I was just reading Murder with Puffins by Donna Andrews and there’s an artist character in it that has got me thinking. The artist is a thoroughly disagreeable person who naturally ends up dead, but it was the comments about his work that has me thinking. He was an artist that showed a lot of promise in his youth and made a big splash on the art scene, but then his style never changed. The level of his work remained the same for 40 years. How is it possible to paint, or for that matter, write, and not get better—to remain at the same level? In the very act of doing you would naturally learn better control, make discoveries, try new things, wouldn’t you? It says a lot about his character that he thought he was brilliant as he was and didn’t have to strive to get better. He thought he was perfect and never saw the flaws in his work.
Fortunately I don’t think most creatives look at their work that way. I know I always see the flaws first. Later I may be able to appreciate how I handled something but at first glance it’s what I didn’t do well that hits me in the face. It’s more prevalent with my art rather than my writing. I have an immediate reaction to an image and it’s pretty evident to me what I struggled with and didn’t come out the way I intended. And while I know most people don’t see what I see, those flaws affect my own appreciation and spark thoughts of “I’m not good enough.” Writing takes longer to absorb so I only notice the flaws when I’m reading a scene and feel dissatisfied that I didn’t reach the emotional level I wanted. I used to think being plagued by thoughts of inadequacy in regards to my art and writing were a negative drain and served no useful purpose. However, after reading Murder with Puffins I’ve come to a new realization. It’s the dissatisfaction that makes me try harder each time. It’s wanting greater control and mastery of the medium that pushes my art and my writing. Without that, I’d be complacent. I wouldn’t see the problems and I’d stop trying to get better.
I distinctly remember a time in my writing where I felt I had plateaued and I didn’t know how to improve. I knew my writing wasn’t good enough for publication. I was a strong intermediate writer. But I didn’t know how to move into the advanced category. Where was the book, the teacher, the article that would show me the way? I looked but didn’t find anything. I talked to my friend, Hilari Bell, whose work back then had improved a lot and I asked her how she did it. She told me she simply paid more attention to her writing. She focused on all aspects: plot, story arc, character arc, sentence structure, etc. She put the time and effort in to polish and edit the story to make it better and stronger. She was right. It takes effort and it takes focusing on what’s not working. You have to recognize the flaws before you can do anything about them. The character in Donna Andrews book didn’t see the flaws so his work never changed. Thank goodness I can’t hide from the flaws in my work. It will keep me striving to improve. And every year I’ll be able to look back on what I’ve done and see an improvement. That’s good to know too.