If you follow my social media, you might have noticed that I’ve been posting ink drawings for #Inktober, and that they’re generally awful. You might have asked yourself why I would do that. Do I know how bad they are, or do I see my work through a blissfully ignorant filter? Is it some sort of prank?
So here’s what’s up with Inktober.
First, in case you aren’t familiar with it, #Inktober is a month for doing one drawing — in ink — and sharing it per day. You can find the brief background and this year’s optional prompt list from the creator Jake Parker. It’s something like National Novel Writing Month, but for visual artists.
Now, let’s recognize that I’m bad at drawing. No, I’m really bad at drawing. The local catchphrase for referring to truly hideous visual design is, “It looks like Laura drew it.” (Don’t feel bad. I’m often the one saying it. It’s not wrong to acknowledge my skills are in other sets.) So why on earth would I do Inktober, which unlike NaNoWriMo specifically requires publicly sharing one’s work?
I’m doing Inktober for several reasons:
- I have a lot of very talented artist friends (many professional) who participate, and I wanted to join in.
- I actually would like to be able to draw, because those artist friends have fun, and I’m not going to get better at it by wishing instead of doing.
- I think we’re generally under pressure to appear perfect and talented and successful on social media, and this is a very deliberate and effective method of shattering that harmful illusion. And I am not above self-mockery when necessary. (When I’m drawing, it’s necessary.)
- I want to model what I talk, when I encourage writers to practice what they’re not good at.
Let me expound on #4 a bit. I frequently encounter people, online and off, who tell me they want to write but they’re not very good. And to that I say, in the gloriously non-intellectual but succinct verbage of the late ’90s, Well, duh.
The next word is, Yet.
Art is a Craft
You can’t be good at something you don’t practice. Yes, there’s such a thing as talent, but there’s also skill, and it’s more important. Skill is learned, honed, practiced.
Craftsmen used to have formal apprenticeships, and I think it’s still useful to think of art in that way. I’m a believer in what Ray Bradbury said about needing to write roughly a million words before one’s writing gets good. Don’t think too hard about that exact number, but focus on the concept behind it, that one needs to practice. I have no idea how many hours of practice it takes to be able to draw a human hand without cringing at the result, but I can tell you it’s more than I’ve put in.
So here are my personal rules for both Inktober and writing, the way I see it:
Just do it.
Pick a topic or borrow a provided prompt, and get it down. My personal rule for Inktober is that I have to get it done in a few minutes. Is this a good rule for producing great art? Absolutely not! But I know myself, and I know that the longer I spend on it, the more I’ll expect of it and the more frustrated I’ll be with my incompetence. My purpose is not to increase frustration, it’s to practice. So I draw something, and I see if there’s anything I like about it, and I see what I could change for the next one.
It’s not at all about producing a finished or marketable piece; it’s about getting practice in. And you can write scenes or stories in exactly the same way.
Don’t sweat it.
This is very similar to the first rule. Perfection is not the goal. I can think about what I liked and hated after it’s done, but I can’t evaluate what I didn’t make because I was over-analyzing.
If you were beginning to train for a marathon, would you panic because your first week’s mile times were slow? Of course not. Everyone knows you start where you start and then get better. Why then do people expect art, visual or written, to be different? We’d never expect to complete a marathon, much less compete successfully, without training. Why do we want our first drawing to look professional, or our early stories to sell? Give yourself some room to be normal.
Have reasonable expectations.
I expect my writing to be decent, because I’ve put the time and the study in to make it so. I’m ahead of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours.
I’ve put very little time and absolutely no study into drawing, so if I rage-quit because it’s not on par with art by someone who has, that would just make me a petty entitled brat. So I don’t have to get upset when it doesn’t come out anything like I envisioned. Yet.
Ira Glass says this very well:
“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.”
Or hear it in his own voice:
Not everything is for market.
I’m not selling my Inktober art. (Well, obviously, as there’s a limited market for disproportionate kindergarten-level portraits, and my mom’s fridge is already full.) Even my professional artist friends are not selling their Inktober work. It’s practice.
I am so grateful that my million words got started before social media and while self-publishing was still an outside thing, because a lot of those words were quite hideous and I was exactly the sort of ambitious pretentious twerp who would have tried to sell them. Actually, I did try to sell them, with the rejection letters to prove it. And that was only to be expected. Have you ever bought an album of musical artists performing scales? A DVD of actors going through blocking and notes? I didn’t think so.
But while most of those stories won’t ever see the light of day, I needed to write them in order to write the stories I write now. Likewise, I have newer stories which I’m not selling. And that’s okay. It doesn’t make me any less of a professional. Sometimes it’s okay to /gasp/ just have fun with one’s craft.
And in fact….
Seriously, fun. Serious fun. There’s no point to doing any of this if we don’t enjoy it. I’m having fun pushing myself to do something new, and I’m having fun laughing at my results, and I’m having fun seeing what my more talented and more practiced friends are posting. And that sets me up to have fun when I need to push myself to do something new in my writing, and to laugh when I botch it and need to try again, and to enjoy seeing what my friends are creating.
And practice makes my craft better. Which is why I can end with a bit of a brag, that The Songweaver’s Vow is a semi-finalist for SPFBO’s Best of 2017. Woot!
So. Inktober. Let’s push ourselves. And if you want to try this with words, check out NaNoWriMo next month.
What art are you making?
(Update: here’s the follow-up to this post.)