Thanks to Disney I don’t think I’m going to be able to use the phrase “let it go” for the next decade or so without conjuring mental images of ice castles and snowflakes, however there is something to this notion, particularly when it’s applied to our growth as creatives.
Illustrator Andy J. Miller recently posted a podcast as part of his Creative Pep Talk series entitled Do Less More Better where he talks about the need for creatives to discard the belief that they need to simply do more—sheer quantity over quality—in order to achieve wider success. It’s an excellent podcast and honestly there are a number of his twenty points that I’d love to explore further with blog posts, however I’m going to start with #14 – Let go of the old you as it’s been one I’ve been living and struggling with for awhile.
Miller speaks frequently in his podcast about the need to specialize and drop projects that are no longer serving us because they spread us too thin. One of the hardest places to do this is with old projects that feed into who we consider ourselves to be creatively. It could be a project or a medium that we enjoyed immensely in the past, that stoked our fires and got us out of bed in the morning, and yet now we find that that burning sense of enthusiasm has faded. It can be frightening and confusing when we find our internal compass points start shifting, seemingly of their own accord.
So what should we do?
Well, we acknowledge our own growth and we work to let go of our old selves.
In recent years I’ve struggled repeatedly and sometimes quite painfully with how to fit animation into my life. For the longest time I had this deep well of regret centered around the fact that I’d worked so long and so hard to try to break into the animation industry, but never achieved this goal. Even beyond the shattered sense of identity, there was this feeling that every time I tried to move on to other things that I was somehow betraying who I really was. I’ve always put a lot of stock into the notion of personal authenticity and the idea that I’d settled for a less authentic version of myself bothered me deeply.
Because of this, every few years I would find myself wandering back into the fray. I would flex my contact network and do information interviews with local animators to try to test the waters of breaking into the industry. Quite tellingly though, I would describe my reasons for wanting to get back on the proverbial horse as less about animation itself and more about about trying to quiet the guilt around a lost dream. Still these kind folk would take a look at my dusty Sir Stumpy reel, proclaim I was definitely animator-worthy material, and then hook me up with studio animation tests or contacts in their HR department… which I wouldn’t follow up on, but would feel incredibly guilty about.
The truth I have slowly learned to embrace is that I’m not the working animator that I once aspired to be and that is perfectly okay. Animation will always hold a special place in my heart and I will never, ever regret everything I did to go to animation school. I’ve come to accept that the animator within me can continue to strengthen and inform my creative identity without needing to be the be-all and end-all of who I am.
I wrote my first 100-page fantasy novella, “Dream Wars,” between the ages of eleven and sixteen. To my childhood self it seemed like this extraordinary magnum opus and I was pretty damn proud of it. Upon finishing it, I wanted to take on writing another fantasy story and make it even bigger and bolder than my first work.
This second project was loosely titled “Adwin”—or later when it became a series, “The Books of Adwin”—and it consumed my focus for the next twenty years.
I spent great swaths of time writing outlines, writing character biographies and producing entire bibles worth of world building material. The plot, which would eventually balloon from one book into five, had everything in it from very personal struggles with family and identity to broad themes of discrimination and prejudice.
I have honestly lost count of the number of drafts I’ve written. Most of them never got beyond fifty pages or so before I scrapped that version of the story and started over. The most recent draft is the longest at around two hundred pages although it still only represents about two thirds of the first book.
I love the world I created. I love the characters and the themes I wove into them. I’ve had quite a few people read and enjoy the partial drafts I’ve written. In fact, I began handing out these drafts as a way to motivate myself to keep writing. I wanted to feel like I owed it to my beta readers to finish. I owed it to myself. All I needed to do was simply buckle down and crank out the rest of the story.
Unfortunately, in the last year or so, I just haven’t been able to do that. I’ve gone through backburner periods with the novel before, but none have been this long. The characters have stopped muttering to me in the back of my mind. I can no longer recall the elements of the plot outline with the ease that I can recollect my own name. I reach for the story now and it’s just… gone.
Dear God, TWENTY YEARS!! If I think about exactly how many hundreds and hundreds of hours I have put in to the this project, the notion that it has simply evaporated from within me is horrifying. How can I possibly quit now?
Except… I think I have to.
I have to acknowledge that, even though I will always love this story and these characters, I’ve outgrown it. Granted I probably shouldn’t be surprised by this given that I first conceived the story in my late teens and I’m now in my late thirties. I’ve also learned so much about novel writing over the course of this project that I can’t help but see the most recent outline as the ungodly bloated mess that it is. I do sincerely hope that I’ll be able to return to the world of Adwin someday, but if I do it will be with a different tale to tell. It will be a tale that honours who I am as a writer now as opposed to who I wanted to be back then.
100 Faces Project
Unlike my two earlier examples, the “100 Faces Project” is something I started quite recently. It was somewhat inspired by an illustration contract that I picked up in 2012 from the BC Construction Association Employee Benefits to create caricatures of all of its staff members to put on their website. I had known going into the contract that faces were not my strong suit, but even tracing directly off the photographs I was provided, it was still an uphill slog to get those first eleven illustrations complete to both my and my client’s satisfaction. I also knew that I really wanted to do more as a visual storyteller and the fact that I struggled so much drawing people was going to continue to be a hindrance to my work.
Hence it was in early February of 2013 that the 100 Faces Project was born. Initially I had planned for it to be 100 Faces in 100 Days, but this notion was eventually abandoned due to the rigors of my daily grind. Still I was very dedicated in putting the time into those first fifty photo-traces, which began strengthening my facial drawing skills by leaps and bounds. When I completed my first entirely freehand face in July of that year—#50 Red Haired Girl—I knew immediately that the work I had done had paid off. And when I completed old Robert Downey Jr. in December, no one was more surprised than me at how far I’d managed to come in less than a year.
Which is honestly part of the problem… although I have done one more painting since completing that one for Robert Downey Jr., I haven’t felt all that inspired to continue producing more. I had started the project with the expressed purpose of improving my ability to draw faces and, while I am hardly an expert, I do feel like I have accomplished what I set out to do. Do I really need to do another forty-six more paintings simply because I originally titled it the “100 Faces Project”?
Maybe someday I’ll knock out another painting for the project—I have a really nice photo of Robin Williams that I set aside last fall to be #55 in the series—but the key point here is that I don’t have to work on it right now if it isn’t inspiring me.
I have other projects that are currently lighting fire to my brain, particularly my stained glass painting series that I’ve been exploring in earnest since late 2013. I know if I’m willing to let go of the past, then I can give these new pieces my entire focus. I can pour my energy and passion into them without being held back by reservation or guilt and they’ll be all the better for it.
And really, isn’t that the whole point?
If you have a passion project that you’re feeling conflicted about right now, feel free to share your story in the comments.