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Persistence versus Productivity: the Artist’s Dilemma

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Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando follows its eponymous hero(ine) through several centuries of English history, from late medieval times to the ‘now’ in which Woolf was writing. When I first read it in my mid-teens, the thing that stayed with me, even more than the colourful panoply of history, was the relationship Orlando had with his/her art.

S/he aspired to be a poet, and was working on an epic work called ‘The Oak Tree’. (Goes off to check I’ve remembered that correctly…yes I did.) For much of the book, it is never quite satisfactory, and s/he keeps reworking it. Which, given the apparent immortality of the author, means that every time literary tastes change, the poem has to be re-written in the forms and styles of the day.

My 16-year-old self took this as a cautionary tale. If you wait until you have got something absolutely ‘right’, you may never get there, as what you consider to be ‘right’ might have changed in the interim. Obviously, for normal mortals like us, the problem isn’t the transition from Renaissance to Restoration styles, but that sense of shifting goal posts is still an issue.

New styles and ideas comes along, and it is all too easy to feel one has to respond to the innovations of our fellow artists as we encounter them. Even within artistic communities with relatively stable conventions, the individual continues to grow, and your current self is likely to disagree with your past self about least some of what the latter has done.

I think about this when helping arrangers and composers who come to me for advice. The writing process needs to involve iterations of drafting, reflection, and re-working to turn a concept into a viable artistic product. Some people find it easier to come up with a new idea than to hone the one they just had, and whilst it might feel pleasantly productive to keep generating material, if that is your go-to response to getting stuck, you just end up with lots of potential and no finished products.

Other people stay with one piece, seeking feedback and reworking it, to a point where I wonder if they are becoming a bit too much like Orlando. I find myself thinking that it’s time for them to move on to the next project, to try something that doesn’t have so many rubbings-out all over it. There’s no doubt that they are improving the piece in each iteration, so I hesitate to chivvy them on too vigorously, but at the same time I wonder if they are getting diminishing returns for each new round of feedback and re-working. At what point does admirable persistence slide over into a fear of the new?

It occurs to me that this is partly about perspective. The developing artist is interested in producing good artworks, whereas I am interested in developing good artists. That is, I am more interested in what the person learns through creating the art than I am in the art itself, which in a mentoring relationship functions primarily as evidence of how the artist is getting on. I mean, I like interacting with the music too, but I get my primary kicks from seeing musicians develop into the versions of themselves they aspire to be.

And you learn different things from different pieces. So what you need to fill the gap you perceive in the current piece might actually be filled by the next or the next but two piece you work on. Sometimes you need to accept something as a valid representation of where you are on your artistic journey and call it done. Your future self will see things it could do better, but it will also probably see things it is pleasantly surprised at. Oh, you will think in 5 years time, I wouldn’t have thought of that…oh actually it seems I did.

Other times you need to put something to one side to come back to, recognising that you need more experience to achieve what you want to with that one. We all have a bottom drawer of partly-done projects, and that is a healthy part of the process. Some you will come back to, some you won’t. And just occasionally you’ll find yourself wanting to rework something you did a decade earlier – possibly to re-purpose it for a new context, but in the process taking the opportunity to spiffy up the bits you can do better now.

So there’s a balance here. Artistic growth needs both the persistence to reflect and redraft, and the courage to move on and face the new. I think most of us can work out which side we err on. If in doubt: if you find yourself more comfortable in one mode, you probably need to do more of the other. (I guess I tend to get to know more of the Orlandos than the over-producers because the latter don’t ask for so much feedback.) Think of each project as having a dual status: it is both a work in its own right and a step on your artistic journey.

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