Make Bad Art

This is an excerpt from my new book, Title Pending: Things I Think About When I Make Stuff, which is available for pre-order now.
—Justin McRoberts

Tennis star Andre Agassi initially learned to play the game from his dad. Legend has it that, during those early lessons, Emmanuel Agassi (who had been an Olympic athlete himself) encouraged the young Andre to worry less about the accuracy of his strokes and instead, hit the ball as hard as he could. Someday, he told his son, the ball would land in-bounds. And eventually it did . . . often. Agassi became one of the greatest players in tennis history.

My first few attempts to peak Mt. Diablo could be seen as terrible failures. In three initial attempts, I turned around exhausted. On another, I found myself lost and retreated down the mountain so that I wouldn’t get stuck in the dark. But I learned to pace myself. I learned to carry less. I got better shoes. I started paying attention to the weather. It is not always in spite of your failures that you will grow as an artist, but in many cases, it is because of them. You have to make bad art in order to make better art. 

Here is something true: Many of your efforts, especially early on, will miss. Don’t let that keep you from putting everything you have into your work. 

Don’t be surprised if you’re making bad art. Don’t be discouraged. And whatever you do, don’t stop. Keep making bad art. Not because you’re wrong about your self-evaluation — you might be producing some really awful stuff. But just because the thing you’re working on is a ripe mess doesn’t necessarily mean it’s time to stop working. On the contrary, that might be both the worst time and reason to quit. I think you need to make bad art in order to make anything better. I know that’s been the case for me. 

The idea that I needed to make bad art initially struck me while watching a pretty good play. The piece, written by local playwright, was about playwriting. The turning point in the play was a conversation between a young playwright (the story’s protagonist) and another older writer.

Young Playwright: I just feel like everything I write is crap.
Old Playwright: It probably is. You’re still too young to write great dialogue.
YP: So, what am I supposed to do?
OP: Keep writing.
YP: But you just agreed that it’s probably crap.
OP: Yes, but it is out of the manure that the flowers grow.

You have to make mistakes in order to grow. 

Fall down.
Get up.
Take a breath.
Look around.
Take a step.
Be patient.
Keep at it. 

If you let your failures kill your process, you'll never get past them and you’ll never learn from them. You’ll also never get to see that, even if something you’ve made is bad overall, you probably also did a few things right, too. 

Another way to think about your need to make bad art is to consider it like a cleansing. When you purchase a new refrigerator/freezer unit, you are supposed to throw out the first batch of ice from the ice maker. It’s a bad batch. But you have to make it in order to get to the cleaner, better ice. Your creative “plumbing” likely has some blockage and rust from years of non-use or mis-use. Sometimes it’s residue from bad art we’ve taken in. But there are probably good ideas mixed up with the bad and the only way to get them out is to get all of it out. I can only evaluate my work once I have some distance from it.

It’s good to be inspired by the vision of yourself as a great artist.
Go ahead and dream.
But it can also make you feel like quitting because you aren’t “there” yet.
Don’t quit. 

Put your head down and pay attention to the work right in front of you . . . work that, especially at the outset, might really miss. But your efforts will never land in bounds if you stop swinging. You never peak the mountain if you quit after your first (or second, or third, or fourth) failed attempt. 

Justin McRoberts is songwriter, author, storyteller, and advocate living in in San Francisco’s East Bay Area with his wife and son. You can read more from him at his blog:

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