by Jessie Lynn McMains
Sometimes, I want to do bad things.
This is not a confession of nefarious plots or dirty thoughts.
Maybe I should rephrase it.
Sometimes, I want to allow myself to be bad at things. I want to let myself make crappy stuff. I want to let myself just make the absolute ugliest painting, to play an out-of-tune guitar and sing a song with my voice cracking on the high notes, to write a poem and not care if it’s not the Best Poem Ever Written.
I reject the mindset that anyone needs to have a formal education in order to make art, or that one need’s anyone else’s permission. I reject that idea that everything even an established artist creates needs to be immediately—or ever—ready for public consumption, or that it needs to be perfect for the maker to put it out into the world. I reject that mindset for other people, at least. It’s difficult to give myself the same permission.
For me, it’s hardest with writing. Since the literary arts are what I am most known for, and since I sometimes make money from them, it’s difficult to let myself just write. To let myself say yeah, screw it, I’m writing this, instead of sitting down at the page or screen and being afraid to soil it with my sub-par scrawlings. Hard not to feel like it’s worthless if it doesn’t come out flawless, instantly. (The myth of the Artist as rarified conduit for the Muses rears its ugly head, again.)
With this blog post, for instance—I so badly want to write something beautiful and profound, or at least informative and entertaining. I’m on draft four or five right now, and I have crossed out entire paragraphs only to write basically the same damn paragraph all over again.
But even with visual art and music, which at this point in my life I do mostly for fun, not for money…
I’ll never quit any of it, because I have a burning need to create. I’ll never quit, but I often struggle to start. So I find ways to trick myself.
With any kind of art, before I approach the canvas or page or instrument, I remind myself that no one ever needs to see or hear it if I don’t want them to. It can be secret forever. I don’t have to show it in a gallery or perform it on a stage or record it or send it to a lit mag or print it in a zine; I don’t have to post it on social media or even share it with my best friend. I also remind myself that if I do ultimately want to share it, I can edit or alter it as much as I want prior to that.
With visual art, I try working in styles and mediums I’ve never worked in before, or not worked in much. It’s harder to be a perfectionist when I’m so unfamiliar with a medium or style I don’t even know what it’s ‘supposed to’ look like. Or I impose deadlines on myself. (The Sketchbook Project has been great for that—if I spend too much time worrying if every page is perfect, I’ll never fill all the pages by the August 31st deadline). Sometimes I set a timer; give myself ten minutes to finish a sketchbook page, or thirty minutes to complete a larger canvas. Or I limit myself to only certain materials—I grab a handful of pens and rubber stamps, or random collage scraps and a glue stick, and make a piece using only those materials.
For music, well, I don’t have much. I’m not very confident in my musical abilities. But if I get the itch to bang out a tune, I remind myself of what my old pal Liam once said: “I’m so glad that the world makes me so sad that all I have to do is sing a song and then I feel better again.”
For art, music, writing, anything, a change of scenery can make a world of difference. Even if I can’t go anywhere to create (something I’ve struggled to do since having kids that has been made every harder since the pandemic started), I’ll sit out on my back patio. Or take my sketchbook, notebook, or tablet to a different room in the house than the one I normally create in. I set all my materials up on my bed, or I hang out in the basement for a while. I’m typing this at the dining room table. I don’t know why it helps, but it does.
With writing: I like writing first drafts by hand or on a typewriter. They’re both more tactile than a computer or tablet. They let me feel the words as they come out. And though I do cross or X out a lot of stuff, somehow crossing or X-ing out in a notebook or on a typewriter gets me in a better flow than doing the same thing on a computer. I have less of a tendency to delete entire lines and paragraphs, and less of a tendency to try and edit while I’m writing. But I don’t always have access to a typewriter. I only have two, and I keep them in my office (studio? study? whatever). It’s not like ye olde days, when I had several typewriters in my possession—one for every room in the house, plus a couple ‘portable’ models (in case you’re not a typewriter nerd like myself, let me tell you—even a portable typewriter is heavy) that I took with me on road trips or hauled down to the coffeeshop because I was just that Extra. But I’ve found a way around that—I use a typewriter app on my tablet. It gives me the look and sound of a typewriter and even lets me X things out rather than simply deleting them computer-style, and it fulfills the same need for me.
I write a lot of lists. Lists of everything I can see and hear in my backyard. Lists of imaginary band names. Lists of the loneliest sounds in the world, songs that make me cry, things I want to teach my children. Lists of lists I want to write.
I’ve been writing poems where I respond to articles I’ve read. I like to respond to serious news items in a silly or light-hearted way. I recently read an article about QAnon; I’m now working on a poem about conspiracy theories I’d rather believe in, all of which are made-up and totally ridiculous. Or I respond to less serious things in a serious way. I read an article a few months ago where Danzig complained that cancel culture killed punk rock, and I’m writing a poem addressing that as though his opinion even matters.
Sometimes I work with particular forms. I write a haiku, or a piece of micro-flash fiction, or a sonnet, or a ghazal. Constraining myself with form sometimes makes me feel less constrained when I write, in a way that’s like, well, it doesn’t matter if it’s ‘good’ or not, it only matters if it fits the form. Sometimes, I do the opposite—I give myself permission to put everything in. I start with one topic or idea but then I free-associate, add whatever I think of based on what’s already there. It’s not quite free-writing, in that often these are pieces I write only part of at one time and continue adding to as I think of more things, but it is freeing. I call it the ‘kitchen sink’ method. Put it all in. You can take it out later. Or not.
Making art, making music, writing, is work. But it’s also play. (All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.) Those are some things that help me stay playful. Sometimes I discover that something I thought was gonna be terrible is actually pretty rad, or at least has the kernel of something rad in it. Bad art is the fertilizer which helps good art grow. But even if it doesn’t—making something crappy doesn’t hurt anyone. Not even the person who made it.
Maybe some of these things will help you stay playful and have fun making bad art, too.
Being bad can feel so damn good.