An artistic conundrum
May 10, 2019 7:20 AM   Subscribe

I alternately wish to be a writer or a visual artist. Constantly shifting my artistic focus means I seldom finish anything. If you have modest aspirations in more than one art form, but limited time in which to realize it, how do you pick which one to do?

I have always believed that the overarching purpose of my life is to be some sort of creative artist. Maybe not professionally, but as an ongoing personal goal. Working on a creative project that I'm invested and confident in gives my life direction and meaning. Lately, though, I've dug myself into a rut where I've convinced myself that pursuing either visual art or writing is a waste of time.

I've spent years of my life attempting to develop my drawing and painting skills, including most of my thirties. I am always disappointed in my art. It does not come naturally to me. I look at a lot of art and so much of it is so good, complex, developed, striking. Then I look at one of my dopey drawings and feel sad. I know that there are many different styles of art out there, including some very naive and messy art, but I feel that mine fails even on the level of what it's striving to be. I can labor for days over something and look at it weeks later and think, after all that work, that was all I could produce? For the record, this is the kind of art I would like to be able to make. In the same way that no amount of work will ever result in my being a symphony musician, I doubt I would ever reach this level of visual expression.

At the same time, I find that writing is a skill that comes to me readily (despite oddly having difficulty in phrasing this question). I've written a couple of books and endless, endless diaries and essays, all of which live on in my computer and longhand in notebooks, and when I go back and read them years later I think huh, this is pretty good. The writing flows. However, I don't really want to be a writer. Pinning down my ideas with the precision of words seems much scarier than, for instance, painting a picture of a fox. I also do not believe that I'm intelligent and insightful enough to be a "real" writer. Just from reading the comments and thoughts of the many super-smart Mefites here, I feel like a little kid trying to play with the big kids. Lastly, while I would love to be able to write fiction, I am terrible at plotting. I never see plot twists coming in movies and books where others claim to have seen them from the beginning.

So, tl;dr, I'm not skilled enough to be an artist, and although my writing is solid, I don't really want to be a writer. I constantly waffle back and forth between the two. I get fed up and frustrated with my drawings and decide "I'm going to be a writer!" I'll spend a couple of weeks scribbling out a story, then one morning wake up and think "this is stupid! my story is stupid, and I am stupid!" and go back to the drawings. In this way, I never finish anything. I almost wonder if this is some sort of self-protective block I have going on.

I have about one hour on workdays, and up to a few hours on weekends, in which to pursue art. So "do both" is a noble goal but not terribly realistic.

When I'm writing, I feel like I'm wasting precious time I could be drawing. When I'm drawing, I'm wondering why the hell I'm wasting my time with something I'm so clearly never going to be good at. It's a frustrating way to live.

How can I settle down and pick one and stick with it?
posted by whistle pig to Grab Bag (18 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
What about comics?
posted by Hypatia at 7:33 AM on May 10, 2019 [6 favorites]

I picked a form in which it was possible for me to get a (small but enthusiastic) audience without entering into intense competition.

For me the choice was between writing poetry and composing music. I ended up in a community where people sing short choral compositions for fun, in a noncompetitive way, and I found writing for that audience super satisfying. I could never figure out how to get a similar "hey neat thanks for bringing this" audience for the kind of poetry I wrote, which wouldn't have gone over well at a slam or open mic. Like, it can be done, but I'd have had to pour a ton of energy into getting poems into journals and getting invited to read places, and I'd have been trying to claw my way up out of a crab bucket full of poetry MFAs desperate to publish in order to get a job.

So I gave up poetry and kept writing music.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:37 AM on May 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

Stay on the Bus.
posted by 1970s Antihero at 7:43 AM on May 10, 2019 [14 favorites]

Maybe you need to try MORE things? Perhaps your talents really lie in textiles, or pottery, or in children's books, or in making paper models, or arranging flowers! Good luck :)
posted by london explorer girl at 7:44 AM on May 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

I like this quote by Ira Glass - in your case I think it suggests your feelings about your art are normal and actually a sign you are going in the right direction: “Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
posted by crocomancer at 7:47 AM on May 10, 2019 [10 favorites]

I realized how much time I was wasting by being indecisive.

I switched to working on an idea-by-idea basis. If it's an idea for a photo, I make a photo. If I want to make more, it becomes a series. If it's an idea for an essay, I write an essay.

Some of the ideas turn out to only be for me, either because they don't turn out how I pictured or because, in the end, it was something I needed to express to myself rather than the wider world. Some of the works end up being wider world ideas, and then they go on my website or I apply them to be exhibited/published somewhere.

The other essential aspect of my practice is some kind of sharing outlet that isn't shouting into the void. For this, I generally take an art class in whatever medium I'm into at the moment, or join a writers' group/artists' group for sharing and critique.
posted by xo at 7:50 AM on May 10, 2019 [5 favorites]

Let me ask you a question - if no one else in the world was telling you that your writing was good, in fact if your writing was kind of shit, would you try doing it anyway?

I ask this because - it sounds like the biggest motivator for your writing might be that other people are telling you it's good and that you're good at it. And that's pretty validating and great, sure, but the trap is that praise can be kind of persuasive into leading you somewhere you hadn't intended to go. I honestly think that one of the biggest things that lured me away from writing (the place where I'm ultimately happiest) was that I'd sunk so much into theater and school plays that it became part of my self-identity by the time I was in junior high - but deep down it was the writing that I was realizing I liked better. But I squelched that and pursued theater instead for several years. Ultimately I ended up in a good place and I'm satisfied with how things shook out, and my theater career is something I'm grateful I tried, but that's a road-not-taken for me still.

So if your biggest reason for trying out writing is that other people are telling you you're good at it, and you're feeling like you should try it, give yourself permission to....not. Like a former co-worker once said - "being hung like a moose doesn't mean that you automatically have to start working in porn."

On the other hand, if you like writing, then by all means, go for it! Even if it is just for you, then there it is. Instead of treating it like a distraction from your visual art, look at it as a mental break from the visual art - the visual-art side of your brain may just need a time-out, so you're keeping your creative self alive by switching gears and playing in a different sandbox for a while until your visual-art self is ready to be tagged back into the game. Both of those things feed your creative side, which probably doesn't distinguish between the visual art and the writing - it's all one thing to your creative side, and it's probably fed either way.

Finally, if you're feeling like your time is "wasted" by not producing perfect work yet, you may want to consider the "forest floor" metaphor that helped me out a lot. Which is that: when a forest tree sheds its seeds, whatever kinds of seeds they may be, it sheds them by the hundreds. Those seeds all fall to the forest floor and they all sprout in the early spring, before the leaves have come back onto the adult trees. But the vast majority of those seedlings will die - either they get crowded out by the other seedlings, or the adult trees leafing out throws them into shade, or they get eaten by muskrats, whatever.

But those seedlings that die are not wasted. They become mulch and decay into the topsoil (or if they're eaten by a muskrat they feed the muskrat, and the muskrat poops and that also adds to the topsoil). And that makes for a very, very rich topsoil that feeds the seedlings that do survive, and also feeds the adult trees that are already there. That's how the ecosystem is supposed to work.

By that same token - all of those longform stories you're writing, all of those drawings that you work at and then ultimately decide are just "meh" - those are the seedlings that are falling to the forest floor and enriching the topsoil. Just keep at it, and one of those seedlings will sprout into something. But those other things, that's not waste. That's part of the ecosystem that is your creative brain.

Good luck.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:11 AM on May 10, 2019 [8 favorites]

You obviously have a drive to create. You're going to have to find a way to feed that need somehow. (I used to want to be a writer, but I didn't enjoy shutting myself up to write and I hated trying to sell my work. I found that DMing Dungeons & Dragons scratched the itch, though.) Sounds like you really want to draw and paint.

If you're doing it for the love of doing it, you have to figure out how to manage your expectations and toss out old work you don't need. If you're doing it to try to reach an audience, you'll need to figure out who that is and how to produce what they want. But think about letting yourself do art without having to Be An Artist. So much of the work of Being An Artist (or a Writer, for that matter) has nothing to do with the making of art. You're allowed to do it just to express yourself and enjoy the process.
posted by rikschell at 8:11 AM on May 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

Visual representation is a skill set. The discipline of art is difficult if you want to draw like reality presents its self. There are a lot of small lessons on the web that are quick but effective. You have to learn about line, tone, color, form, texture, shape, the visual physics of how light falls on objects and the shadows they both host and cast. The hard thing about art is you want to express, but your hand skills and knowledge of visual effects is how you do it. It is a comingling of autonomous and high conscious functions. Once your toolset is in place then you can make what you want. Painting your way through learning to paint is hard work.

People forget that art is work. Some people who work in the arts are lucky in that every brushstroke or line, brings pleasure. They are kind of the kinaesthetic types of art. Others find joy in the building or end product. One of the things that has to consistently happen is an internal reward system for doing art.

Art and words also work as an art form, picture books, images with words, poetry books with imagery you can use all your skills to art.
posted by Oyéah at 8:14 AM on May 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

I almost wonder if this is some sort of self-protective block I have going on
Yeah, it could be. Do you know about self-handicapping? Might be worth checking out, seeing if that is something that you are struggling with, or if it's just more general artistic frustrations.

I have dabbled in visual art, then put it down. Then I got into music. And now I'm drawing more again, for/with my kid. Also, I have no problem getting serious about a hobby for a few years and then moving on. It's about exploration for me. For me, it's about something that I enjoy doing, as a process and practice, rather as a finished product.

Lots of people make visual art and then destroy it! Think of the Buddhist Mandalas , or even something like a parade float. Likewise, many people write short snippets or journal and never show anyone, or ever read it again. You may find you can enjoy the process if you forget about any lasting accomplishments.
posted by SaltySalticid at 8:23 AM on May 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

I think it can be a self-defeating -- but common! -- to frame a creative practice in terms of nouns/identities (that is, wanting to be "a writer" or "an artist"). When I get down on myself, I try to shift my focus to the verbs/actions themselves (writing, painting). When you're in noun-mode, you're attuned to credentials or gatekeepers or other external authorities & their official validation. And also you feel like you need to pick one and only one noun/identity. But fundamentally it's the verbs themselves that matter. Essentially I guess what I'm saying is: keep doing the work.

And as a professional creative person, I can attest that feeling bad/disappointed in yourself is a permanent part of the process. Don't trick yourself into thinking that there is some line that you cross and on the other side of that line you are "an artist" or "a writer" and you no longer feel self-doubt or frustration or despair that you'll never be as good as the people you admire.

Maybe alternating between practices isn't a sign that you can't make up your mind, but actually an indication that the two practices feed each other. Maybe it's good for you to keep doing both?

Basically: as long as you keep working at it, you are succeeding.
posted by attentionplease at 10:04 AM on May 10, 2019 [3 favorites]

Split your work up into seasons that work for you. During one season the writing is your primary serious focus and the art is your hobby and decompression activity. Then when the season changes, change your focus and make the art your serious primary activity with deadlines and quality control, and turn the writing into the hobby activity where you are allowed and encourage to turn out anything that makes you grin while you are doing it.

Ideally these seasons should not be arbitrary. Perhaps you could look at publishing deadlines in the industry - for example, book publishers want to have so many titles lined up by such a date, and will be looking at submissions until a certain cut-off date that allows them time for re-writes and editing between the two. Your season would be dictated by the decision that whatever you are writing will need to be submitted to the publisher by their cut off date, so you need to have it to your beta readers three months before that. Let's say that you want your writing to be ready for your beta readers for the last day of March to meet one deadline and for the last day of July for another. That means you could decide to have three seasons, one that covers December-January-February-March and one that covers April-May-June-July. Those two would be your writing seasons. The left over season August-September-October-November would be your art season, with the finished art work going out for its evaluation in December, with a deadline to finish your graphic arts projects as November 30th.

The paragraph above gives a made-up schedule, because you may or may not have a submission deadlines or your cycles might be much shorter or longer. You might instead match your seasons to your kids' school schedules and your childcare responsibilities, or to your summer allergy season and the antihistamines that turn you into a blurry fogged zombie. It's a matter of looking at your life and your goals to see what kind of a structure makes sense.

Do not give up on your secondary interests, just de-prioritize them. It's okay if for five years the only art you do is a daily hasty black and white cartoon drawn in ball-point pen on the envelopes that you are turning in with receipts in them. It's also okay if you set mornings for art when you are most fresh and creative and functional, and afternoons for your serious project which is writing, and brings in the income and is kinda boring right now and doesn't need inspiration and enthusiasm or clarity of vision, just discipline, if that schedule works out in terms of output.

The trick is only to change your primary focus when you have completed projects in the primary discipline, and not allow enthusiasm for the secondary discipline to stop you from completing projects in the first one. The secondary, distracting, exciting interest has to be the play interest until the primary projects you have committed to completing are finished - but when they are complete, the next project can be in whichever of the two fields you want.

Beware of self doubt making you want to drop projects. If you are writing a novel and think you are doing badly at it and getting fed up with it because it's too much work and it's not very good, you may distract yourself with visions of art that looks stunning in your mind. This makes it tempting to abandon the writing projects that you started to begin painting, and when the graphics arts project gets difficult and starts failing to live up to your vision, a new idea for a writing project becomes deeply exciting and tempting. If this is the thing causing your focus to waver, make yourself finish the projects you are already committed to, even if they are awful and a big disappointment. Do it anyway, and do a slapdash, terrible job. This is training for doing your best, even when you see it will fall far short of what you want. The last two articles in the series of eight may have been supposed to be the pinnacle of your writing project tying everything together with clear prose and persuasive arguments, and actually turn out to fall kinda flat and fail to pull the meaning together very well, but you will never get good at the end game if all you ever play are openings. So not matter how bad it has to be, finish those projects. A finished project is always better than an abandoned one, even if you feel ashamed of it. A finished project that is no good becomes a practice piece, part of your training, where an abandoned piece is a failure.

It's also important not to bite off more than you can chew so that you don't spend too much time finishing projects that you have worked on as far as you can take them. The distinction is to look at your projects and choose to stop working on them because you know that further work on them will not teach you anything or improve them. There comes a point with a drawing that putting more ink on the paper will merely make the picture more cluttered. Sometimes a drawing doesn't need a background and can fade into white in the lower left hand corner and will be the better for it than if you fill the space with badly rendered daisies.

If you get bored while working on a project that is a useful piece of information. It may be information as to your physiological state, that you really need to go get some exercise and get a good night's sleep rather than hunching over your computer, or it may be information about the work itself. If your prose is boring you that is frequently indication that you need to make it much more concise, or leave out a few scenes or points altogether. Work that bores you will also bore your audience. So if boredom is the reason that you want to turn to a new type of project ask yourself if continuing to work is actually making headway towards completion, or if you are merely meeting a metric like 10,000 words a week, and destroying a 4,000 word short story by turning it into a droning account of what can be taken for granted. You do not need to mention that there is a sky every time your character is outside, or a ceiling every time your character is inside. Whatever you are adding to the work needs to provide more essential information.
posted by Jane the Brown at 10:10 AM on May 10, 2019 [7 favorites]

I use writing to break stagnation in my painting.
And painting to break stagnation in my writing.

Like with Reading: I have about 3 books on the go (no more than that) and if one feels "not right" in the moment or "boring" at that minute... I just go to the next. They all get done, but not one after another.

I just use one hobby to fill in the time until I'm ready to get back to another hobby.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 12:04 PM on May 10, 2019 [3 favorites]

If you want to get better at visual art, maybe you need to try a different tack. Often people draw in the same way over and over — they aren't "seeing" fresh. They practice the same rote skills without ever raising the bar. You need a teacher who will truly challenge you. Hire a personal tutor who will make you try things that hurt. Like finger exercises for piano, you may need to go back to basics. Some gains only come with painful repetition.
posted by aw jeez at 12:44 PM on May 10, 2019

Are your visual-art frustrations with your technical skills or with the imaginative/design skills?
If the former, have you considered ways of creating visual art that don't intuitively seem like the type of art you aspire to? These days you can eg. sculpt out of thin air in VR. Or use a video-game engine to make something that isn't a video-game, etc. Might you do better at working in a 3D space to get your visuals? Or combining it with your writing in an interactive format?
posted by anonymisc at 12:48 PM on May 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

I work in an interdisciplinary fashion - writing, performance art, producing, media, games, dance, pretty much anything really. They all feed each other. My work overall is stronger for it. If I had to "choose just one" I'd burn out - that's what happened with me and writing, my lifelong passion. It wasn't until I got really into burlesque and had a lot to say about it that my writing came back.
posted by divabat at 2:04 PM on May 10, 2019

hmm... I guess my take diverges a bit from most of what's been said above (minus a comment or two.)

I followed the link you posted to the artist whose work you admire. Assuming that I'm on the right track in my reading of your original post -- you're leaning towards visual art over writing, you really want to excel at drawing and painting but feel your technical skill isn't there yet -- I guess anything I could recommend would hinge on this question:

how much technical training have you had in realist drawing? And, later -- because drawing really does have to come first and IMO be the lion's share of the work -- in painting?

I say this as someone who has devoted a LOT of hours to learning the craft of drawing. I am not efficient or quick at it, but I can get a very good likeness from a model sitting in front of me, given enough time. I'd like to be much better - well, specifically, faster - but I can tell you, as someone who didn't always feel confident in my ability to draw what was in front of me (whether it be from a model - ideal - or from a photo - less ideal, but lets face it, especially if you're interested in drawing animals like the artist you like does, usually involves a photo reference) - - I can tell you that in my opinion, representational realist drawing (and by extension painting) is a CRAFT that can be learned.. *NOT* a talent.

Just as you once probably didn't know how to drive, and with enough hours of good instruction and practice, eventually came to find it possible to drive, you can learn to draw well and realistically.

There is, however, a catch, which is that there is a *quite a lot of terrible drawing instruction out there.* I had some decent instruction in undergrad in a liberal arts environment, but.. nothing compared to the old masters/academic education I later encountered outside of the ivory tower.. There is a *systemic* step by step way to draw. You'll see it referred to as an "academic approach" and/or an "old master approach".. It's the way the craft was taught for centuries, the way Rembrandt and Michelangelo and etc etc learned. It's very helpful, and much less stressful than winging it or using a broad gesture based approach...

I'll try to memail you some further recommendations (if i forget feel free to write!).. but, for starters I can recommend New Masters Academy.. to get a sense of what they're all about you can go to youtube and search for Glenn Vilppu, also I think they have a lot of introductory content available for free.. but I really think the online "atelier" they offer is quite worth it - for example, they even have ecorche.. a topic not taught at many in person ateliers..

Many of the instructors teaching on the New Masters Academy also teach in person, and when they do they are teaching often to folks in the industry - composite artists and storyboard artists - but also to fine artists. Another really terrific artist/teacher to follow is James Gurney of Gurney Journey and Dinotopia, etc, fame (these days his blog is on a really short list of ones I actively remember to visit .. besides metafilter..he updates it several times a week and has been for over a decade with really quality content about the craft of drawing and painting.)

Not sure what part of the world you are in, but if you are seeking in person instruction, you can find a the largest director of the sort of Ateliers I'm referring to to study at here -

Apologies if all of this represents ground you've already covered! If you're in the New York area I can make even more specific recommendations.

If you really want to get good at representational art, you CAN.. it will take many many hours and a lot of commitment, but.. it's definitely possible and I believe it does not require innate talent at all, just a willingness to stay with it when it is slow and difficult.

hope this helps : )
posted by elgee at 3:36 PM on May 10, 2019 [3 favorites]

I am also an amateur painter who gets frustrated by the quality of my work. I found that I have more fun when I can stop myself from constantly judging my work, and just let myself draw. It’s easier said then done.

Lynda Barry said it best in this comic:
posted by tinymegalo at 5:26 PM on May 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

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