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Please make terrible art

10 May 2019 - By Katie Cowan

It is easy to think, as we advance in life, that we know far more and are definitely better than our younger selves. This is mostly true, but it is not totally true, and I have brought with me today my younger self to make my point. She will also be making an additional point, which is that, as one goes along in life, one should make some terrible art.

A direction I wanted to face this year was a more active creative life for myself. I believe that part of what makes humans human is our creativity, and that the more creativity you bring into your life, the richer that life becomes. Creativity is an especially good antidote for the kinds of anxiety and intellectual rigidity I am prone to.

An image of a lot of colouful, empty picture frames.

I generally think of my past self as a creative person who didn’t do much with her creativity, and I didn’t want my future self to fall to the same fate. So I have been doing bits and pieces to grow a creative life that feels good. “Aha!” I would say to my younger self. “Look at me, doing so much better than you could. Truly it is I who is the best version of us.”

But I was forced to reconsider my relative wisdom when I re-met my younger self in ghost form. Or rather, when I met her in the form of the eight-part series of Gilmore Girls fanfiction I wrote in 2003.

Fanfiction is a type of writing people on the internet do using existing fictional worlds and characters. Often they use it to make characters kiss who would not ordinarily kiss. In my case, I was correcting the canonical record of how (spoiler alert) Rory and Jess got together in Season 3, as evidently I felt that showrunner Amy Sherman-Palladino’s version was not true to her characters. (Believing, at 16, that you know how to write television better than a career television writer is not the attitudinal lesson younger me taught present me this day.)

The date of publication (on fanfiction.net) reveals that I wrote my little opus right in the middle of my year 12 exams, and two weeks before I was to leave for France on a student exchange. As someone who feels “too busy” in a lacuna of a Sunday to write a few lines of a song, this timing astonishes me.

Lessons learned

I will not be sharing with you the content of my writing, as that would not be dignified. But here is what I learned from reading my 2003 self’s work. First, she was willing to make terrible art, and quite a lot of it. Second, she was willing to work on her art in the middle of high stress periods. She fit it in around the edges of things in bits and pieces here and there. Third, she had an enthusiasm and a determination that I admired, attitudes I would enjoy having more of in my adult life. She was also very hard on herself, and wrote almost as much disclaimer as she did story (no change there).

These are interesting lessons, and indeed I was chastened. My younger self had a much healthier attitude to creativity than my present self does most days, and she had eight chapters of fanfiction to show for it, not to mention several other terrible stand alone stories and even a terrible novel. She may just be my hero.

Please do not think that I am maligning my younger self when I call her art terrible. The art itself was … fine, especially when you consider I was 16 and had not yet received Stephen King’s rap over the knuckles for adverb abuse. What I mean by calling it “terrible art” was that she was willing to risk making terrible art in service of making anything at all. This is a lesson for all people in all times, and one I have to relearn at least twice a year. At 16 I apparently lived it like it was nothing.

My point is two-fold: first, our younger selves may not have had the skills or knowledge of our older selves, but oftentimes they had an enthusiasm and a courage that our older self has less capacity for. When it comes to listening to people younger than us in our lives and offices, we would do well to welcome that enthusiasm and the fresh eyes that accompany it. We quickly forget what we no longer know, and new people remind us. If we’re lucky, our younger selves left messages for us to read now, possibly in serialised form.

Second, and take this from my 16-year-old self: it is important to make terrible art. Write clunky plays, compose derivative songs, sculpt lopsided sculptures. Giving yourself permission to make terrible art opens the door to making any art at all, and lawyers need to make art.

Antidote

I was excited to discover that my younger self was so onboard with making terrible art, since it’s an edict I am evangelical about, especially for intellectual lawyer-types. Making terrible art is an antidote to many of the lawyer modes that can get out of hand if they leach beyond the bounds of work. It is an antidote to the idea that you cannot be a beginner again once you are an expert, and to the idea that results matter more than process. It is an antidote to hypervigilance and hyper-intellectualisation. It is a means to relax and to play, to break up the rigidity of a mind focused on rules. Apart from all of that, making art feeds intellectual work because it stirs up the mind, and particularly the part of the mind that joins dots while one is staring out a window.

Making terrible art is not about where or how you might publish or perform the work. It is not about the product; it’s about the process. I have discarded eight paintings this year before they even dried, and boy did it feel great. Making terrible art is about having the courage to be bad at something, and to do something without a purpose or end in mind. It is deeply human and great fun. It is also, unfortunately, the only path to one day making good art.

I believe what I am saying about terrible art, by the way, but I forget a lot too. It is easy to get caught up in day to day life and in attachments to how you see yourself (“I am a person who is good at things”; “failure is not tolerable to me, a person who is good at things”). So I am grateful for my re-exposure to the terrible art of my teenage self. She was cooler than I thought she would be, and proved once again that humans regularly forget and have to relearn even the most profound lessons.

So please, lawyers, go forth and listen to the things you have forgotten of your younger selves. And above all, make some time this week to make some terrible art. I will be joining you at my piano, inspired by my 16-year-old self to make up songs with the same four chords until the neighbours ask me to stop.


Katie Cowan katie@symphonylaw.co.nz is a former lawyer and director of Symphony Law, a consulting practice for lawyers.

Last updated on the 10th May 2019