In our second episode, we get a little philosophical and talk about the “worth” of our work, and how trying to measure the value of our work ourselves is impossible. We also do a three-page read of a fan-submitted script called PROFIT IN PLAUSIBLE DENIABILITY.

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Hello and welcome to episode two of Coping with Creativity, a podcast for creators about coping with that unrelenting need to create, mental health, self-imposed pressures, actually succeeding, and everything in between.

My name is Jesse Lawson, and in this episode, we are going to focus on the “worth” of our creations.

With that in mind, we’ll kick off our first segment, Notes for Notable Questions.

Notes for Notable Questions

From an anonymous asker:

Dear Jesse, I love to do graphics design and even ended up getting a really good job out of college where I get to design marketing material for a small, local company. However, as an artist, I feel like I need to have a portfolio, but the problem is, I don’t feel like anything I have made is worth putting in a portfolio. I really like making wallpaper backgrounds and big poster-sized spreads in Photoshop, but I just get so frustrated with how awful the end-product is I end up abandoning it for something else and then the cycle of starting over, working hard, getting close to the finish line, then abandoning it continues. So I guess my question is this: How can I stop wasting my time on things that end up completely worthless? 

Thank you for that question.

I can’t think of a single thing I have ever worked on that did not at some point involve me abandoning it at least once–sometimes more than once–because I knew that since I didn’t like it, no one would like it. Sometimes that involved me abandoning the project forever. Just because I’m here doing this podcast doesn’t mean I am immune to feeling like the thing I have spent all of my free time trying to shape and mold is absolute garbage.

And that’s always the case, isn’t it? We work hard on an idea, spend so much time with it that we don’t like it anymore, then somehow come to the conclusion that since we are sick of it then whole world must be sick of it, too.

It sure makes it easy to abandon the project, doesn’t it?

See, I don’t think we really think the world is or even would be sick of what we’re making. I think when we are talking about whether our art is worthless the world, what we’re really saying that that since we ourselves feel worthless to the world, how can what we create possibly have any value?

Whoa, whoa, Jesse. Worthless? Really? When I say that we’re worthless, what I’m saying is that we, singular human beings, have no intrinsic worth to anyone. I am a sack of meat and bones and that’s it. Just like you.

It is only when you combine this sack of meat and bones with conscious action that you begin to have something to ascribe value to: the result of my actions.

When I choose to do things, I generate something that others can derive value from. That value can be emotional or spiritual, or even tangible, monetary. But I don’t get to define the value of my actions–that’s us mistakenly trying to translate how a company evaluates the price of a product to how we ascribe value interpersonally. It’s what capitalism teaches us to do when we have goods or services to sell; it’s what we learned about in school: supply and demand are inversely proportional and we ought to price our products according to some sweet spot derived from a marketing analysis.

But if all that were true for our creations, then there wouldn’t be so many people struggling with whether or not their work is worthless–and a lot less people would be worrying about whether they themselves are worthless or not.

If the only lens we have to inspect our creations is a capitalist lens, then of course our work is worthless and of course we are worthless because we don’t have any tools other than demand to measure our value, and there won’t be any demand before the project is done–there can’t be, because there’s no supply to demand!

Here’s another way to think of it: we’re trying to ascribe a measurement that is the product of an economic system on something that transcends economic systems. You can buy someone’s art, but regardless of whether it’s ephemeral or lasts until the end of humanity, you cannot purchase nor can you control how a creation influences its audience.

For that reason, you cannot tell me that your creations are worthless because you aren’t the person who can make that valuation.

Here’s the thing, though: I think deep down we already know this. I think we know full well that our work can’t be bad until its done, and so we tell people, we tell ourselves, “Oh, I’m working in it,” or “it’s still just a draft,” or “it’s not ready.”

What we’re really doing is selling ourselves on failure–we give ourselves permission to quit–and do you know why?

Because what if we’re right?

What if we do finish that project and what if we do put it out there for our friends and family to see and what if they all hate it?

What if our self-doubts and criticisms were right this whole time?

Isn’t it funny how crippling that one question can be? What if we’re right–about our work, about ourselves…

Ironically, this way of thinking is perfectly normal. In fact, if you didn’t second-guess yourself constantly I would think something’s wrong with you as a creator. But you know exactly what I’m talking about don’t you? And you know where this is going:

If we never finish what we started, we never have to come to terms with the fact that anywhere between one and seven-and-a-half billion people will not find value in our work.

Seven and a half billion people are on this Earth, and new ones are being born each and every day. Why is this important?

Because if you honestly believe not a single person on this planet now or in the future will be moved by your work–will find value in your creations–then you’re absolutely delusional.

It’s a statistical improbability!

Statistically, it’s more likely that you will be struck by lightning while being attacked by a bear who is also being struck by lightning than your art not have a positive impact on at least one person, somewhere, sometime.

So you don’t get to say whether your art has value or not; you don’t get to say whether something you’re making is worthless or not, because art is about self-expression and despite what capitalism wants us to believe, you can’t really monetize true expression of the self. And you can’t ascribe worth to your own art because you are the one who created that social artifact, so it’s no longer yours to control. It’s a social artifact now, and its time for it to serve its purpose–to serve art’s purpose.

We creators have an incessant need to create things. Why? I have no idea, but what I do know is that all the hours and frustration and pain and exhaustion all makes sense when you think about one person–just one person, somewhere out there–who haphazardly stumbles on your creation as they’re on the precipice of a dark cliff that has been beckoning them for days, weeks, even years.

How powerful your creation has become that this person can forget about that dark cliff, those looming shadows that they’ve been trying to distract themselves from.

It can even be much simpler than that. Maybe someone read your story, or glanced at your drawing, or touched your sculpture, or played your game, or heard your music, and maybe the total time they spent with your creation was less than a minute. Does that mean your creation is worthless?

Well here’s an exercise: think of something right now that someone did or said or made that passed through your life at some point in the past. Maybe you remember a story someone told you long ago. Now, let me ask you this: Do you remember it? Do you think about it, even though you don’t know why? Has it affected you in some way, even minutely?

Why do these things stick to our minds? Maybe no one knows, but I do know that your work is doing the same thing. It absolutely is, which is why it is paramount that you get your work finished, get it out there in the world–in any way you can.

The only thing worse than bad art is art that was never finished. Remember that. Anyone can start something and quit. But not you. You will finish. You have to–because it’s what creators do. 

And you know what’s amazing about all of this? We might never know who we make an impact on. The information age has made it possible for us to produce art and put it out there for the world to consume. Take this podcast project of mine: I have no idea who is listening to me, but I do know there is some impact that I am making, positive or negative, purely from the act of experiencing it. There is always something going on when someone experiences someone else’s creation, but chances are, I’ll never meet you. I’ll never know what kind of an impact I had on you, positive or negative, and you know what? That’s okay with me, because I know that I have to have made some kind of impact on at least one other human being.

And if that doesn’t drive us to continue to create, to push past our self-imposed obstacles, then what are we doing?

Our charge in this life is not to hunt for a valuation of our creations as means of extrinsic validation, it’s to come to terms with the fact that our creations have no worth to us–they are not for us to consume. Our creations are for others; we create to add to the culture of our time and times that come after us, contributing in a way that makes the most sense to us–to the people who need to create.

Of course, speaking philosophically and waxing poetic is nice and all when you have the economic means to do so. For some of us, though, our art is our trade and it pays the bills; we can’t be sitting around pontificating about the altruistic contributions we’ve made to future generations because we need to feed ourselves and our families now in this generation. That being said, if you’re trying to navigate artistic value in a commodities-based economy, you have to sacrifice some of your own desires for self-expression sometimes so that you are generating art to the specifications of paying customers. Sometimes we need to just pay the bills. We all go through it. But this doesn’t have to be a bad thing; giving yourself permission to work according to what someone else considers valuable is an easy way to start feeling comfortable with the art you’re creating, and a streamlined way to get extrinsic validation for your effort.

But remember, the pursuit of extrinsic validation is fine when you’re talking about earning money to live off of, but extrinsic motivation is a toxic and self-destructive force. Always, always, always make sure you’re working for the right reasons–and for the love of everything in this universe, never stop creating.

Immediate Questions

Alright, it’s now time for our next segment, Immediate Questions, where I read a script that you’ve submitted and give you all the immediate questions I have as a means of giving you a little bit of insight into what one audience member (me) may be thinking.

Today’s script is called PROFIT IN PLAUSIBLE DENIABILITY and it is written by a writer self-identifying as 6StringMercenary.

My Immediate Questions:

  1. When the story opens, is Curt on the up-and-up? Is the reference to him being in this “early” thirties as apposed to “late” thirties, coupled with the pause on him looking at the nameplate that has the word “associate” on it, supposed to invoke sympathy? Is he shaking his head at himself, or a missed opportunity from a future that is now no longer meant to be?
  2. When he walks past the homeless guy, is there rapport here? How does the homeless guy fit into curt’s journey? Does he represent something, even if just audience sympathy? If ti’s something else, when will he see Curt again? If it’s nothing, why is he here? What happens later in the story that will make me think back about this interaction and realize that it was in fact significant in Curt’s journey?
  3. When Curt’s phone has a build up of text messages that he’s ignoring, am I supposed to think something public happened? Obviously a lot of people know about it; would the gravity of the situation be illustrated better if we could see who all is reaching out and what some are saying? And how do they know what happened?
  4. Am I supposed to know who is texting him? Does he have other obligations he forgot about now that he’s been laid off? Is there supposed to be some mystery here?
  5. Once he’s in the bar, is Curt longing for escape here, or because of his sudden life bomb, is he retracting back to a state of escape? Are we witnessing an early thirties guy just having a drink, replaying old bad habits, or starting a new one?
  6. At the end of the third page, are we supposed to feel relief here? Curt’s situation is revealed here to actually not be that awful–he has a severance, he’ll get unemployment, he’s single… what are we supposed to feel about Curt right here? Sympathy? Resentment? Neutrality?
  7. Since Curt has been propelled into the dire situation of joblessness, are the next pages going to show some new opportunities for Curt? If so, are these going to be non-tradtional opportunities–maybe something illegal or illicit? If that’s the case, is there anything we can do about the nature of Curt’s layoff and how he handles it that could telegraph just how desperate he is for new employment, and why he would need to jump on the first opportunity he can get?

So those are my immediate questions. Thanks again to 6StringMercenary for submitting that script.

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