BUT is it any good? How to assess your own creative work
It can be really hard to make stuff – but once you’ve got started, how can you assess your own creative work? Is it any good?
We all want to make meaningful art, so in this video I explain how I work out which songs to share, and when it’s time to go back to the drawing board…via a storytime segment about my solo career so far. I bet you don’t know the full story contained within!!!
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BUT is it any good? | How to assess your own creative work
It can be really hard to make the thing you want to make – whether that’s a song, a painting, a film, a handmade mandolin, a carved sculpture of a bear or your very own clothing line.
But once you *have* made some stuff, how do you know if it’s any good?
I’m Penfriend, but my pen friends call me Laura. This video was inspired by a question I received last week from Stephen, who asked me: “How can we properly assess our own work?”
This is such a great question, and it really got me thinking back to my earliest days of gathering together my own songs and starting to share them on the internet.
South London, 2009. I’m renting a draughty maisonette in Herne Hill, a short walk from Brockwell Park. I’ve lived here for a year now with my Miniature Schnauzer puppy Mister Benji, and every morning we look for sticks in the grass. The house is ok…the windows don’t close and I can hear mice scurrying about under the floorboards, but the big draw is the cheap rent and the extra space – I’ve got a dedicated studio room for the first time ever. It’s cramped, it’s messy, but it’s mine, and the walls are painted turquoise – my favourite colour.
I started writing my own songs aged 15, as part of my GCSE music course. They were well-meant, but categorically terrible. It’s fine, we all have to start somewhere.
At the time, I’m just excited to have written something…anything! I love Sheryl Crow, Belly, Blur, Radiohead, Alanis Morrisette and Garbage. Soon I’ll get into Lush, Elastica, The Wonder Stuff, Sleeper, Longpigs and Echobelly. I soak in all the music, savouring it, excited to strike out on my own one day soon and live an exciting, glamorous life like the people in those songs.
I form a band at school, and I join another when that one ends, but it takes me a few more years to start trying to write my own material again. I decide I don’t want to live out that Elastica lyric : “I’ve got a lot of songs, but they’re all in my head”. I’m bored of talking about doing stuff – I want to actually do stuff!
It’s a slow process, but I start capturing my ideas. I fill notebooks with words that mostly make me cringe, and highlight any words or passages that don’t. I fill Minidiscs and teeny Dictaphone cassette tapes with roughly played guitar ideas, most of which I never listen to again.
In 2005, I hear Cat Power’s album “What Would The Community Think” and Carina Round’s album “The Disconnection” on the same day and my mind is blown. I start writing songs in earnest, and learning to demo them in my shared flat above a cafe. During the day, music blasts up through my bedroom floor, making the wood laminate vibrate. In the evenings, I can work as late as I want.
I’m writing things, and sometimes I like what I write, but something’s missing. I don’t know exactly where I’m trying to go, but I know I’m not there yet.
Later that year, heartbroken, I write and record two songs back to back – “ghostsandshadows” and “I Am”. They’re the first songs I’ve written about real events, and there’s something different about them: a resonance, a feeling, a punch in the gut. I don’t play them to anybody else, but I can feel it. I realise what’s been missing.
Back in 2009, I’ve been invited to take part in a community art project called The Apollo Project. Some local artists take over an old video rental shop and turn it into a welcoming space, putting on a programme of events from storytelling performances to writing workshops to gigs to crazy golf.
I’m the “Musician In Shop”, and it’s the push I need to create my first ever musical release. I pick three songs from my burgeoning ideas library, and I finish them. I record them in my messy turquoise room, burn CD-Rs sitting crosslegged on the floor of the shop and package them in DVD cases to fit the video rental theme.
Apart from sticking a couple of old demos on MySpace, this is the first time I’ve shared my recorded music with the world. My first, incredibly DIY, official release.
I’m so proud to have something to hold in my hands, to send in the post to the strangers who buy it from my brand new Bandcamp page. I name it “Three…Two…One…”, but I can’t possibly know where this lift-off is going to take me.
Today, I’m sitting in a much tidier turquoise room, whose name should now make more sense to you: The Launchpad. The place where ideas are encouraged, incubated and nurtured towards lift-off.
So, how do you know if your work is good?
Two words leap out at me from my own story: comparison and resonance.
Now, when I say comparison, I don’t mean with other people, but with yourself. I didn’t know whether my songs were good until I’d written a lot of bits of songs, and some complete songs, and could compare them to each other. When I wrote that first song for GCSE music, I don’t remember thinking that it sucked, I was just really delighted to have written anything. But only by writing more songs could I start to journey towards where I really wanted to be.
Ira Glass from the podcast This American Life famously talked about the gap between our taste, and the work we’re able to make depending on our current capabilities: we want to make things because we have good taste, but our work disappoints us to start with, because we haven’t developed our skills yet.
He says to “Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions…It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through”.
Resonance is something I think about all the time when I’m making new work. To be something I want to share one day, a song has to make me feel something very deeply either when I’m writing it or when I’m listening back. Those two songs I wrote in the dark days after my breakup in 2005 really showed me the way forward and started me on the path towards making my first full length album “Disarm” at the end of 2009.
Again, I hadn’t shared my work online before making my first EP, and I hadn’t played very many gigs either, so I had no real audience feedback to consider, and I had to go with my gut instincts. I’m really glad of that, actually, because not caring about what someone else *might* think meant that I was free to make exactly the music I wanted, and starting my solo career that way was the best thing I could have done. If I couldn’t fully stand behind my work, I wouldn’t have been able to start trying to grow an audience for my music, and I don’t think I’d be telling you my story today.
Only you can really know whether what you’ve made is good, because the act of making stuff is an attempt to turn ideas into reality. They’re your ideas, so it’s up to you to decide whether this particular song, painting, photograph or sculpture conveys your idea in the way you want it to. If not, make another one, and then another one. For me, the joy of creation is in the time I spend making the thing, because as soon as it’s finished…I’m excited about the next one.
Speaking of which, I’m uploading new videos about the creative process, mindful productivity and digital minimalism every Saturday – so please click subscribe to join me again in future and check out the links in the description box for some free music and special offers.
If you’re finding it hard to get started with your creative ideas at the moment, check out my video on how to slay your Inner Critic here, and I’ve got a very practical 5 steps to achieve any goal video here.
You can explore my back catalogue of albums here, and my new album “Exotic Monsters” is here.
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