A Return to Innocence

Artwork by Igor Mitoraj

Success can be a bit of a double-edge sword sometimes. . .

On one hand a little bit of commercial success gives us the confidence we need to continue creating our art, but on the other hand, it can also lull us into a sense of complacency and prevent us from taking risks and exploring other forms, styles, and techniques.

I think that most of us have experienced this at one time or another.

We create something we like and it’s generally viewed as a success by others (yay!).  From that point on, however, the temptation will be there for us to stick to that tried-and-true formula, instead of risking potential failure by trying something new.  So what generally happens is that we end up repeating the formula that initially brought us our success because it’s comfortable and familiar to us.  In fact, we begin to call it our “niche” or our “signature style”.

After all, if it’s not broke don’t fix it, right?

We’ve all seen this with musicians who try to duplicate the success of their debut album with a second effort that ends up sounding like little more than a slight variation of the first.  This is the paradox of the sophomore slump–we try so hard to replicate what got us to where we are, that we end up not really creating anything new along the way.

The Crazy Ones

Not that changing things up always works.  We talked in a previous article about how Bob Dylan got himself booed offstage on more than one occasion when he decided to change musical directions.  He ended up  confusing (and angering) a large part of his folk music audience in the process.  Now in the end, things have obviously worked out fairly well for Bob and his career, but he had no way of knowing that at the time.

More recently, this type of musical genre jumping/risk-taking  has become synonymous with the folk/pop/dance/country artist known as Jewel.  However, with apologies to Mr. Shakespeare, we are not here to bury Jewel, but to praise her. . .

I have little doubt that Jewel could have made a very comfortable living for herself sticking to the acoustic folk-rock stylings that had brought her so much success with her debut album “Pieces of You” that sold over 12 million copies worldwide and is one of the highest selling debut albums ever produced. Her followup album “Spirit”  was similar in style and sold almost 4 million copies in the U.S. alone.   In other words, she had clearly made enough of a name for herself (and money) at that point, that she could have easily stuck with what she knew and had a musical career that most singer/songwriters can only dream about.

But she didn’t. . .

After doing the obligatory Christmas album, Jewel began to change musical directions with her third studio album “This Way” and veered away from the solo acoustic guitar style that had brought her so much initial success. She followed this with the completely unexpected dance-oriented album “0304“.  Legions of her fans hailed Jewel’s new sexed-up pop image as her defining “jump the shark” moment and the music critics slammed her.  Undaunted and unwilling to conform to anyone’s expectations, she continues exploring new musical genres and her latest efforts have been filed under country music.

Where Jewel will go from here is anyone’s guess, but I’m confident that whatever she does, she’ll continue to ignore the naysayers and critics and she will continue to follow her own path.

Forget about the damn shark!

Let’s be clear, this isn’t just me being some fanboy gushing on Jewel.  She is just one example of the type of artists that I have always admired.  I’m talking about those artists who weren’t afraid to break free from their audience’s expectations and were determined to follow that small creative voice inside of them.  They never worried whether their latest project was going to be a success or failure, because they weren’t doing it to please other people.

These are the artists who always seem to defy explanation.

This is why you can’t sit down and easily define artists like Bob Dylan, Matisse, Verdi, Yeats, or The Beatles because they were constantly changing and evolving throughout their career. They continued to push themselves beyond the familiarity of their previous work because they knew that if they didn’t continue to expand, they would begin to stagnate and eventually become irrelevant.

Ignorance is Bliss (and courage)

Sometimes I think that we could all benefit by returning to that state of naive innocence when we didn’t know any better as artists/writers/musicians.  It seems that after we have practiced our craft long enough and found a modest amount of success, one of the hardest things we can do is to try to go back and reclaim that sense of childhood fearlessness where we tried to do something just because we didn’t know any better.

The thing is to become a master and in your old age to acquire the courage to do what children did when they knew nothing ~Hemmingway

We’ve got to find a way to have the necessary experience and knowledge to create our art, while at the same time, still be naive (i.e. courageous) enough to try something new.  In order to continue growing as an artist, we need to push ourselves out of our comfort zone and find a way to scare the creative crap out of ourselves once in awhile.

Work on your Weaknesses

Switching genres or creating self-imposed limitations on yourself (ex. creating a painting using only shades of blue) is one method of pushing yourself out of your established patterns and forcing you into exploring new territory. In other words, you need to approach your work from a new, and often uncomfortable, perspective.

I know that we talked in an earlier article about some of the dangers of constantly switching your focus and bouncing from one genre to another and becoming a jack-of-all-trades but master of none.  However, we’re not necessarily talking about your long-term growth here as an artist, but more of a self-induced creative shock treatment intended to push you out of your routine and comfort zone.

In other words, I’m going to ask you to do something here that you hate!

So for example, if you are a visual  artist who really hates to draw or paint hands, perhaps you could challenge yourself by doing an entire work of nothing but hands.  Or if you’re a writer who only writes novels, maybe it’s time to force yourself to write that short story.  If you’re a photographer who usually only works in color, try shooting your next series entirely in black and white.  If you are a songwriter or musician who usually works in 4/4 time, maybe it’s time to create something in 3/4 or 6/8 time just to see what happens.

Whatever it is you usually do — find a way to force yourself into doing something else.

Don’t be afraid to get messy and don’t waste your time worrying about the result.  Just find somthing that makes you cringe creatively and do it.

What are you willing to do to grow as an artist?

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Comments

  1. says

    Drew,
    What an incredibly timely post~ it feels like you were speaking to my ear…so validating… Thank you!

    A piece of my story in a paragraph:

    After 10 years of building my fine art studio from the ground up, designing and producing Jewish wedding certificates ( a necessary ritual object called, a “Ketubah”) for the wedding industry and becoming one of the most recognized names of the Independent artists in this small, specialty niche market, I recently made a bold decision to let go of producing the product that brought me success, and fly in an entirely new direction into the unkown/unproven world of fine art licensing. With the announcement of my news, I shocked many of my competitors and retail partners ( my work is currently sold in over 100 stores/galleries nationwide) …most could not believe I would walk away from the success I had attained. But my heart and gut (and yes, my mind too) said it was time to change…time to follow my instincts, to find a new path that will allow me to create, design and paint more…three things that bring me much internal joy and peace . Will I be able to achieve the same kind of marketplace success? Who knows, only time will tell, but I am going for it anyway…. letting go where I can, reaching well outside my comfort zone, taking a big leap of faith and breathing deeper instead of holding my breath :) Wish me luck!
    ~Shell

    • Drew says

      Hi Shell!

      Like anything else in our life, I truly believe that we can’t keep doing the same thing year after year and expect ourselves to grow as an artist or as a human being. Things change. We change. I know that I’m certainly not the same person I was ten years ago, nor would I want to be.

      To me life (and art) is about growth and maturation, but perhaps most importantly, it’s about movement. It’s about moving forward (or even backward as this post talks about) but always moving towards something new.

      As you know, it takes real courage to listen when your head/gut/mind is telling you that it’s time to move on. It may not make any sense to your customers, critics, your bank account, or even your competition in your case — but you have to follow your own path nevertheless.

      The only alternative here is regret, which as most people can tell you, is something that is often far worse than failure. It’s been said that at the end of our life, the things we’ll regret the most are not the things that we have done, but the things we have failed to do.

      I wish you all the best! :D

  2. says

    I love it when someone, somewhere in the world gives us permission to be kids again! Thanks Drew. I think I will have fun with this one. Will let you know the results! (:

    • Drew says

      Thanks Amy (:

      I think sometimes we get so wrapped up in making our art “better” that we forget what it feels like to tear up our rulebook and create something we never would have imagined.

      Forget the rules, forget what other people might think about it, and perhaps most importantly–forget yourself. Just get in there, do something, and get messy. You might just be surprised at what you discover along the way!

  3. says

    Drew,

    thanks for this very timely post. so grateful for twitter. : )

    a couple of things:

    1)marco rojas, “my” yoga instructor, in yoga is always saying—“be a kid, you will make a better adult.” needless to say, you know what this means: trust yourself more, make mistakes, have an open heart, explore, judge less etc. etc.

    2) recently, i have come across a lot of my work from when i was eight! yes, eight! i won’t go into the details of my writing history/life but i only began writing ‘seriously’ for the last 6 months (and the 6 months prior to that sorting out the financial details how to do this). i wrote my 1st story when I was eight. what i am learning is that i knew MORE then than i do now. and this is prior to having read all the ‘greats’ who have deeply influenced me as a person and one who writes.

    3) often people have compared my work to authors i have not read and although this was a source of discomfort at first: maybe, i should just stop and first go read everything that was ever written, but now i realize, we are all creating from the same ‘source’ so it matters not who i have read, or others may think i sound like. it serves well not to know everything.

    4)in re jewel—i disagree. just because one veers off a path does not necessarily mean the intention is integrated and there is alignment (emotional, mental, spiritual, physical) for the craft’s sake. i like shell’s comment above—that illustrates what you mean, i think.

    in jewel’s case it is sort of a ‘departure without intention’ unless coming across as THAT was her intention. i was a huge jewel fan. even have her poetry. let me talk personally, instead of putting another creative down. i know for a fact, if i were to write a post about a personal romantic experience, it would be read by many. especially if i titled it: ‘in his arms’ or some asinine title as such. it would certainly be a departure from what i currently share. but is that growth? development of the craft?

    even if we are talking fiction, the way i handle “intimate scenes” between two characters takes me hours to craft, but I could easily depart from THAT and go to a “new territory” and make it explicit so as to be a novel that sells on the streets in Harlem.

    my point: sometimes it is easier to step outside one’s comfort zone. really. but to expand from what you are already doing, requires hard work.

    basically, it can’t be JUST to leave one’s comfort zone. for if it is, then that is all it will be recognized for and the spirit of the product/ craft will be lost somewhere in there.

    my more than two cents,

    ~a. q. s.

    • Drew says

      It’s always great to see you hear Annie :)

      Your comment about your childhood writings and how much you could learn from them reminded of that famous quote by Socrates,”The more I learn, the more I learn how little I know.”

      I think that’s one of the reason that nature has always been such an inspiration to writers and artists. When it comes down to it, you can’t really complicate nature, which is why it’s so powerful. In nature we are forced to observe rather than create. It becomes our foundational touchstone on which we can begin to build our own interpretation.

      I do think you’re right that doing something crazy outside of your comfort zone just for the sake of doing something crazy, is probably not going to make you a better artist or writer in the long run because true mastery is the result of technique and experience not “shock treatments”.

      At the same time, I think shocking your creative self into seeing things from a slightly altered perspective does have its value, if only to get you thinking and moving in a new direction.

      Looking back, Jewel might not have been the best example here to illustrate my point, but one of the things that I have always admired about her is how she continues to listen that little voice inside of her. She never lets the fear of losing out on money or future success hold her back from following her creative heart. That to me epitomizes that sense of childhood fearlessness and “naivete” that I was talking about in the article. Good intentions have to count for something, right?

      I guess my point was that the moment you begin to second-guess yourself or worry about what other people might think, you lose something important. Everything you do may not be right, and sometimes it might not even turn out to be that good– but whatever you create in honesty and innocence will always be yours and yours alone. . .

      Thanks again Annie for sharing your two cents+ ;)

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