The Nature of an Artist
You know the guy. The artist.
The mad genius. The eccentric. The wild card. That guy on your team that has crazy talent, incredible ideas, and no sense of time. He’s five minutes late for everything. He barely seems to be paying attention sometimes. When he starts a project, he disappears for long stretches, and doesn’t seem to make any progress… then just as you’re about to pull plan B out of your pocket, he delivers the most beautiful piece of work you’ve ever seen.
He’s frustrating. The project manager wants to strangle him, but it’s worth it because the work is always good. You take the rest with a grain of salt because it’s all part of the package, right? He’s an artist. Disorganization is in his nature.
When I was in film school, I knew a lot of these guys. Often, they were the most exciting, brilliant people in the room. Their ideas were interesting. Their taste was eclectic. When I talked to them, we’d always end the day with at least three or four amazing concepts for projects that we were going to work on together, and I’d go to sleep imagining how awesome it would be once those ideas became a reality.
And then… nothing.
It was as if their brains stalled at the idea phase. All dreams, and no follow through. They were powered by the thrill of the new, and that thrill only lasted until the next idea came along. I felt really bad for them, realizing how much great stuff would never be shared with the world because these guys couldn’t get their act together. It was as if they were taking all this amazing talent God had placed inside them and throwing it away.
Then I realized: I was that guy, too.
How many times had I participated in that conversation saying, “What if we did this?” only to ask, “Why didn’t we ever do that?” later? How many projects had I started with big ambitions, only to make compromises in the end just to get it done? How many scripts did I start and leave unfinished? How many opportunities would I let pass me by before I decided enough was enough?
My solution was to go out and apply for work at a local TV station.
Here’s the thing about working in TV news: they don’t care how creative you are. Local news is a daily grind of short notice and shorter deadlines. Skill matters, but what matters more is filling holes. Every day, I spent six hours gathering footage around the city, and around an hour or so editing it all down to two or three stories totaling about 90 seconds in length. Then I’d go home, forget everything, and start from scratch the next day. No one asked me about my process. No one asked my about my ideas. I was given a slot, and I was expected to fill it.
This was where I learned how to be an artist.
Making the adjustment from film school to TV news was a pretty rough process. But I learned some valuable lessons.
- No one wants to pay you for being a creative person. You’re not hired to be. You’re hired to do. It doesn’t matter how talented you are, how much potential you have, or how many great ideas you bring to the table. What matters in the real world is what you deliver, and in the long run, hustle beats talent every time.
- Repetition is your friend. Like running scales on a piano, you can only tackle complexity after you master simplicity. Endless hours editing three-shot news videos taught me how to build sequences. Building sequences taught me how to tell a story. When you master your tools, you can build anything you want.
- Be decisive. I once had to edit a story in a moving vehicle eight minutes before it was to air. There was no time for “what if’s.” It was one of my favorite pieces I ever did. I barely remember putting it together, and if I looked at it now I’d probably see what I could have done better. But you can’t evaluate decisions you don’t make.
- Hold on loosely. In news, when your day ended, it ended. Some days you went home happy; some days you went home with your tail between your legs. But there was always tomorrow. Win or lose, you can’t let today’s success or failure determine the decisions you make tomorrow. Every project is a new opportunity.
- Deliver. When you’re producing for a live broadcast, if you miss your deadline, you may as well not have shown up for work that day. There’s no excuse for not doing what you say you’re going to do.
- Doing work is more important that being great. If you spend all your time thinking about being great, you’ll never learn how to get good. Do the work. Greatness will come on its own.
Once I learned these lessons, I was never again satisfied to just let creativity happen. The myth of the artist is that they are just vessels of the muse, unable to produce great work unless inspiration comes in the middle of the night. Sure, that happens from time to time. But most of all, it’s work. It’s hard, diligent, uncompromising work, and the more disciplined you are, the easier it will become. And when that muse does show up unexpectedly, you’ll ready be to spring into action.
You don’t have to suffer for your art. You don’t have to live in fear of the next idea not coming. You don’t have to regret the things you didn’t do. Don’t be that guy. Respect the gifts God has given you. Do the work.