Failure is not a word or concept I have often entertained in my lexicon over my adult life. I have a natural propensity to turn apparent failure into opportunity for adaptation or learning. Yet recently, I have found it a word that has come to my lips more often than I would care to admit. Most recently, I spent last weekend wrestling with a project I had long envisaged, but which refused to come forward.
Wrestling with apparent failure in a creative project opens a vulnerability in me that is natural to most of the artists I know. Yet I found it also opened an entirely different creative process in me, one that was ultimately rewarding and expanding.
I wanted to create an artist’s book using images of stone I have taken over time, many of which were taken during our recent cabin stay on the Kootenay River. I have a sizeable collection of macro images of many different stone textures, and I wanted to work them in as translucent backgrounds. I had images. I had a title. I began the work by creating gel medium transfers of 15 of the best textures. I then overlaid them onto richly textured handmade paper from a pulp mill in Quebec. So far so good, the colours and textures of the stone images married well with the colours and textures of the papers.
It was at that point that I immediately stalled. I had no concept of what I wanted to do next with the pages, or of what cover I wanted to use for this book. I didn’t spend much time thinking about the actual operation of the book as an object. This is quite out of character for me, as usually the operation of the book form is the first thing that inspires me and I build my concept from there. I was under pressure with a deadline to produce something, and I should have known at that moment that this was a project that needed to be set aside and allowed to develop further. Instead, I pushed on and came up with something. Mistake number two.
No creative project of mine will ever be convincing if I don’t put something of myself into it. By this point, I’d been working at this project for two days. I was hating the project, hating what was coming out. Inspiration was utterly absent. A further clue that I should have set it aside to allow the concept to mature further before I tried to continue. Did I listen? Did I, heck.
In the end, I came up with a cover concept that seemed acceptable (another clue, did I just use the word ‘acceptable’?), constructed of painted paper, collage elements and wire. I immediately hated the paint colour. The concept seemed bland and my usual passion was screamingly absent from its concept and execution. I came once again to a dead halt. I set the cover aside for a day and returned to working on the pages.
I started to add collage elements to the pages. Everything I added felt stilted and unnatural. I decided to try stitching the book form together to see if my feelings for it evolved further. Immediately I began to construct the book I realised my error in inadequately planning the operation of the book in the hand. The binding was stiff, the covers wouldn’t open properly. All in all, the entire book at that moment loomed at me as a total failure. I sank into despondency, sure that I had lost my mojo and would never create another of those ‘Oooooh!’ books again. I wallowed in this mire of self pity for much of another day. I showed the book to my husband. There was a slight frown, a hesitation, an ‘Ummm’. An apology, and the meek, apologetic use of the word ‘weak’. I should have been outraged. I should have been insulted. Instead, I was relieved. It wasn’t just me being too critical of my work. It really was genuinely a piece of crap all around. My mood lightened and I finally put the item aside as I should have done after phase one of the page construction.
Through this process, I quickly understood in the forefront of my awareness that I was simply trying too hard to bring forth a creative project I had inadequately planned or designed. I had allowed the pressure to produce to drive me, instead of my usual ready flow of inspiration. I had worked for someone else’s desire instead of my own pleasure. I had overridden my inner voice to push on with a project that wasn’t ready for it’s own birth.
Will the project be abandoned? No, it most certainly will not. Already, having left the item untouched and unviewed for a week, I know what I will do with it. It will give birth to two books, the vision for each of which is already much clearer in my mind than the parent’s ever was. The pages will go to one, the cover will be reinterpreted to another. I am already several steps ahead in my process with these two new books than I ever was with the parent. I feel a certainty that both of those new books will work well, and I love them already.
I learned some harsh lessons from this. I learned that the rollercoaster of emotion associated with this back-to-front approach is too destructive to my natural flow of inspiration. I will not be making it my usual process. I also learned to listen to my instinct when it tells me that something isn’t ready or sufficiently thought out. While success out of failure is not my usual method of working, I am relieved to see that my creative process can work in reverse when it needs to. Most importantly, I learned how well my normal creative process works for me when I give way to it, listen to it and work to fulfill my own passion. If my passion has gone into it, and I love it, others will love it too. If I create just to have a product, no viewer will be any more convinced of its artistic merit than I will.