In Which I Compare Myself to Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great
Alexander the Great
Most other great generals acknowledge that the Macedonian King Alexander the Great was the conqueror’s conqueror. Perhaps the best measure is the simple fact that his conquests covered the known world. He kicked every butt that was available to kick, from other Greeks to the Persians and back again. He died at 32, partly as a result of wounds that he received in battle, and, not surprisingly, his heirs couldn’t hold on to the immense and disparate lands that he managed to acquire.

Though he devoted his brief life to making war, Alexander was far from the stupid bully or killing machine that you might imagine. His tutor during childhood was Aristotle, and he seems to have been an apt pupil. Even today, we use the phrase (or I use the phrase) “Alexandrine solution” to refer to his stunt of slicing through the famous Gordian knot with his sword rather than bothering to untangle it.

Even so, Alexander’s skills didn’t really lie in statesmanship; he may have settled into a wise and just ruler if he had lived longer, but he devoted his short life to making war. That’s probably why Napoleon Bonaparte and Hitler admired him so. And, indeed, it makes sense to ask why we should admire him at all. Conquering the known world is a dubious enterprise at best, involving, as it does, a staggering number of deaths and casualties. He did bring Greek culture to the East, but if I were living in the East at the time I wouldn’t have felt particularly grateful for the gift.

That said, I find myself admiring Alexander much as I admire the Romans. From this distance, it’s easy to forget about his brutality, and to admire his skill, drive, and bravery. Here’s a funny thing, though: Alexander suffered from bizarre mood swings. Much of the time he labored under some pretty hefty notions of grandiosity. If he hadn’t been king and a brilliant general, his conviction that he was destined to rule the world would have been downright bizarre. As it was, he managed to get others to buy into his crazy schemes, and the result made history.

Historians also record bouts of what seems to have been severe depression. He would sulk in his tent for days on end, refusing to come out or see anyone, and probably thinking, “So I conquer the Persians? And? So?” He indulged in drinking bouts that weren’t unusual for that time and culture, but that would put contemporary frat boys to shame. Despite all that, he always did emerge, ready to fight on.

And that’s why I meditated on Alexander the Great for an hour or so yesterday. Sure, his enterprise was arbitrary and destructive, but it drove him, and it changed history, perhaps even for the better. If the Big Question is “Why bother?” Alexander’s answer did make some sense. Since I don’t have an army at my back, there’s no danger that I’ll get carried away and follow in his footsteps. I can see the point, though: you bother for two reasons. First, it beats sulking in your tent, and second, because your skill has turned into a calling, and you really can’t stop.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that writing has saved the mind of more than one scribbler. People don’t write because they figure they’re going to top Homer and Ovid (well, Shakespeare did, but again, it’s a case of grandiosity meets ability). They write, as Harlan Ellison said, because they can do no other. If I do launch a Grandiose Plan, I will be doing it partly to give myself something to write about, to gain enough stature in my own mind to justify sharing my jottings with the world.

I sat down this morning with little notion of what to say, and I haven’t really said much. But I’m chipper, and feel a sense of accomplishment nonetheless. So, yes, one of my best pieces of advice is this: Devote yourself utterly to a craft, whether it be art or war, and let it carry you through those long, bleak stretches.


What to Do When Your Sucky Art Is Making You Crabby

Vincent Van Gogh's "The Potato Eaters"
They say that even Homer nods (i.e., falls asleep over his work and produces crap). Well, here's Vincent Van Gogh nodding.
Yesterday and this morning I suffered a crisis of faith in my ability as a Shrinky Dink artist. I became convinced that haven’t really mastered the medium of shrinkable plastic, and that most of my Shrinky Dink art sucks. This actually distressed me — I had begun to invest in the idea of my self as an Artist, with all of the foolish notions that follow from that stereotype.

First, let me explain Shrinky Dinks so that you can appreciate fully how silly I was to become perfectionistic about them; then I’ll share a list of strategies to defeat the perfectionism that so often plagues those of us who feel obliged to make True Art.

For those of you who haven’t discovered this vibrant medium, Shrinky Dinks are sheets of clear plastic. You draw or, in my case, trace an image on one side, then bake them in the oven until they shrink to one third of their original size. The effect is much like that of writing on a balloon and then popping it, a very gratifying childhood activity of mine. You end up with tiny, vivid, ornate designs that make excellent elements for jewelry.

Two days ago I created my plastic masterwork, a pendant about one and a half by three inches with an image of roses and greenery against a sunset. It was stunning — something I’d be proud to wear. Unfortunately, it made the other 10 or 12 pendants I’ve made look amateurish, damn it. I’ve had a creative block ever since; I’m terrified that the next Shrinky Dink I bake will be unworthy of my rose pendant.

Trust me, I know how absurd this is. I’m making jewelry to give as Christmas presents, not painting the Sistine Chapel. Absurd or not, there’s a part of me that insists that everything craft project I make be a masterwork. I have a highly developed aesthetic sense and am knowledgeable about art, so I’m able to see how distinctly amateurish and derivative my jewelry is. It is not Great Art, and it is actually painful to me to make art that is not Great. On some level I truly believe that it’s only worth making art if the product will be stunning and original. At times this greatly detracts from my pleasure in craft work — a pity, since my goal is to have fun, not to show in museums. In fact, the embarrassment I suffer when I make mediocre art is the entire reason why I’ve never taken a class in drawing or painting.

Of course, there are many, many reasons to make art, most of which have nothing to do with achievement. For example, it’s good for your brain to try new things. It’s fun to get into a flow state and lose track of time while in the throes of creation. It gives me pleasure to switch on my aesthetic faculties and to exercise them, even in the humble media of beads and shrink plastic. Craft projects often improve my mood, and remind me of being a child and making a mess out of sheer joy in the process of creation.

Therefore, once I realized exactly how sour and Grinchy my mood had become, I wrote the following list of strategies to shake off the perfectionism that was killing off my creativity. So today I offer you 25 Tricks to Subdue Your Inner Perfectionist and Enjoy Your Artwork Again:

1. Spend a few minutes rediscovering an innocent pleasure like petting your cats. (Sky and Julia believe that three or four hours of non-stop cat petting would solve most of my problems.) Remind yourself that innocent pleasures have value in and of themselves. After all, you don’t pet your cat to smooth its hair, or even to relieve that persistent itch behind its ears.
2. Do something easy and gratifying, an activity that typically offers an easy mood boost. Housework that makes a big difference with minimal effort is a good choice. Me, I like folding the laundry — all those lovely, clean clothes to choose from!
3. Ask yourself who cares. If I make an ugly pendant, who will notice or care? What have I lost, aside from a bit of plastic, some pencil lead, and an hour or so whiled away pleasantly? Remind yourself that the stakes simply aren’t high.
4. Listen to some silly, upbeat music. Dance around like a fool. I like Run-D.M.C.’s “Walk This Way” and Fatboy Slim’s “Renegade Master.” I love the absurdity of a middle aged white woman whipping her hips around and belting out the lyrics, “Back once again with the renegade master/D for Damage with the ill behavior!” The Beastie Boys are great for this, too, since they have always had an exquisite sense of the absurdity of a trio of middle-class Jews becoming rap stars.
5. Alternately, listen to music that is as cranky as you are. Nothing relieves the tension of, say, a bad day at work like screaming along with Limp Bizkit’s “Break Stuff” or “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver,” a song that’s been showing up on my Pandora station recently. I dare you to feel all serious and crabby after growling the climax of “Break Stuff,” “Give me something to break/Give me something to break/Give me something to break/How ’bout your fucking face?” It’s got just the right mix of rage and humor.
6. As an experiment, deliberately make something ugly, do something you suck at, or screw something up, then record your feeling about the experience. Did the world come to an end? Do you feel terrible, or was it just sort of funny? For bonus points, share your ugly product with others — I guarantee they’ll love you for making and publicizing an artistic error.
7. Comfort yourself with the thought that there are probably awkward bits in the Sistine Chapel.
8. Rate how well you think something will turn out at various points during the process, then rate it a day after you finish. At the middle of any act of creation, I usually think, “Oh, this is going to be horrible! I have made a series of unrecoverable errors! Oh, oh, oh!” Then it turns out just fine. The point is to anticipate this phase and be prepared to slog through it.
9. Remind yourself that sucking is not a crime; it is perfectly harmless to create bad art. Cut yourself the same slack that you would others. Would you tell a friend, hey, that painting sucks! Stop making art before you hurt someone! No, you wouldn’t. So don’t say it to yourself.
10. It’s obvious but true: sometimes you just need a fresh perspective. So go take a walk or do the dishes, then come back to your project. You’ll be better able to isolate and fix the flaws.
11. Making and displaying crappy craft projects is a public service; others will take up beading or what have you simply because they know they’ll be better at it than you are.
12. Enjoy the colors and textures of the medium, regardless of how the project turns out. Appreciate the fabric as you sew and the pigment as you paint. Notice all of the unique properties of the medium and enjoy them.
13. Remember that you will always miss more shots than you make. There’s no way to avoid it: success entails failure — sometimes a lot of failure. If baseball players got dejected every time they struck out, their lives would be a misery to them.
14. Understand that what you’re doing is fun partly because success isn’t guaranteed. You could buy a kit at Michael’s and follow the instructions slavishly, but both the results and the process will be less satisfying than if you strike out on your own and risk failure.
15. Know that in any medium you’re always being derivative — or, if you prefer, building on the work of others. You’re not the first person to paint a sunset or write a love poem; part of the fun is in the dialectic between creativity and flat-out copying.
16. Try something especially difficult, something that you’re pretty sure you’ll mess up. The result almost certainly won’t be as bad as you fear. If it is, refer to #9 above.
17. Anyone who makes art makes crappy art on occasion; sometimes they’re not even aware that it’s some of their worst work. Van Gogh aspired to create moving portraits of the working man. “The Potato Eaters,” above, resulted from that misguided aesthetic. And except for his self-portraits, Van Gogh’s portraits are, to put it delicately, not among his best pieces.
18. Along those lines, you’re not always the best judge of your own work. You may produce your best work unintentionally, when you’re trying to achieve a different effect entirely.
19. Set an arbitrary structural constraint and stick with it. Too much choice will make you feel tired, jaded, and uncertain. Almost any limit will serve to improve your work; Van Gogh produced his most moving paintings while confined to an asylum. He painted what he saw with what colors he had, and the result was fantastic.
20. Do something you know you’re good at, and notice the process. Is the product perfect from the beginning, or do you do a lot of course correction on the way? I am a very recursive writer — I rewrite each sentence two or three times before I move on to the next one, and I always go back two or three times to prune the whole. I don’t even notice the false starts and dead ends, since I know that writing is recursive by its very nature.
21. Do not, under any circumstances, lie down and brood on how terrible and boring everything is. Doing so will depress you, and I can say with confidence that gloomy brooding is a poor art-making technique.
22. Think of all the mediocre art out there that you love! Why, I dote upon Venetian Snares, a rap/jazz/electronica solo act. Imagine my surprise when my friend Jerry, who is much more sophisticated musically, told me that it’s really pretty dull stuff if you know much about music. How lucky I am to be easily amused! And trust me, there are plenty of easily amused people out there who will appreciate your work because they don’t know any better. Their lives will be poorer without your mediocre art.
23. Root out rough drafts or early work by artists you admire. You will be shocked and delighted at the rudimentary beginnings and false starts that you will find. The Norton Anthology of Poetry wisely includes a few of Shelley’s poems in progress. It turns out that all of his poems begin as nonsense syllables: “Nol-na nee na….” Ian MacEwan, an amazing contemporary novelist, has a host of lousy early books out there. He wrote prolifically, and often not especially well.
24. Forget the myth of talent. Bing good at something is not getting it right the first time, every time — it’s editing your work with a firm, steady hand.
25. When you fail, you may learn something valuable: “Ah, that pattern was too intricate!” or “Oops, blue tends to recede on a field of red.” Bonus: others may learn from your mistakes, thereby turning your mistakes into a kindness.

That is ridiculously long. I hope it is easier to read than it was to write. It often felt like drudgery, since I have the remains of a migraine and my neck is sore from bending over this and other projects. In any case, know that I love you all, and that I actually respect you more when you make mediocre art.