Last night while drinking champagne and eating crackers with soft cheese and slices of fresh tomato (topped with ground salt and black pepper), my friend Tonia and I got to chatting about bell-ringers and how they manage to stop those giant bells from tolling past the designated number on any given hour. (Do you know how they do it?)
Creatively inspired by the champagne and the lateness of the hour, we came up with all kinds of theories, ranging from shoving some kind of giant feather duster up in between the clapper* and the inside of the bell, to having a second bell-ringer whose job it was to catch hold of the bell as it swung and then hold it there (perilously, in our imaginings, tilting over the edge of a bell-tower while holding back a giant brass bell with all their apparently-considerable strength). I have my suspicions that our theories would not hold water in a peer-reviewed study, but they filled our evening with laughter.
And somewhere in the midst of all this my brain, probably once again influenced by the champagne and the late night, made the leap from creative theorising on bell-ringers to creative inspiration in general to Quasimodo and the way jobs that were once intensely private (like bell-ringers in Notre Dame) were now as open to the world as anyone else (thanks to the Internet and in particular social media) to the way many artists are now using this phenomenon to practise in public and build a tribe or community of like-minded supporters around them (these thoughts followed one another in the space of about five seconds, by the way)... to oh yes! I am teaching a course about this! Let's talk about practising in public on the blog!
Which brings us to the present.
Most of the time when I work with clients, teach my Create With Confidence course, or even teach my Beautiful Letter course, we focus on what is going on for the person on the inside, on the challenges and joys that make up a person's creative life.
At some point, though, most people begin to look outward, to what needs to happen when they want to share their creative work, or promote their creative work, or even sell their creative work. But to do this, they need to get comfortable with the idea of other people seeing their creations... and even with others seeing their creations before they are absolutely perfect. Eep!
This can bring up all sorts of fears and insecurities, but I think it is important that, if we ever plan to share our work with the public, we get used to sharing it before we deem it perfect.
Why? Because if you wait until your creations are perfect, you might never share them. After all, even great and successful artists often cringe at their work:
- In 1908, Monet destroyed at least 15 of his major works just before they were due to be exhibited in the Durand-Ruel gallery
- Franz Kafka burned 90 percent of his writings and instructed in his Will that the rest was to be burned unread. The only reason we have Kafka's works today is because his friend ignored his wishes
- Billy Joel said of his 1989 hit We Didn’t Start the Fire that “That melody is horrendous. It’s like a mosquito droning. It’s one of the worst melodies I’ve ever written.”
- Woody Allen hated his classic movie Manhattan so much that he begged United Artists not to release it, and even offered to do another movie for free just to stop it from being released
- Harper Lee tossed the manuscript for one of the world's most beloved novels, To Kill a Mockingbird, out the window
- I once read that Picasso had been banned from certain galleries for trying to ‘fix’ his own paintings
The only reason we have these great works today is because the artists ultimately shared their work, despite their misgivings. (Even Kafka refrained from burning that final 10 percent of his work).
One of the best ways to get comfortable with sharing your work before it is 'perfect' is to start by practising in public, so that's where I like to start, too...
Most performers understand the art of practising in public really well. No musician quietly practises vocals and guitar in the privacy of their bedroom for years, only to emerge one day ready to take the band on tour and perform for crowds of thousands. Normally, they practise a few songs and when the songs don't suck, they get a gig: something like Uncle Norm and Aunty Glennis' 60th wedding anniversary, or a high school parade. Bit by bit, they do more of these "friends and family" gigs, learning more songs and improving their skills and understanding how to perform to a group (rather than the mirror).
Over time, maybe they get some gigs at local pubs and RSL clubs. The regulars come to know them, and know their songs. Maybe the musician tries out some of their own music at these gigs, alongside the well-known classics. They learn which songs connect and which ones don't, and tweak their compositions when they see they're losing people's attention. Bit by bit the gigs improve: some corporate hotel work here to pay the bills; a support act for a friend who is launching an album there; playing or singing backup for a more established singer now to pay more of the bills...
By the time most of the musicians we have heard of "make it," they have been practising in public for five or ten years, or more.
I read an article recently that said, "The creative impulse fundamentally involves connecting with other people, even if we don’t recognize it."
My husband often asks me about this. I sometimes write the most niche of stuff. A magical realism novella about an old man? A book about snail mail? I am well aware that the books I write are not mass market or even mediocre market sellers. "So why bother at all?" my husband asks me. "Just write for yourself." And I reply, "Because I want to share."
This is what Jeff Goins, the author of Real Artists Don't Starve, has to say about the need to share (and the ickiness of self promotion):
"We all need our work to resonate with someone; our art needs an audience. The way the Starving Artist attempts this is by working in private, secretly hoping to be discovered some day. She spurns the need for an audience and chooses to suffer for her work instead, holding out for that lucky moment when someone stumbles upon her genius. The Thriving Artist, on the other hand, chooses a different path: she shares her work by practising in public. Not by being sleazy or self-promotional but by letting people simply watch her work."
In other words, by practising in public. Here's why I think we should put our work out there:
It's an act of generosity
Sharing your work in public before it is 'perfect' is an act of generosity. Instead of presenting yourself to the world as the answer to your particular niche, you share your journey and your progress, which is an open invitation for them to share theirs, as well.
You'll find a community
This means that practising in public is also a way to find like-minded friends, building around you a community of people who feel personally invested in your work, and who genuinely want you to succeed. It's by sharing that you will find people who can provide aid, advice, encouragement and support on your creative journey.
Your community is cheering you on, asking when you'll share the next thing you made, asking how you achieved that particular technique, sharing their own work, and sharing their own techniques. When you practise your work in public in this way, your generosity attracts the kind of camaraderie that is usually found in a workshop or class.
You'll hone your abilities
It's not just the sharing of your work in public that is important, it's the practising. At the same time that you are attracting this community, this audience who cares about what you are sharing, practising in public is also enabling you to hone your abilities.
"It's not just the fact that she did her work in public that made [her success] happen," Goins said of cartoonist Stephanie Halligan. "It's that she practised, gradually getting better and allowing her audience to see that progress." (Halligan shares the story of how practising in public turned into a global platform and a full-time job, here).
Your confidence will grow
The more you share in public, the more confident you will be. Like the musician who first started out at their aunty's and uncle's wedding anniversary: that first 'gig' was probably terrifying! But I'm willing to bet it got easier over time. This will be the case for you, too.
If you struggle with motivation or staying the path, practising in public is a wonderful way to hold yourself accountable.
If you commit to a 100-day challenge all by yourself, it won't be easy to stay the course when the going gets tough or life gets busy. But if you make an announcement in public that you have committed to this 100-day challenge, and if you share the results of that challenge every day for 100 days, people will cheer you on, and they will be watching for you, and rooting for you, and holding you (gently) accountable to keep going.
* I had to look up 'clapper.' Now my Google history shows "what is the name of the donging bit in a bell?" I wonder what the aliens would think about us if they read our Google histories.