Tag Archive for 'inspiration'

Negative Inspiration

I can’t count the number of times that a lousy piece of choreography or film has inspired me. Part of this is Sturgeon’s Law: 90% of everything is crap. The corollary: 90% of what’s left is middling. Only one in a hundred things is any good at all. So it’s not really surprising that I’m inspired more often by works that fail, because there are just so damned many of them.

But there’s more to it than that. The inspiration provided by another artists’ failure is more specific and more useful than that provided by a success. I’m not saying that I prefer watching bad works to good; I am always, always, always on the side of the artist in their attempt to create good work. But where a masterpiece leaves me with a happy and excited, but also very general, belief in the worth of creative endeavour, a misbegot (yes, I’m nouning that adjective) leaves me with two specific things:

  1. A motivating anger at the waste, not of my time and attention (I gave it freely, or paid for the privilege of giving it), but of whatever was good in the work, whether it was the performers, the music, the technical crew, &c. I hate to see good work wasted, and seeing it done is an excellent prophylactic against doing it oneself.
  2. An understanding of exactly why the work failed. This sort of autopsy report is often very useful, because the secret of creating work is not to avoid mistakes, but to make novel and original ones.

A work that succeeds does so as a complete thing, as a gestalt, and is therefore very difficult to analyze: as Douglas Adams says, try to take a cat apart to see how it works, and what you’ve got is a non-working cat. That’s not to say that taking things apart is the only way to understand them, but I’m a hopelessly analytical thinker. A bad work, in contrast, is inherently an incomplete thing, less than the sum of its parts, which makes it much easier to see the joins.

More concisely, a work succeeds as a whole but fails in pieces. Watching those pieces—how they fall, what they’re made of, how someone tried to make them fit together—is a sometimes-depressing but always educational process. Learning from my own failures is a special, especially-depressing case of the above. The most reliable lesson I learn from a success is that it’s time to do something different.