As a creative person, how do you know you are doing good work?
This week I watched a good training video about how to direct actors in an audio story. But at the end of the session, the audio drama director giving the talk, asked an existential question for all of us watching, how do you know if what you are doing is a good work?
I thought about writing something down for her, thinking about it over a couple of days, and while in the shower (where a lot of good thinking happens!) I thought to myself: sometimes I feel happy when I am listening to my own work. This week I’ve been making a cassette version of one of my bigger audio stories, and so I’m repetitively re-listening to it, monitoring each copy as it goes to tape. And while listening there are certain sections which I suddenly feel excited by, surprised to hear how well the music blends in with the spoken word.
And I thought of how it is similar to the audio meter we are watching when making the actual recording to make sure it isn’t too loud or too soft. Happiness is a similar thing: it tells us when we are having a good experience — in this case that I am enjoying something about my work.
On the other hand, there may also be sections that I feel unhappy with; that it didn’t turn out the way I hoped it would, or there is some weak aspect of the production — and this I can use for next time, as a guide to what I want to improve on.
This seems to partly answer the question, that we all have a kind of personal meter for how we feel if a work is good or not. And though it may not completely be objective in the ‘real world’ of production, I would say that it is a pretty good guide for our own personal part of the journey.
The other indicators I guess of whether a work is good or not, is feedback from other people, peers and colleagues.
But how many times have you watched a documentary, or listened to a podcast, where a successful person is telling their life story, and they mention that their teachers at school thought they were dumb? Or closer to home, have you ever had a time when you showed a close friend or family member your work, and their look of disinterest made you want to stick it back in a drawer forever?
I wouldn’t say that this is always a good indicator of whether your work is good or not. Sometimes, showing someone something at the wrong time, crushes your spirit, and inhibits your natural progress. You wouldn’t tell a kid that painting isn’t as good as Kadinsky. But give him thirty years, and he might come near to being as good. Feedback from family and friends only tells you how they feel about it; and their own personal feelings about you are bound up in their response. (They might be feeling annoyed that you still don’t have a proper job!)
The next guide might be whether an audience likes it or not. We are all stuck with the so-called ‘markets’ — the painful vocab of a goal-oriented society; and the demoralizing question that goes with it: is someone willing to pay for what we make? Maybe not just with money, but with their time?
But I would also say this is not a good indicator of whether a work is good or not. How many people enjoy a TV show like Married at First Sight? It has all the right ingredients that makes us want to watch it: love and sex, heroes and villains, conflict and reconciliation, under-dogs and dark-horses, etc.
But does that make it a good work?
Some commercial radio stations are hosted by people who make you laugh with a dick joke, or get you angry enough about the ‘nanny-state’ to burn down parliament house: they have a very strong effect on their often very large audience. But does this indicate they are doing good work?
Almost all creative people want to find an audience for their work; it almost goes without saying. And if they are lucky enough, it will be an audience big enough to pay them a living, to focus on their work full-time. But to do this, you often need to appeal to the largest common denominator of interest in a society. True crime, crime fiction, the news, any kind of eroticism, cook books, biographies of famous people, anything about sport, popular science books, etc. These are all things that a majority of people like.
But there seems to be a kind of universal truth to all areas of creativity, that the moment a creative person starts toning down what naturally comes out of them, in order to get more people interested, then the actual quality of the work suffers. So following what an audience values in a society — what catches their interest — can inadvertently lead you away from doing ‘good work’.
Following on from this idea, is another guiding principal to whether a work is good or not, which might be how important the topic or area of focus is to you. Sometimes, you are championing an idea or a cause that has been with you all of your life. A parent might’ve had a disability when you were growing up, and without even realizing it, it is something you’ve wanted to communicate to others about, as it is important to you.
It might not be an easy topic to write or make a creative work about, but one day, you can suddenly see how it might become a good story – and you commit it to paper. It may not be successful with a large audience, but it is still a ‘good work’, as it is something you’ve been able to share with others, and the ‘good’ in it, is also part of your personal growth and healing.
On the flipside, when you are working on something you don’t care about – maybe it is someone else’s project – and you feel resentful, angry, or hyper-critical about the work — then this is like getting a reading at the other end of the audio meter that something is wrong. Maybe you need the money or the project had some kind of prestige or opportunity attached to it. But at the end of the day it is not going to turn out to be a good work because your feelings about it are not right. It doesn’t ‘resonate’ with who you are — if anything, it resonates against you.
To me, you are doing good work when you add something to the world that doesn’t already exist. This often happens with film music: a composer like Gustav Holst discovers a new texture of sound and puts it into a work like The Planets. And then a film composer can see how it might convey a mood of science-fiction, championing and replicating Holst’s technique as a new form of movie language. And then the wider audience becomes familiar with it too, by watching the movie and absorbing it in a cinematic atmosphere: a new sound texture enters the world, expanding the fabric of communication for all of us.
Writers like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett also did this with a new type of character, when they inadvertently established the modern detective story. They managed to pull out of the universe a new archetype: the gum-shoe detective . . . Philip Marlowe-Sam Spade . . . and once this type of character was out there in print, it became a kind of no-brainer for telling a particular type of story about gritty city life used regularly in everything from Magnum PI to Blade Runner.
I believe a good work also avoids duplicating what already exists. Duplication is when you copy something that is successful, hoping to share in its success. Duplication is not the same thing as inspiration. Often, people are inspired by something they read when they were young, and later in life, they recreate this inspiration in their own work. Someone may have read Lord of the Rings, and then one day, they write their own book about a journey through a fantasy land. If the person is good enough, they will try not to copy that original work, but find a way to capture the feeling they experienced with it in a new form. The journey might instead be through a dream, or an expedition to another planet, but with the author’s own personality and ideas attached to it.
I feel you only have so many opportunities in life to tell a good story — I mean that mainly in terms of life-span but also access to story-telling resources — so you have to make sure that it is a story that really matters to you.
And that’s why I think this ‘happiness meter’ is very important to a creative person. It helps to tell us if we are working on something special, or not.