Dealing with Creative Frustration

Improv Short Film shoot
Actors Heather Rodriguez and Joshua Willis, with camera operator Ben Edwards

Last weekend I made a short film. The whole thing was improvised; all we had when we started was a location and three actors. There were moments of standing around as we talked, and I tried not to get too stressed. It was a new experience, making up a story on the fly, and I felt like I needed to give answers quickly—something I don’t normally do. Thinking about it later, I realized another part of my anxiousness was because there was something I was reaching for that I couldn’t think fast enough to grasp.

I have that feeling often. An image doesn’t look quite right, or a sentence doesn’t ring with the right note. I know the right thing—the best thing—is out there but it dances just out of sight. I feel frustrated that I can’t catch it. But I reach and I reach, fingers ever empty, heart ever hungry. Because I know it’s there. I see it in films by Paul Greengrass, Rian Johnson, David O. Russell, and Terrence Mallick. I read it in books by Brandon Sanderson, Stephen Lawhead, Kenneth Oppel, and Christine Fletcher. There! my mind screams, as I try to drink it in, as I try to digest what I have seen or read or heard, and felt. There is where I want to be!

Ira Glass calls this desire the Gap—the distance between my current skill and my taste.

When I saw this video for the first time, it gave words to what I was reaching for. Processing it again now, I think there are two aspects to the desire to be “There”:

  • The desire keeps us reaching. The great artists I love became great because they didn’t stop reaching to be better, nor did they stop stretching themselves. They expanded their ideas of what was possible by looking at great work and then tried to do the same with their own projects. Like Ira said, they were willing to put in hours and months and years—and now we all see the payoff. For myself, I am encouraged that some day I will get there. It probably won’t be the next book I write, or the next film I direct, but if I keep reaching one day I will be “There”.
  • The desire can become unthankfulness. When I look at the work of great artists, it is so easy to fall into the trap of comparison. It’s easy to think that I could never measure up to that. When that thought comes, I start to wonder if I really am an artist, if maybe I should think of a plan B career. I start to focus on what I’m not, rather than appreciated what I am able to do. I can also lose sight of the fact that every great artist I love was once in my position, reaching for something their skill didn’t yet match.

So I think I need to walk my artist’s journey with patience and thankfulness clasped between my hands. When I’m frustrated that my skill isn’t reaching my taste, I need to remind myself that it’s possible to close that gap if I just keep learning and making. When lifting my eyes up to the greatness of the works around me I need to not judge myself inadequate by comparison, but rather see it as encouragement that I can grow through time and dedication.

Clarification: What I wrote about here has nothing to do with the people I worked with. They all were fantastic and I really enjoyed working with them. The frustration is with myself, in reaching for something that I can’t yet attain. But hopefully with practice I’ll be able to grow and close the gap between my taste and my skill.

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2 thoughts on “Dealing with Creative Frustration

  1. Katherine Boone

    This post is really insightful and encouraging.

    “When lifting my eyes up to the greatness of the works around me I need to not judge myself inadequate by comparison, but rather see it as encouragement that I can grow through time and dedication.”

    Thanks for writing the post!

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