administration confirmed the authenticity of my certificate, I wrote and finished the paper and got a good grade, graduated, and the bold secretary hopefully doesn’t carelessly accuse other students of forgery today.
3. Learning from this for art
Now I wonder, how can this help you and me in art? Obviously, you do not get graded and you set most deadlines yourself or negotiate them with customers. Also it’s hard to question your qualifications unless you outright lie on your resume or accuse yourself via impostor syndrome. If the latter happens, just ignore it. It goes away when you do the work and get ahead in your art career. If you listen to impostor syndrome, you don’t get your work done and end up in a self-fulfilling prophecy where your self-doubt keeps you from getting things done while getting nothing done in return feeds your self-doubt.
Other than that, I do not wish it to you but you might get into circumstances where you reach stress levels that are a threat to your wellbeing. Long term creative projects can do that to you. Usually it’s not the project alone, but personal problems and very unlucky other circumstances joining the mix. Temporary(!) shutting off your emotions and fighting until the bitter end to get the job done might be a way to do it. It would be preferable to not end up in a situation like that at all, but if it happens, that might be a way to get you through it. And please be gentle with yourself afterwards. I think I came through this experience at university so well, because I didn’t try to make harsh survival mode my default mode for the rest of my training. Also, I worked through that experience in private later, taking some time to heal from it. There is no shame in doing that or in seeking professional help to help you doing that.
4. Academic papers and long term creative projects – birds of a feather?
Maybe writing an academic paper is not that different from getting a long term creative project done. You set or are given a goal in the beginning, you brainstorm how you want to approach it and what you need for it, you collect information and whatever ressources you decided you need, then you work on it…probably every day. You must live with the pressure that you will not see results immediately, that some days will be bad despite best efforts, days in which you do nothing hurt you, so better not procrastinate at all, but that you also may not do too much per day, otherwise you spend your energy too fast and burn out.
And then don’t forget that you get numb in the end. What do I mean by that? When you have spent weeks, months or even years with a thing, you are too close to it. You cannot tell whether it is good or bad and you will not see obvious flaws, and probably you don’t even want to see anything anymore, just get it done. You are numb. Therefore do not plan on finishing the evening before due date. You need time to let other people check your work. If the scope of the work is really big, also think about breaking it down in smaller parts that people can check for you without going numb themselves. If it’s a private project and you haven’t announced a release date yet, maybe even take a couple of weeks off yourself and either relax or work on other things or a mix of both, then return to the thing like someone who hasn’t created it themselves and experience it as a reader or player. You will be surprised what you will discover, what a difference in perception that break can make.
That’s it for today. Happy creating, everyone!