We all crave safety. It seems somehow “better”. If we fall, something will catch us and we’ll be ok. You’d think that would make us a little more willing to take risks, but perhaps it has another effect entirely.
This evening, the backspace key on my laptop literally, finally wore out. Kaput! It is impossible to repair, save replacing it with a new one. That tells me that I backspace more than anything else I type and that when I do, I put some force into my backspacing. All the other keys are still functional, after all. I am, evidently, putting a lot of time, energy and effort into rubbing out what I just wrote, correcting it or just compensating for having my fingers in knots.
Maybe it’s a good thing that the backspace key is no more. I find that I am typing with more care. I am making my keystrokes count. Paradoxically, I am making fewer errors. I am trying very hard not to have to use the safety net. There is no doubt that I feel more inhibited, but also like I am thinking more and rushing less. It also reveals to me that I need to put more work into learning to touch type better.
There are so many things in life that are safety nets, which begin to mask other things that, if you were aware of them, you could work on improving and hence improve the quality of what you do. The pencil eraser is a contributor to uncertainty of line and hesitancy, not to mention sheer indecision. If you can rub it out, what does it matter where you make your mark, right? Except that it matters crucially, whether or not you can rub out what you just drew.
Autocorrect and spell checkers stop you from having to learn to spell. Calculators more or less eliminated mental arithmetic in a single generation. People don’t even remember telephone numbers anymore. When the power goes off, nobody can pay for their groceries anymore, because there are no price tags on the items in the trolley and nobody that could add them up, with pencil and paper, anyway. The more we try to play it safe, the more we lose some of our key faculties and skills. Is that really better?
It’s for this reason that I very seldom revisit a canvas and I don’t think I have ever painted over one. I want my decisions to stand, for all time (or as long as the paintings last), so that I bother to take care with my brush strokes, my line work and my choice of colours. It’s the same with guitar building. You make a guitar knowing that, in all likelihood, it will outlive you and you won’t be around to make excuses for any flaws in the design or workmanship. When you build things to last, you build them especially well, if for no other reason than to protect your reputation, posthumously.
It might be good for us all, occasionally, to try to make our art without our usual safety nets. Take the training wheels off. Let daddy release his grip on the seat. Certainly that will concentrate the mind and sharpen your dexterity. Playing in front of a live audience is a little like that, as is letting somebody read your first draft. You have to apply yourself fully to the task, with constant and unwavering focus. Your lapses in concentration will be immediately obvious and your work will be the poorer for it.
It’s worth thinking about the crutches and aids that we might lean on a little too heavily. If you are a guitar player, it might be that rich, distorted sound you always use, or the swirling chorus effect. Turn it off. Try to make a great tone with a clean setting. If you have a favourite paint brush, try using the one you can never get along with. No good with watercolours? Paint in watercolours. Can’t write unless you have peace and quiet in your cosy study? Write a chapter on a crowded bus.
There are loads of opportunities to extend and stretch ourselves, improving our skills and capabilities in the process, simply by setting up a challenge for ourselves, by walking the tightrope of artistic expression without our usual, comfortable safety nets. Sure we might fall, but we also might fly.
Complacency is, after all, the enemy of excellence.