Productive Failure is a Real (and Helpful) Thing
I had a frustrating day yesterday when it comes to musical work. I’ve been trying to stick to a schedule of churning out a new track every 10 days, because I want to be able to release my current project, an album of ambient music titled Eyes Open in Dream, by April 10th. However, the current hardest part of the process (which is funny, because I used to be the other way around) is coming up with a basis on which to further build on and eventually shape into a fully-fledged piece. Right now, my I’m working on a track I’ve named Lazy Grey Skies.
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Now, the sneak peek I posted a couple weeks ago is fine (you can already tell how well my “a track every 10 days” plan is going), but I ended up deciding that it wasn’t evocative of my original idea. Look at this image I’ve used for the SoundCloud “cover art”; grey, overcast skies that are almost painterly in texture, a long jetty out into the water, and the almost mirror-like surface and hypnotic ripples of the water’s surface. While certainly not bad start (I wouldn’t have posted it if I thought it was), the sneak peek seems to invoke a misty forest with the mbira rolls and “droplets”, and the guitar-like synth suggests a vibrant alien landscape. My initial idea for Lazy Grey Skies involved mostly soft vibraphone that would subtly develop meandering patterns that evolve over time. While the sneak peek certainly wandered, it felt a little too unfocused (I know, ambient music seeming unfocused? Alert the media!), so as I said, I spent around six hours yesterday trying to find a starting point only to finish the day’s work feeling like I’d accomplished nothing. But is that really the case?
I tend to be very critical of myself when it comes to how much work I get done on a daily basis; I’m certainly my father’s son in that regard. However, after having dinner with my family, I began to think of the Thomas Edison quote that everyone seems to know, or are at least able to paraphrase:
I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.
While I imagine some people just dismiss this as being overly optimistic, I think it demonstrates a much healthy outlook on any sort of artistic or experimental process. Yes, I did have a very specific vision in mind when I started the piece, and yes, several of my previous attempts ended in what I considered failure (considering all art is subjective). However, the term trial and error exists for a reason. Failure (unless it ends in death) is always educational, assuming this is your first time failing in that particular way. As I said before, none of the previous attempts were necessarily bad, they just didn’t fit my vision. As I continued, and with help from the visual aid of the image imbedded earlier in the post, I began to mentally construct a map of what did and didn’t work in the material world. When something’s still just a thought, it can still be very vague, so continuing to try and make that thought a reality slowly brings it into focus. That goes for any artistic process.
Now, I’d be lying if I said that failure never dampens my spirits while working. I think the same can be said for any artist in any field, even if they’ve been applying Mr. Edison’s mentality for years. However, the biggest mistake I feel like an artist to make is not failure itself, but letting the failures eat at you to a point where you abandon your work out of frustration. True, everyone needs a break, and breaks are certainly needed in order to keep a healthy state of mind while working, but there’s a difference between a “Okay, I know I’m struggling, so I’m going to step away and cool off for a bit.” and a “Forget this, I can’t do it!” attitude. Heck, as you can probably tell from this post alone, writing in my blog is an outlet for me to unwind and analyse my shortcomings in the hopes of both helping myself and others, and I think that’s another very important tool to have in order to keep your failures from really going to your head. This extends beyond art, too. I, for one, constantly struggle with anxiety and depression, and both just come with the territory of being an artist who wants to share his work with the world. Some days I just want to sleep because I don’t have to hear the voices of my conscious tearing myself down, but more and more, I’m turning to other ways to vent that negativity and feeling of worthlessness into something productive.
Life will always be filled with your failures. No one who shoots for the moon hits it every time, but letting those failures become five steps backwards instead one step forwards is always the option you should choose. Trust me, I know from experience.