Monday, June 27, 2011

Spinning wheels

In the creative arts, where almost all measures of improvement and success are subjective and external (e.g. someone else hiring you for a role or choosing to produce your play), it is easy sometimes to feel like all the hard work you are doing to improve your craft and get ahead is getting you nowhere, that you are just spinning your wheels.

I literally spun my wheels yesterday, pedaling my bicycle for 5 hours and 30 minutes, traveling 69 miles. This was the mileage I needed to hit for June as part of my training regimen to build up to a 100 mile ride this September. In addition to gradually increasing my distances (each month I need to add at least 10 miles to the longest ride I do), I've also been working to increase my speed and hill strength. This I gauge by how fast I can do laps in Central Park (I've so far cut my time by about 5 minutes a lap from last year). This is one of the things I love about cycling - there are quantifiable ways to measure how much you are growing and improving, numbers you can look at and say "hey, I did that!"

But despite looking at all those numbers and seeing that I can go longer and harder and faster, I haven't really felt like I've been improving. The hills in Central Park still feel incredibly laborious. I still hate riding into the wind. I still feel incredibly slow next to my boyfriend (who has a bit of an advantage on me since he has been riding seriously pretty much since he could walk). Because the change is gradual, it isn't as noticeable.

But yesterday-- yesterday was one of those moments when suddenly the change was palpable. This was the longest, hardest ride I've done to date (other riders referred to the numerous hills as "brutal"), and yet it was the easiest long ride I've ever done. I had no stressful up-hill climbs where I was cursing and grunting the entire way, nor any complete blood-sugar meltdowns that cause me to crash both physically and emotionally (I have finally learned how to fuel myself for this kind of exercise). In short, this was the most funI have had on a long distance ride. Who cares about the numbers in terms of miles, elevation, average speed, calories burned, I felt great. And that is how I now know in my gut, regardless of what the numbers were saying, that I truly have improved.

So how do we apply this to the arts? Without the equivalent of a bicycle computer that tells us our average speed or how many miles we've done, how do we know we are growing as artists? The one measure we have - other people hiring us or producing our works - is so subjective and elusive as to be almost meaningless in day-to-day life, especially given how little (unfortunately) it can have to do with actual talent and skill.

I say, go for the joy. We do the arts, after all, because we enjoy it (and if we don't then we should get the hell out). I say you will know you are improving when you enjoy it more, because the better you get at your chosen pursuit, the more facile you will be with your craft, and thus more able to actually do the things you want to be able to do. To shoot only for the "job", or only for the distance or speed, is to miss the experience part of the process.

I write because I love the process of discovering a character's story. I love bringing actors in to the sphere to bring my characters to life. I love hearing what a director thinks and can bring out of my work. I love hearing an audience, how ever large or small, react to my words. While I sincerely hope to have plays produced and win a Tony someday - just as I am shooting for that 100 miles in September - I have learned the hard lesson that to do something only for that goal is absurd. The 100 miles is meaningful only if I'm having fun doing it. That's not to say I won't still hate the hills sometimes, or hate it when I am trying to write and can't seem to find the right line, but I have promised myself that I will only continue to write as long as it is bringing me joy in the balance.

For all of you who are attempting a career of some sort in the arts, I challenge you to go for the joy. If that joy also comes with lots of jobs and productions and external measures of success, that is fantastic. But if it doesn't, at least you will know you haven't just been spinning your wheels.
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