Self: inimical to art

Linger in any medium of art for long enough, and the internal saboteur will find you.

Whatever form it assumes—paralyzing perfectionism, existential questions about why you even bother, suppression of your personal tastes in favor of the “serious” styles, etc—its mode of attack is the same: it moralizes the art process. It ties your results to you and measures you by them.

Before my first foray into art for art’s sake, I looked askance at talk about the art process. It sounded like obscurantist sales speak for art buyers. There is some of that, but there is also something real to discuss. When we immerse in our craft, we find a vast non-euclidean terrain inside ourselves, and while our personal terrains differ, they share some key features: tall mountains, dangerous beasts, bogs you can’t step out of the same way you stepped in.

These features are worth talking about, and the one I want to talk about today is that shape-shifting beast, the internal saboteur.

A First Defeat

In late 2016, it entered my head that I’d like to do an art, in particular fiction writing, but the prospect of spending years writing prose no one wanted to read did not appeal to me. I wanted to skip right to the good stuff. When I discovered generative art, I thought I could cash in my software engineering experience for instant art powers.

Within an hour of sitting down to write a piece in a popular toolkit, I realized it did not work that way. But instead of letting go of this fixation on producing a good work, I rerouted, and started writing my own renderer as a hedge against the quality of my output. As in: yes, the prose may be clunky, but I made the pencil and paper myself, so maybe you’ll respect it on those terms.

It took years to get over this, and shortly after I did, I remembered that the whole reason I chose the medium was a fear of writing bad fiction.

Before we form regular habits, it’s hard to write—or work in whatever medium our hearts point at—because a saboteur is trying to lead us in any other direction at all, which could be a years-long obsessive diversion as easily as it could be another episode or idling on the couch, and that saboteur is inside. It’s us. It’s ourselves.

Self is irrelevant

To immerse in the art process, we must sever the link that ties the product to our self—our social desirability, our self-concept, our moral worth. This is not because the self is bad. It’s because it’s irrelevant to the task.

How often when you’re shaving beets do you think to yourself, “I want to be one of the respectable beet shavers,” but then notice you’ve neglected to shave the stem knot, and so you set the beet on the counter and lie down supine on your kitchen’s faux-tile floor to internally lament that you’ll never be like those beet shavers you see on YouTube and network talk shows.

Probably you’ve never done this. But I bet you’ve done something analogous to it in your field of art or work.

This is what I’m talking about when I say the self is irrelevant. Whether it’s writing or painting or shaving beets, your self-image just isn’t germane. You can shave the beet without reducing the job to abstractions like “will earn me the respect of my fellow beet shavers” or “would alienate the beet-shaving community if it ever got out”. Bring your mind to bear on that beetskin without baggage and you will begin to see the beautiful depth and complexity of beet shaving.

The self is wily. We cannot diminish it with tricks like setting out to write a “bad” story or paint an “awful” painting. First of all because we can’t beguile ourselves—we know it’s a strategy to lure out a “good” work—but also because it’s just more self.

If you have any experience with meditation, you know that attempts to “stop thinking” only catalyze feedback loops of more thought. In the same way, trying to shrink the self by thinking about it differently is like trying to kill a wolf by feeding it.

Thinking about it, the act itself, in any direction, feeds the wolf.

Redirection

It may seem unintuitive that trying to relax your standards doesn’t work—though it may seem to, for a short while—so I want to take a brief detour into pop neuroscience to explain why that is.

Human conscious awareness is composed of two neural networks: the default mode network (DMN), and the dorsal attention network (DAN)a. The DMN is the recurring villain in Vox’s pop-neuroscience content: it’s where we think of ourselves, where we get lost in reveries, where our depressive and anxious thought habits take root, etc. The DAN is its complement, with which we pay attention.

If you’re diffusely thinking of yourself, whether highly or lowly, you’re traversing the DMN. Different directions, same roads.

Here’s the tactical in: these two networks anticorrelateb. I.e.: it’s hard to pay attention to something and think about yourself at the same time. The distinct activities compete for your finite awareness. Settle your attention on the beets, and you will forget yourself.

The DMN is not bad. Its métier is diffuse thought, which you need for several basic survival reasons and also to wander in your mind for new ideas. The point of the tactic is to escape specific painful and ensnaring neural grooves in the DMN.

When you return to diffuse thought after focus, you have a cleaner slate, a quieter mind. Over time, with a lot of practice, those grooves ensnare you less and less.

Down with abstractions

All the advice we’ve ingested in our medium of art, all the dogmas we’ve let seep in or nurtured in our heart, they are adversaries in our endeavor to focus.

In chess, beginners often hear generalized advice like “Get your bishop out before your pawns.” For a short while, this helps. But when they get deeper in the game that advice becomes what we call a “ghost” whispering in their ear. The board tells them to do one thing, but the ghost tells them to do another. Some players learn to see the board and forget their ghosts, but others double down on theory and become worse and worse.

The same is true in many skills, such as in the writing advice “Keep sentences under twenty words,” or “Cut all your adverbs.” They’re harmful dogmas at any level beyond total novice.

If you just look at your prose with an open and focused mind, you will find yourself in a world far more complex than any generalized advice could aspire to reduce. In other words, there is no beet, and there is no vegetable peeler. Reality is far more specific than that: the thermal flow between your hand and the beet, the proprioception of your fingers, your unannotated visual feed, etc.

Prying those cherished ambitions out of your rapacious grip

But isn’t there a reason we set out to create good art? It’s nice to finish a work, share it with people, and have them say, “I dug that.” Nicer than burning the result or stuffing it in a drawer, anyway.

Because of the pain created by the frantic search for good results, it’s tempting to turn against our ambition. If we could just let it go, settle for making art for ourselves and never showing anyone, then we could enjoy the process.

But that’s just self again, wearing a new mask. Attempting to smother our desires is a diversion that leads our attention back toward ourselves, which again: irrelevant to beet shaving.

For these habits of thought, I suggest a two-pronged approach. The first prong is returning your attention to the task, as discussed earlier. The second, for when you’re out of the workshop, is to inspect the nature of those yearnings.

There’s a passage in Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You? in which Alice, an acclaimed author, reflects on her youthful ambition:

When I was younger, I think what I wanted was to travel the world, to lead a glamorous life, to be celebrated for my work, to marry a great intellectual, to reject everything I had been raised with, to cut myself off from the narrow world. I feel very embarrassed by all that now, but I was lonely and unhappy, and I didn’t understand that these feelings were ordinary, that there was nothing singular about my loneliness, my unhappiness. Maybe if I had understood that, as I think I do now, at least a little bit, I would never have written those books, I would never have become this person. I don’t know. I know that I couldn’t write them again, or feel the way I felt about myself at that time. It was important to me then to prove that I was a special person. And in my attempt to prove it, I made it true. Only afterwards, when I had received the money and acclaim which I believed I deserved, did I understand that it was not possible for anyone to deserve these things, and by then it was too late. I had already become the person I had once longed to be, and now energetically despised.

It may be fruitful to think of ambitions as itches. Scratching an itch feels good, but once you’ve scratched it you’re pretty much in the same spot sans itch. It doesn’t feel like anything to have succeeded yesterday. The door of accomplishment is just a door, out in a field, and you could walk around it as easily as through it.

A north star

A medium of art is a language, and we can’t learn languages on the plane of analysis. Find an American who studied Spanish for four years in high school and ask them to order for you at your local taqueria. They can’t do it. I’ll bet you ten dollars. To learn a language, we need to go deeper. There are no English couch reads that can make you fluent in Vietnamese. There are not even couch reads for chess. There are only case studies, drills, and immersion in the medium itself.

Often when we embark on the long journey to mastery, it’s because we want to be a master, as in, think about ourselves the warm and happy thoughts we imagine masters think about themselves. But languages are stubborn characters, elder spirits of nature who aren’t interested in being anyone's means to an end. If we go toe-to-toe with one trying to prove our own moral value to ourselves, the language will thwart us again and again.

Our north star must not be good self-thoughts, but something more patient: inexhaustible respect and curiosity for reality, on its own terms.