From Dancing With the Gods: Reflections on Life and Art by Kent Nerburn:
"Our feelings about any work we create wax and wane. Some days we are filled with enthusiasm for it; other days it seems dull and lifeless. Some nights I will go to bed excited about what I left unfinished only to wake in the morning and find it insipid and incoherent. In the same fashion, I will discard a work as turgid and fragmentary, only to go back to it several months later and find beauty in it that leaves me wondering what it was that had caused me to discard it in the first place.
"We are often the worst judges of our own work. Either we see its deficiencies in high relief or we overestimate its capacity to express what we set out to reveal. We are too close to it and too invested in it to see its strengths and weaknesses.
"How are we to know if what we have done is good? The hard truth is that we can't. If you are the type of artist who values audience response or external success, perhaps those are viable measures. But if you are like most of us, you are harder on yourself than anyone else is. And you have not arrived at where you are by minimising your weaknesses. So you see your work poorly, if at all.
"What I would like to suggest is that if there is no reliable measure of quality, the is one internal reliable measure that you can still use as a guide. It is excellence.
"Excellence is a habit -- it is a mode of creating. It is fluid and it is malleable in its expression, but it is consistent in its intention. If you establish the habit of excellence in your work, it will always be there, no matter how distant you feel from that work or how flawed it felt in the act of creation.
"Excellence cannot be quantified and it is different for each person. It is where your character shines through your creation. It is your commitment, frozen in time and space. It is your spiritual signature on your work."
As you progress through your life, Nerburn goes on to say,
"you will discover that the works you create leave tracks. Though you do not work for a legacy, you create one. Your work becomes a history of your time on earth. It is like a string of pearls, formed of the works you have created or the performances you have given; a family of your artistic children. Not all came forth equal in form and grace. Some came into being more easily; some took on a life of their own more swiftly and with more certainty. But in the end they are all your legacy and your history, and your reason for having been here.
"It is easy to become focused on the more external aspects of our artistic efforts -- Will people like my work? Will it advance my career? -- or to get caught up in fruitless attempts to decide if our work has any inherent merit. But if you keep your eye always on the challenge of making every work excellent within the constraints that are placed on you, whether by deadlines, the shape of the project or your own capacity to achieve the ends you envision, you are setting and internal standard that is impervious to outside influence.
"When you reach the point in life's journey where you turn back and look on what you have done, what will matter is the way your spirit shone through the works you have created. You may blush at the naivety of some of them and you may be astonished at the sophistication of others. You may say, 'I wish I could do that one over,' or you may say, 'How did I do that? I could never do that again.' But what is important is that you are able to say that each one reflected the greatest excellence of which you were capable of at the time.
"Time changes our perspective. We find our aesthetics, our interests, and our skills have moved far from where we began. But excellence, since it is the highest expression of our creative capability, becomes our unique artistic signature. It shines through all our artistic endeavors and forms a luminous thread that unites them."
Words: The passage above is from Dancing With the Gods by Kent Nerburn (Canongate, 2018); all rights reserved by the author. Pictures: A quiet morning in my studio cabin on a green hillside in Devon. A related post: On fear of judgement (and pernicious perfectionism).