Column: Are you playing it too safe with your art?

We were talking about fear in the column a few weeks ago, and now I’m thinking about safety. Mostly because I’m on the road, and though it’s not like I’m trying to cross the border with a kilo of heroin, there are risks involved when you travel alone. Not least of which is an obvious lack of interest in good grooming. But maybe that’s just me.

clouds over highwayI’ve also been thinking about safety in terms of creative work, of making art. For me, the safe place is writing funny. I like to write that way and people seem to like it, too. On this trip I’ve been noticing that there are some funny episodes, sure, but there’s also been a lot of sadness and anxiety which, last time I checked, doesn’t easily translate to hilarious prose.

So I’m trying to get comfortable with writing all of it. Of being true to the experience instead of trying to mold it into something that’s easy for the reader to digest. But what’s wrong with challenging the reader? With making her work a little?

What about you, are you playing it too safe and giving your fans the status quo? Here are some clues you might be:

-       You catch yourself saying (or thinking), “I’ve got this (genre, medium, or style) down so well, I could do it in my sleep.”

-       You worry that you’re repeating yourself artistically, that you’re not expressing anything new.

-       You’ve started getting bored with your work.

-       You have the nagging sense that you’re capable of so much more but aren’t there yet.

Or, instead, are you striving for work that’s different, more complex, bigger in scope or vision, and trusting your fans to understand and appreciate deep, layered work? Here are a few clues that this is your situation:

-       You’re terrified.

-       You’re thrilled. (Or both.)

-       You wake up in the middle of the night with new ideas for the work.

-       You’re working on a project and aren’t exactly sure how you’ll finish, or even what you’re trying to say, but you can’t stop working on it.

My point is, same ol’, same ol’ is rarely a strategy for success or personal satisfaction. You’ve got to push yourself at least some of the time. (Even Sue Grafton will have to do something new once she runs out of letters of the alphabet, and despite her long-running series, I’m guessing she makes sure the work challenges herself as a writer and her readers with new twists and characters.)

I’d even venture that pushing yourself and trusting your fans to follow is necessary for growth as an artist, in terms of both mastery and monetary reward. (I mean, it’s not like you’re trying to sell New Coke.)

The reality is you may try something new, run all the way out to the end of the line with it, and bomb. (Again: New Coke.) But what you’ll do then is pick yourself up and try something else that excites you. You don’t have shareholders. Like I’ve said before, the folks that love your work don’t love you because you’re perfect, they love you because you try and try and once in awhile, or even more often than that, you make great art.

My question for you is this: What’s your big dream for your art? Because playing it safe cancels out any hope of attaining it. You just can’t get there unless you’re challenging yourself in service to that bigger vision.

I say this because I’m thinking about it for myself. Is the goal to sell enough books to pay my bills and have money left over to travel? That’s perfectly fine. And certainly the primary goal is to become a better and better writer, which is a goal with no finish line. But I can’t help but think there’s something bigger I should be doing, or that I could be making an impact beyond entertainment. Education? Philanthropy? I’m not sure yet.

What’s the artist’s role in making the world at least a little bit better? Is it enough to make something beautiful or interesting or funny and leave that as a legacy? Or should we not only challenge ourselves creatively, but also strive to reach out into our community and the world?

What do you think? I’d love to hear from you on this.

This column first ran in The Taos News. Photo credit:

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  1. Interesting questions, Deonne. I will have to ponder.
    My situation often is this: I feel I have nothing to say. That what I write will bore my readers. And that they will quit reading what I write.
    So then I don’t write for awhile.
    A vicious, evil circle of non-production.
    I will think on what you’ve said. Thanks. It is nudging me to do something, though I am not sure what!
    Emilie Vardaman recently posted..Escaping the Heat

    • Emilie,

      I’m certain you have plenty to say that plenty of people would love to read, but it’s just a matter of finding what you *need* to say – that thing that only you and your unique voice can share with the world. Does that make sense? And sometimes that takes a while to figure out, but you have to keep writing and listening until you do. Keep going!


  2. Great post, Deonne. I’ve never been a fan of the status quo (as far as my creativity is concerned). My creative self has changed and evolved over the last twenty years. Definitely for the better. The only way I can evolve creatively is to challenge myself with new projects or a new art form (ie. writing). I tend to start a project and not finish it because either I get bored or maybe it’s fear that sneaks into my psyche. I have proclaimed this year to be the year of finishing projects. I have three projects in the fire right now and they will be finished by December 31, 2013. Come hell or high water!

    • Kathy,

      I love your proclamation! That’s the curse of the creative mind, having too many good ideas, which can get overwhelming. Good for you on committing to finishing the three – which means you’ll have three more reasons to drink champagne on New Year’s Eve!


  3. That photo is fantastic. Did you take it? I think that sometimes status quo serves the purpose of keeping me going. The life phase I’m in right now does not allow me much time, so I just keep pushing through with the hope that eventually it will lead me somewhere. I just finished a course that was all about finding what’s in the future for me in terms of creativity and as I did the journal exercises I found myself in the present situation but wanting to follow through. In other words, sticking with the status quo until it’s finished, as dull and uninspiring as it can sometimes be. I enjoyed your article and hope to be in that place soon, the phase where I’m waking in the middle of night with new ideas.

    • Manisha,

      That photo isn’t mine, alas. I agree that status quo is necessary sometimes, because not only can we not force inspiration, we can’t go, go, go all the time – we’d burn out. So it’s smart, like you’re doing, to just keep going and keep showing up, even if it’s less than inspired, until that next creative push shows up.


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