Musings on Art and Practice and Joy

I want to make a point about art and success and failure and practice and motivation. Over the course of my 47 years on the planet I have mucked around with visual art, music, dance, acting, martial arts, 3D design, and writing. I have been decent at some of those, good or even very good at others, and I now make my living writing. There is a reason that I left many of those things behind while mastering the writing,* and that’s what I want to talk about here. It’s going to be a bit rambly because there’s no way to get at this without providing a good bit of background.

I recently had reason to want to sketch something. Unfortunately, I don’t have the necessary skills. Not anymore, anyway. My degree is in theater, and, as part of that I took a fair number of design classes. If you can’t draw a set or costume concept you can’t really build it. Now, I never got very good at free-handing an original composition, but I did get to be pretty solid on architectural style projections and good if never great at copying line drawings and altering them to suit what I needed. So for example, drawing a rose from scratch was more or less beyond me, but taking a small sketch of a rose that someone else had done and copying and altering that copy at a larger scale to create a drawing of multiple roses was something I could do well and with relative ease.

Which brings me back to the thing I wanted to sketch this morning. It was a pretty simple composition and something I could easily have done when I was in practice. But I quit doing that practice when I left theater for writing. At that time, my writing skills weren’t all that much better than my drawing skills. Some, certainly, but not bunches.

I’m going to leave that there for a moment and jump over to music which is the absolute bottom end of my range. I have never been particularly good with musical things. I have a decent ear, and a wide vocal range—one of my theater voice teachers characterized it as one of the widest she’d had in a student. I can even carry a tune…briefly. On the other hand, my rhythm is terrible and while I can hit the notes, I tend to jump keys from verse to verse. I noodled around enough with guitar and piano to discover that learning the fingering was relatively easy. What I lacked was drive and timing.

I was a decent dramatic actor, and a good comedic one, possibly even very good when it came to improv. But even very good isn’t enough to make a living at it. I had the physical chops for the dance side of the business, but there again my lack of rhythm was an insurmountable barrier. Those skills worked better in martial arts, but injuries sidelined me out of that arena. I’m still quite good at 3D design—good enough to design and build complex structures in steel that involve cutting, grinding, and welding.

The reason I’m still decent with 3D design is that, for me, it’s fun and useful. From my first encounters with it, I had enough talent to complete things that were functional, if not pretty, and to see where I was failing and how to get better. The same is true of writing, only more so.

From my earliest compositions for classes I have always been able to express myself better than most. Teachers gave me praise, and even when it felt like a huge and painful chore I had a sense of accomplishment when I finished something. Sure, many of those things are awful by my current standards, but by comparison to my then-peers I was always doing pretty well.

When I first bailed out of theater, I sat down and wrote a novel in about four months. It’s not a very good novel, though it’s not utterly awful. More than that though, I had a ball writing it. Even when I completely punted sentences or whole scenes, I could see that it was actually a book and I could see it day to day. It was a practice novel—though I didn’t know it at the time—and the practice was fun because I was accomplishing something in the exact same way that I was accomplishing things with 3D design.

I was making something visibly useful and entertaining even if it wasn’t up to professional standards. I never had that feeling of accomplishment with dance or music, or really even drawing and drafting. I wasn’t good enough to find the practice an end in itself, and so, I wasn’t motivated to do it and get better. I had many of the necessary tools to become good at those things, but I never did, and it was all about joy. I take joy in writing and building things and so I have gotten very good at them. I took joy in acting and martial arts, but other things caused me to leave them behind.

There have been several roads I could have followed in life, even several forms of art that I might have mastered. What has drawn me into my present career as a science fiction and fantasy author was joy in the practice as well as the end result. Without that, I don’t think that I would have succeeded. I can’t speak for anyone else, but the secret of my success so far is simple:

Finding joy in practice.


*I’m not prone to false modesty, or really, modesty at all. I’m not as good a writer as I intend to be someday, but I’m very, very good at it.