I’ve been thinking a lot lately about focus in artmaking. More and more, it seems to me that in order to make great art – of whatever kind – you have to achieve a balance in side projects and distractions.
A lot of the great achievers I read about – artists, scientists, whoever – seem to have a singular, ardent devotion to their vocation of choice. They just so deeply love the work that nothing can stop them from making more and more of it. They’re addicted. And so they naturally acquire those 10,000 hours you’re supposed to need in order to achieve mastery of something.
In the past year or so, I’ve stopped playing drums in a band I was in (Sam Cooper & the Sleepwalkers – their new drummer is awesome, and you should check out the ton of free songs they have online); stopped stage managing as many shows as I previously had been; have not gone to auditions as much; have dropped out of performing Rocky Horror downtown. But at the same time, I’ve also joined a social club or two; have started this very blog; have produced a reading of new plays; have just recently joined the Project Gym; and just this past month acted in a production of The Lion in Winter.
It’s been a series of trade-offs, each one largely leading me to pursuits that take less time overall than the ones I used to do, and are closer to the heart of my main artistic pursuit, playwriting. I have more time to devote to playwriting than I did two years ago (stage managing and the band especially were time-eaters), but clearly I haven’t made myself into a hermit monk playwright. I’d say that I average maybe 3-4 chances a week to sit and write for a few hours, of which I end up using maybe 2 of those chances to actually write. (Video games, friends and Internet eat the others.)
I’m not certain whether I am at the magic number; whether I should give up more, or take on more. After all, there are benefits to doing more than just writing writing writing all the time. Working on other projects keeps me sane, gives me fresh ideas, and keeps me connected with a community that can help me realize my work once I’m done drafting it in the quiet of my bedroom. But at the same time, multiple focuses do not add up to the sum of their parts.
Doing 10 hours of stage managing in a week +10 hours of music + 10 hours of blogging + 10 hours of writing doesn’t seem to equal 40 hours of art. It seems to equal, I don’t know, 20. There’s some amount of “startup cost” in time-currency for every single session, in every single week – the cost of sitting down and gathering materials, of sharpening and re-engaging skills, even the cost of reacquiring the inspiration each and every time, of finding and maintaining the groove.
Therefore, there are economies of personal scale involved with devoting a greater amount of time to a single artistic pursuit. It seems to me that, while those 4 separate instances of 10 hours apiece within a week add up to only 20 hours of artistic creation total, by contrast, 5 hours of blogging + 5 hours of assisting a production + 30 hours of writing = 50 hours’ worth of art. The more I write, the more productive each individual writing-hour becomes.
I could fling myself into every available project possible – and there is plenty that I want to do – but the results would be considerably less in quality AND quantity than if I focused on a main pursuit, with some side distractions for variety, inspiration and sanity. I want to write plays, fiction, film, TV, comics, video games, essays, music, and more… in the course of my life, but I think more and more than I can achieve that better by pursuing first one, and then the other, and then the other – rather than trying to do everything at once. (For now: drama first, fiction a distant second, everything else on the back burner.)
So I guess this is a public challenge to myself – and to anyone who reads this and feels the same way – to cast aside the thoughts like, “What if that random side project is The One? That sounds so much fun! What if I’m missing out? I can’t say no!” Don’t build seven castles at once. Finish one, and you will have someplace to go home to, out of the rain, while building the others.