Not Every Artist Has Clutter

Over the years, I’ve noticed an interesting pattern in whether or not people value their own creations–often writing or art but sometimes sewing, knitting, or woodworking–to the point of cluttering their lives.  Not only do I know the usual horde of hobbyists, but I also know many, many professional artists and writers due to my job in the field. I’m friends with no small number of New York Times best selling authors. One of my best friends is an Eisner-winning graphic novelist.  I know many other artists who make good, steady livings in illustration and graphic storytelling.

What successful, prolific artists and writers have in common is that they don’t hoard their own work.  I can say this as pretty much a blanket statement.  I’ve never stepped into a commercially successful artist’s, writer’s, or craftsman’s house and seen it crammed with their creations.  You might be able to tell what the owner of the house does for a living…or maybe not unless you step into their studio.  Either way, their house isn’t a memorial to their work.  Far, far from it.

Professionals love their work, but any excessive sentiment rubs off within a couple of years of professional work.  (And by that I mean REAL professional work, as in making an honest-to-goodness living at it, not occasionally selling a piece at a craft fair or to a magazine.)

How unsentimental are they?  I’ve even had to convince a number of writers not to completely throw out electronic files of books-in-progress that aren’t working in case they figure out how to salvage the story years later!  (I’ve done that.  Don’t do it.  Files are small.  The hours of work it takes to redo are very long.)  I’ve also had to argue that before cutting more that a couple of paragraphs, you should make a backup of the section you don’t think works simply because you may be overestimating how bad the problem  is.  (One of my friends used to routinely blast 20, 50, 100 pages from her works-in-progress if she wrote herself into a cul-de-sac, with no backups!)

Professional artists (visual and otherwise) make their living by selling their work–and by making work that other people want to buy it by creating something that resonates with an audience.  The stacks of unsold works that the graphic novel illustrators have are just that–unsold as yet but very much for sale, as they haul them to their various conventions and post them online for people to buy.

These artists and writers do often hold some works back.  The artists usually have a few pieces they made growing up, showing their artistic development–works that are far too bad for display but still meaningful to them.  Writers usually have at least a couple of buried manuscripts that were “their babies” years ago but they’re now adult enough to realize should never see the light of day.  But these creators don’t have boxes of the stuff.  They don’t have masses of work pinned to the walls or stacked on shelves that they look on lovingly.  And they view all of their work with a dispassionate and critical eye, even the things that they were the most swept away with years ago.

Personally, I carry this over into my other hobbies, as well.  Several neighbors were shocked and somewhat appalled when I had the luxurious plantings I’d put at the street all ripped out.  I’d been playing with color, texture, and design, and the result was fairly successful but not fabulous.  I believed I now had the skill with landscape design and with the knowledge of local plants that I could do something quite a bit better, so I had it replaced.  (By “had it replaced,” I mean that I paid to have the shrubs in and put in the perennials and annuals myself.  🙂 )  Since then, I’ve had many neighbors come over to tell me how much they love the new design–what will be, with only mild tweaks, my final design, I believe, and what couldn’t have happened without first ripping out what was already there.

In the same way,  I have (like I speculated I might earlier) picked up one of my hobbies again:  miniature-making.  Since I’m me, of course, this is going to be a side gig rather than a pure hobby.  (What can I say?  I like selling things.)  I’ve been working on some basic slopers and patterns for dolls.  As each version becomes better, I toss the old ones.  There’s no need to keep around sub-par work.  I had just as much fun making it without needing to keep the evidence around to prove it!

So what is it that makes some people want to keep a large amount of what they create?  I can speak to my own experience, at least, and those of the many professional artists and writers I’ve chatted with at various functions.

We believe that many amateurs see their creations as pieces of themselves.  It’s not their skills on display–it’s their very beings.  Those who become commercially successful quickly realize that this isn’t true and can eventually laugh about what they see as their own naivety and self-indulgence later.  What they make isn’t them, and vice versa.

But those who hold on to their work too tightly, who view it as intensely personal, either completely lack the motivation to allow the public eye to see it (if someone rejected it, they’d feel that they were being rejected themselves) or else have no dispassionate perspective from which they could critically evaluate their own work and improve it so that it could be interesting to an audience greater than one.  These people view their creations as works of their heart, every one a valuable outpouring of their inner selves, and so they can’t look at their things and say, “This isn’t particularly good.”   They will hold onto sketches, drafts, and other materials that are utterly and completely worthless by any objective measure (unless you are a fine artist whose works are already going for hundreds of thousands at auction or a writer who has Pulizters, National Book Awards, and Nobels cluttering up your living room).

To put it even more bluntly:  These creators do the artistic equivalent of hoarding their used Kleenexes.  

Because artistic training isn’t the norm in our society, even other people close to them may reinforce their hoarding because they don’t see these things for what they are.  “Oh, it’s YOUR BOOK!” they might say in awe, as they’ve never written one.  (I’ve been averaging more than one a month, myself, for quite a while.  I now celebrate finishing a book with a brief sigh of satisfaction before opening the next file.)   The very fact that one has a book at all is impressive to many people, regardless of whether it’s just inane, incoherent scribblings of the next great American novel.  So the Kleenex-collectors are often encouraged in their collections by those nearest and dearest to them, to everyone’s eventual detriment.

(EDIT:  By Kleenex, it is still unclear, I mean the stacks of notes that are to become a book one day, or the piles of rough drafts, or all the various material that went into it, or the 1,000 self-published books that someone paid to have printed five years ago, of which they have sold 50.  I don’t mean a single, finished manuscript of whatever quality it may be.  As I wrote above, practically all professional writers have at least a couple of manuscripts “in the drawer” that they never intend to see the light of day.   Jane Austen would probably be mortified to discover that her teenage writings, set aside similarly, have been put up for anyone to read!  Writers save those manuscripts, but they don’t save every scrap that went into their creation, as if those scraps are intensely valuable as they might be for one writer in several million.  Nor do I refer, for artists, to one’s current professional portfolio or the few sample, meaningful pieces that most artists hold back to show their development for their private personal interest.)

What would you say to a person who kept recordings of every minute he spent practicing when learning the piano, then shoved the tapes in boxes that he piled in a storage room?  Would you consider that person to have a healthy view of his music-making endeavor?  Or would you feel that he’s putting far too much emotional meaning into what’s really a fairly mundane, prosaic activity that, in all honesty, he’s not yet very good at?  There’s a world of difference between keeping each recital tape to look back on later and keeping recordings of every practice session in between.

The musician’s parents may do the first, and the musician himself may have a few, select favorites he wants to keep from among them for his own memory-making eventually.  But the second is unhealthy no matter who is doing it–and no matter what is being hoarded.

Ava Lovejoy

Ava Lovejoy is a budding essentialist. After years of trying to keep too many plates in the air at once, she is doing more by choosing less. Central to the struggle is her genetic neuromuscular disease and a rare and severe sleep disorder, which add serious challenges to her life. An entrepreneur, a mother, and a teacher, she balances many roles and demands on her time.