My Old Friend Dissatisfaction
Q – One of my favorite quotes about the personal perseverance and tenacity that are required to live a life devoted to the work of creative endeavor is from Ellen Burstyn, when she was on the TV Show Inside the Actors’ Studio: “Divine dissatisfaction inspires you to go on … self destructive criticism stops you from creating.” As someone who has devoted his life to the (hard) work that is required to make a living based on the outcome of a creative process, what is your reaction to this? Does it resonate with you?
A – Ahh…divine dissatisfaction…my old friend…good to see you.
I’ve always been the stubborn sort. Even as a kid, I had a streak of resistance and independence a mile long. Like a lot of artists, I was born with that instinctive iconoclast spirit that makes a person question everything and dig in for the long haul when they feel someone trying to pony them in a certain direction. Stubbornness has it’s charms, I suppose, from a distance, but not so much at the kitchen table if you know what I mean.
For a lot of years I was working towards the place I now find myself – a touring musician, with an audience, writing and recording my songs, making [and sometimes scratching] a living from from the pieces I assembled and the skills I honed. For most of those years I was told I couldn’t and shouldn’t sing, that I had no sense of pitch and that I had tin ears. The thing is, the people telling me that were right. I did have tin ears, no sense of pitch and I couldn’t sing. What nobody in this world knows about you though is how hard you are willing to work and how hard you are willing to fight for something you want. It took a long time but I found my voice.
The line between self criticism and self consciousness that stops you in your tracks, and the healthy skepticism we should all have about our work and abilities, is as thin as Kardashian talent. It’s a difficult and complicated thing to read and decipher. When am I confronting the flaws in my work, and when am I simply beating myself down from self loathing or fear of putting the work out in front of people? Tough call.
It’s a muscle you have to develop in the same way you develop an instinct for language and a sense of what part of your work is your best work. Divine dissatisfaction is the desire and drive to get it right. It’s the part of you that puts the song first. Divine dissatisfaction is the part of you that won’t let you use a clever line if it pulls the listeners ear away from the narrative or interrupts the natural sense of language or the legitimacy of the narrator. Divine dissatisfaction is the artist’s vigilant conscience at work, always steering you towards the truest and most honest expression. Divine dissatisfaction is what tells you “the phrasing goes like this…it skips a beat every other line because that catches the ear better…”
Self destructive criticism is the voice that wants you to stop, the voice that wants you to let go of an idea because it might be flawed or you might fail to bring it to full fruition. Self destructive criticism wants you to tear it down and divine dissatisfaction wants you to build something beautiful. One of these voices gives you gasoline and the other is a dry tank. As artists we are all free to choose which voice to listen to. I believe we all hear both.
The only question is which voice are you going to listen to? One will get your work in front of people and the other will get you a bag of Doritos and another episode of Matlock.