I can't think of a single thing I have ever worked on that did not at some point involve me abandoning it at least once because I knew that since I didn't like it, no one would like it.
Sometimes that involved me abandoning the project forever. Okay, a lot of the time that involves me abandoning the project forever. Speaking with a colleague today, a woman who herself is trying to finish one of a dozen stories she’s been working on over the years, it seems that abandonment of our ideas is a necessary ode to the spirit of what being a writer is.
Writer’s write, or so they say. I mean, we do, don’t we?
So then what causes us to abandon something we’re writing? Why do I throw up my hands and shake my head and slog myself away to my kitchen table, wondering solemnly why I just spent all of my free time for days, weeks, sometimes months, trying to shape and mold absolute garbage?
The terms of our agreement.
People who say they are writing a story are bound the terms of agreement of being a writer. The first clause is this:
Doubt. By becoming an author you hereby agree to doubt everything you say, think, and write.
What does doubt do to us?
I get a spark of an idea and then pour myself into it. I mean really pour myself in there. When it comes to hyperfocus, I am a grandmaster champion.
I’ll work hard on an idea for anywhere between three days to three months, and then once it starts to become work I do the thing I always do and I abandon it.
No more dopamine, apparently. Moving on. Next disappointing endeavor.
Normally I would have expected something like this to be an outward reflection of an inward struggle with my own sense of my value in this world. In other words, if I considered myself to be value-less in this life, how could something I make be value-able?
You can see the underlying fallacy in all this, right?
Here’s how I interpreted it a few months ago:
It sure makes it easy to abandon the project, doesn't it?
See, I don't think we really think the world is or even would be sick of what we're making. I think when we are talking about whether our art is worthless the world, what we're really saying that that since we ourselves feel worthless to the world, how can what we create possibly have any value?
Whoa, whoa, Jesse. Worthless? Really? When I say that we're worthless, what I'm saying is that we, singular human beings, have no intrinsic worth to anyone. I am a sack of meat and bones and that's it. Just like you.
It is only when you combine this sack of meat and bones with conscious action that you begin to have something to ascribe value to: the result of my actions.
Doubt is such a tricky thing. You know that it’s there, you even train to not have it bother you, but then you realize all of your actions (and inactions) are because doubt was in your mind.
I do think there is something to be learned from my naive analysis of my situation—the situation being not able to ascribe value to my writing. I wanted to be proud of what I wrote; I want to step away from a page and say, “This is good stuff.”
I’m getting there. I really am. I can recognize how my past interpretation of my circumstances were more depressing than they are today. This is why it’s important to journal like this; this is why it’s imperative that we go back to what we said before and reflect on how we have grown since then.
Also, if you don’t have a way to blog and you would like a way to blog, please let me know. I will help get you setup with a free solution so that you can write and reflect. I want to help you. Let me help you.
At this point in my journey toward being proud of myself and what I write, I have lassoed doubt and have it under control. It still wiggles free every now and then, but for the most part I am able to regain control before too much damage is done.
The philosophy of worthless art.
How can something made through an avenue of self-expression be “worthless,” when there is no objective measurement of human experience?
If aliens from another dimension came into this reality to study humans, love and loss, happiness and sadness, pain and comfort would all be equal on the spectrum of experience—they would be on opposite poles, sure, but there is no good or bad or up or down, they just exist further from the center of the universe, where there is no feeling, no consciousness. Nothing.
There is a lot to be said about how we ascribe value to things, and whether or not we ourselves can ascribe value on something we create.
I have come to believe that my purpose in this life may not be the assign value to anything. Rather, I am here to create new things from nothing, to tell stories, to create social artifacts—to weave articulations of the human experience into entertainment for others to consume, for others to ascribe value to.
Value is personal. The consumption of art is personal. Value is created when art is consumed.
So why can we possess the feeling of our work having no value? How is it possible that we can come to believe that what we create is worthless?
Old me thought it had a lot to do with the society we live in. That’s where the rest of this picks up.
How our creations get value.
When I choose to do things, I generate something that others can derive value from. That value can be emotional or spiritual, or even tangible, monetary. But I don't get to define the value of my actions—that's us mistakenly trying to translate how a company evaluates the price of a product to how we ascribe value interpersonally. It's what capitalism teaches us to do when we have goods or services to sell; it's what we learned about in school: supply and demand are inversely proportional and we ought to price our products according to some sweet spot derived from a marketing analysis.
But if all that were true for our creations, then there wouldn't be so many people struggling with whether or not their work is worthless—and a lot less people would be worrying about whether they themselves are worthless or not.
If the only lens we have to inspect our creations is a capitalist lens, then of course our work is worthless and of course we are worthless because we don't have any tools other than demand to measure our value, and there won't be any demand before the project is done—there can't be, because there's no supply to demand!
Here's another way to think of it: we're trying to ascribe a measurement that is the product of an economic system on something that transcends economic systems. You can buy someone's art, but regardless of whether it's ephemeral or lasts until the end of humanity, you cannot purchase nor can you control how a creation influences its audience.
For that reason, you cannot tell me that your creations are worthless because you aren't the person who can make that valuation.
Here's the thing, though: I think deep down we already know this. I think we know full well that our work can't be bad until its done, and so we tell people, we tell ourselves, "Oh, I'm working in it," or "it's still just a draft," or "it's not ready."
What we're really doing is selling failure to ourselves—we give ourselves permission to quit—and do you know why?
Because what if we're right?
What if we do finish that project and what if we do put it out there for our friends and family to see and what if they all hate it?
What if our self-doubts and criticisms were right this whole time?
Isn't it funny how crippling that one question can be? What if we're right—about our work, about ourselves...
Ironically, this way of thinking is perfectly normal. In fact, if you didn't second-guess yourself constantly I would think something's wrong with you as a creator. But you know exactly what I'm talking about don't you? And you know where this is going:
If we never finish what we started, we never have to come to terms with the fact that anywhere between one and seven-and-a-half billion people will not find value in our work.
Seven and a half billion people are on this Earth, and new ones are being born each and every day. Why is this important?
Because if you honestly believe not a single person on this planet now or in the future will be moved by your work—will find value in your creations—then you're absolutely delusional.
It's a statistical improbability!
Statistically, it's more likely that you will be struck by lightning while being attacked by a bear who is also being struck by lightning and attacked by a bear than your art not have a positive impact on at least one person, somewhere, sometime.
So you don't get to say whether your art has value or not; you don't get to say whether something you're making is worthless or not, because art is about self-expression and despite what capitalism wants us to believe, you can't really monetize true expression of the self. And you can't ascribe worth to your own art because you are the one who created that social artifact, so it's no longer yours to control. It's a social artifact now, and its time for it to serve its purpose—to serve art's purpose.
We creators have an incessant need to create things. Why? I have no idea, but what I do know is that all the hours and frustration and pain and exhaustion all makes sense when you think about one person—just one person, somewhere out there, at some point in time—who haphazardly stumbles on your creation as they're on the precipice of a dark cliff that has been beckoning them for days, weeks, even years.
How powerful your creation has become that this person can forget about that dark cliff, those looming shadows that they've been trying to distract themselves from.
How powerful art is that it can walk us back from the edge, give purpose to our lives again, and allow us to reframe the world and our experiences in it through lenses we may have never thought to use before.
It can even be much simpler than that. Maybe someone read your story, or glanced at your drawing, or touched your sculpture, or played your game, or heard your music, and maybe the total time they spent with your creation was less than a minute. Does that mean your creation is worthless?
Well here's an exercise: think of something right now that someone did or said or made that passed through your life at some point in the past.
Now, let me ask you this: Do you remember it? Do you think about it, even though you don't know why? Has it affected you in some way, even minutely?
Why do these things stick to our minds?
Maybe no one knows, but I do know that your work is doing the same thing. It absolutely is, which is why it is paramount that you get your work finished, get it out there in the world—in any way you can.
The only thing worse than bad art is art that was never finished. Remember that. Anyone can start something and quit. But not you. You will finish. You have to—because it's what creators do.
And you know what's amazing about all of this? We might never know who we make an impact on. The information age has made it possible for us to produce art and put it out there for the world to consume. Take this newsletter. I have no idea who is going to be reading this in the future, but I do know there is some impact that I am making, positive or negative, purely from the act of experiencing it.
By the time you are reading this, I am Past Jesse and you are my Future Reader. Isn’t that crazy? If Present Jesse were to talk with you now, it might not even be the same person—hence why I think it’s so important that I do this newsletter. You may not connect with Present Jesse in the way that you would with Past Jesse (the Jesse typing this right now).
There is always something going on when someone experiences someone else's creation, but chances are, I'll never meet you. I'll never know what kind of an impact I had on you, positive or negative, and you know what? That's okay with me, because I know that I have to have made some kind of impact on at least one other human being.
And if that doesn't drive us to continue to create, to push past our self-imposed obstacles, then what are we doing?
Our charge in this life is not to hunt for a valuation of our creations as means of extrinsic validation, it's to come to terms with the fact that our creations have no worth to us—they are not for us to consume. Our creations are for others; we create to add to the culture of our time and times that come after us, contributing in a way that makes the most sense to us—by creating new things.
Of course, speaking philosophically and waxing poetic is nice and all when you have the economic means to do so. For some of us, though, our art is our trade and it pays the bills; we can't be sitting around pontificating about the altruistic contributions we've made to future generations because we need to feed ourselves and our families now in this generation.
That being said, if you're trying to navigate artistic value in a commodities-based economy, you have to sacrifice some of your own desires for self-expression sometimes so that you are generating art to the specifications of paying customers. Alternatively you may have a day job like most of us, which means you are not bound to create things through the filters of those who pay you. Either way, it’s challenging but we cope with it. We get through it. We get our stuff made and out there for others.
Sometimes we need to just pay the bills. We all go through it. But this doesn't have to be a bad thing; giving yourself permission to work according to what someone else considers valuable is an easy way to start feeling comfortable with the art you're creating, and a streamlined way to get extrinsic validation for your effort.
But remember, the pursuit of extrinsic validation is fine when you're talking about earning money to live off of, but extrinsic motivation is a toxic and self-destructive force. Always, always, always make sure you're working for the right reasons—and for the love of everything in this universe, never stop creating.