If You Want to Go Anywhere, You Need to Go All The Way

I’ve heard that great art comes from conviction so many times it’s become an internal mantra. It wasn’t until I properly reflected on the statement that I realized conviction is the wrong word. Making art well (and I’m including writing) is a matter of commitment, conviction be damned. Here’s what I mean:

Any damned fool can have conviction, can be convinced what they’re doing is the best thing there is. This is the first half of the Dunning-Kruger effect, the part everyone remembers. The part everyone forgets is highly competent people can have no conviction about what they’re doing at all. It’s also known as the Imposter Effect, and tons of Great Artists have suffered from it throughout history.

Those artists had the commitment to see their art through to the end, no matter what. They took risks, and were probably plagued with fears that what they were doing wasn’t worthwhile, would subject them to ridicule, or would never be remembered. They did it anyway, and that’s how they pushed the borders of what art could be. Few, if any, were idiot savants who simply blundered into something new. An idiot wouldn’t have known what to do with it, or how to make it work again.

However, I’m not just talking about the commitment to see a project through to completion. Though that itself is commendable, it’s no guarantee that what you made is great. I’m talking about going the extra mile, like rewriting a novel from scratch once you realize you’ve made all the mistakes.

A fool with 100% conviction in their shoddy, half-assed effort will call themselves a One Draft Wonder and say “fuck it” when anything becomes too hard. After all, they shouldn’t have to work hard because they’re great! (Otherwise known as George Lucas Syndrome) Whereas an artist truly committed to making the best work possible is someone willing to take criticism and change everything if necessary. They’re also willing to forego the rules when they actually get in the way (rather than being something they don’t wanna do because lazy).

A lot of artists don’t start their work with any conviction about what it’s meant to be. Rather they feel their way into it. They only commit to a purpose once they’ve figured out what that is—what the art wants to be.

Commitment means not stopping short before the work reaches a natural end. It means getting through tedious parts, and polishing them as much as the bits you enjoy. It means committing to your tools, getting the practice in, knowing your medium, and doing the absolute best you can with what’s available. It’s about committing to a character’s voice, or a conceit, and doing the best job possible to make it feel like something real.

Here’s an example of how lack of commitment makes art fail: I once watched a crappy movie called Computer Chess, a faux-documentary about a convention full of nerds in the 80s. Aside from being meandering mumbly crap, it was a failure of verisimilitude. It was shot on a crisp digital camera, with a black and white filter applied after, so I didn’t buy the whole conceit that it was shot in Super-8. It couldn’t commit to the POV, hovering omniscient for most of the film, and whenever it dropped into the camera’s POV, it was shot exactly the same way. Oh, except they jiggled and tilted the camera a bit, which was half-assed horseshit. Every once in a while, they’d try to fake film artifacts in After Effects, and it was hokey as hell. They didn’t take the time to make it look like film, or even to use film, and yet that’s what they were trying to achieve. They fucking failed, because they didn’t know their shit. It was just another bad student film.

On the other hand, the show Look Around You was also faked the 80s, particularly educational films. They were comical and bizarre, like the segments from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. They committed 100% to the conceit. They made it look like film, specifically low quality 80s film. They went through the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s archives to get all the sounds right, and they hired the guy who narrated the films they remembered from school. They even got their hair right when they appeared in lab coats onscreen. Faking the 80s proved so difficult they couldn’t keep it up after more than a couple series, but the two series they did were incredible.

That is what makes something great: taking it all the way. Or as Harlan Ellison says, “Do not be afraid to go there. Wherever “there” is…”

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Sarah Dimento

The only thing interesting about me is my interest in interesting things – and sometimes I make cool shit.