Set Your Art on Fire

As scary as it seems, sometimes we need to take our current work and trash it. Just such an experience happened to me recently and has given me pause to consider the value of trashing art rather than forging forward.

The current work in question is a novel with an already well-critiqued and polished opening set of chapters. Yet as I delved further into the story, I realized that most of the setup I’d done would lead the reader in the wrong directions. They would think certain elements were important when in fact they were there only for my own convenience.

So in truth, much of these pages I’d labored over for months didn’t need to be there at all. It was just a way to work out the plot and character dynamics. 

Yet it’s hard to let all that sweat and toil go.

Since I live in Southern California, the threat of wildfires is constant. A spark will quickly blaze across the landscape, turning everything in its path to charcoal. Except, the chaparral country thrives on this sort of conflagration. Only by burning away the surface layer can new growth happen. Many plant species regenerate after a fire. In fact sometimes the fire can enhance germination. 

Not that I’m endorsing the constant yearly burn that seems to be occurring in my neck of the woods. It’s more a metaphor for our own artistic ambitions. 

Sometimes our view of what we work on (how we arrange a song, the types of drawings we produce, that novel that’s chugging along) gets cluttered up with surface vegetation. We lose track of the true reason behind the work. Our path forward becomes obscured and we rely on instinct or sheer inertia to guide us. 

I often think of this inertia as a strong wind blowing me forward. Many times when I sit down to work, I’m thankful for this breeze as I can relax and let the flow of the work carry me forward. 

Anyone from Southern California knows that the winds can switch direction. Down here we call them Santa Ana’s and they blow from the east across the dry desert. This is why our fire season coincides with these easternly gusts. 

As an artist we need to evaluate what’s happening when the normal inertial flow of our work is disrupted. Is this a symptom of writer’s block (or artist’s block). Or something more substantial. 

Perhaps it’s a sign that we are working in the wrong direction. There are some times we should let the winds gust in our face. Let that single spark burn down everything you thought you knew about your work. It might be the only way to really move forward.

Just like with real wildfires, there’s a danger of having too many burns. If you keep restarting your work, you’ll never reach any sort of conclusion. 

You have to be the judge. Stay constantly vigilant of what you create and be open to change when it’s needed. 

Sometimes you need to stay the course and trudge forward into the oncoming winds. 

Sometimes you need to let it all burn. 

Tim Kane

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