Failure vs. Amazingness

I haven’t blogged for a while because I realized that I’d been doing a lot of explaining why I was leaving academia and not so much engaging in my compositional process. Today, I’d like to figure out why.

I went to this great martial arts seminar with Sifu Mark Cardona at Skidmore College a few months ago. One of the things he did was give us homework: He wanted us to go home and think, and come back the next day prepared to tell him why we were practicing martial arts. We needed to know, because our answer to this question, although it might change over time, would profoundly impact how we approached our art.

This, by the way, was a really good question. I think any teacher of anything should probably ask students this question. I lied because I didn’t know anyone there at the time and he asked everyone over lunch. He would’ve gotten a very different answer if he’d asked me in private. Or even if he’d asked me in public after I knew people a little better. Maybe if I go to another seminar and he asks again, I’ll tell him the truth.

But another woman’s answer really struck me: she engages in martial arts because it is the one area in her life where she feels like it’s OK to fail. She really can’t let herself fail academically or in any other context. Being academically and intellectually perfect is too much of her identity. But she could let fighting be something different: a safe space where she could still challenge herself but where imperfection was allowed.

Her answer really resonated. I’m really not OK with intellectual or creative failure. I’m a disabled woman. I pretty much expect to be a mediocre martial artist. And I’m really impressed by the nearly complete lack of ablism in the parts of the martial arts community that I’ve encountered. I don’t think my answer helped me much at all, but this woman’s answer is impacting my attempts to figure myself out. I keep coming back to it.

I think I have a serious problem with perfectionism. I’m not actually afraid to fail intellectually. It doesn’t seem like it’s even remotely a threat. It’s not that I’m never wrong–it’s just that if I am wrong it’s nothing that a good fun argument can’t fix. And it doesn’t feel like failure if I feel like I’ve reached a valid conclusion at the end of the process.

Intellectualizing always feels safe because failure doesn’t come up that often. Martial arts feels safe because I am comfortable with imperfection in that part of my life. But creativity is different. There’s no right answer. There’s no perfection. There’s no process by which I can be absolutely certain that I’ve created the best thing ever.

Creative work is too much like porn. I’ll know something amazing when I see it. And I have some pieces that I know are amazing. And I’ve seen work by other people that I know is amazing. But everything else is a bit muddy.

I really don’t know how to tell where things fall on a scale of boring to amazing. I have something to lose, so there’s a huge risk to putting anything out there. I’m absolutely terrified of imperfection. And I’ve chosen to work in a domain in which there are no clear metrics. I sure know how to pick an effective pathology.

I’ve gone to concerts and heard pieces that sucked. I have gone to concerts and heard pieces that were kind of ok. I’ve gone to concerts and heard pieces that were good but not great. I have to ask, at some point, whether these people aren’t setting themselves high enough standards or whether these people just have a healthier attitude towards their art than me.

I used to think the former: they are irresponsible artists who aren’t holding themselves to high standards. There’s a lot of rhetoric that leans that way. In fact, I have heard a lot of that rhetoric from people whose work has never struck me as amazing. So do they just not know amazing when they see it? Or have they accepted that they would rather produce decent but not great work than be trapped by perfectionism? Perhaps they just quoting a standard lie artists tell the public. The performance of a mediocre piece completes the process. They can now stick the score in the bottom drawer and move on with their creative life and start a new piece that hopefully has more potential.

So I guess what I’m not clear on is this: when is it ok to fail musically? And my head is broken in this arena: I know that when I use the word fail here, that what I mean is be less than amazing.

With something like cooking I’m clear that there’s this whole range of stuff I’d eat–even stuff I’d be ok to serve to guests–that isn’t on the amazing end of the scale that runs from earth shatteringly amazing to throw-it-away-and-order-pizza. And I guess there’s a spot on that continuum where I might stick it in the fridge and eat it as left overs and throw together something better for company.

There has to be some musical analog of that spot. There has to be music that isn’t amazing but that I’d be willing to serve to guests. Should I be ok with good but not great? Or is the line at great but not amazing? Good and great are not like porn. I only know amazing when I see it. I really can’t tell good from mediocre.

Anyone know how to find that line between good and meh? Because I think I’ve convinced myself that identifying non-amazing as utter failure is unhealthy and keeps me from making as much music as I should.

Edit: I forgot to put in the more tag so the post doesn’t eat the whole front page of the blog. Now there’s a more tag.

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