Scott Woods: Hustle Was Killing My Craft. Then I Learned to Focus
Sometimes, you need to narrow your artistic endeavors to succeed.
I used to do many things. I do many things now, but back when I was young and the internet was not the distraction industry it is now, I used to tackle whole schools of disciplines. Music, deejaying, painting, poetry, screenplays … so many things. And all at once. I would compete in poetry slams one day and then release an electronica album the following week.
I didn’t spread myself across so many disciplines solely because I was fiercely driven to create. The truth was I needed something to break in my favor. I didn’t have any real direction in my life. I had a job, but no career. My skill sets were all over the place, with few of them at a level that warranted any attention. That actually worked out pretty well, since I loved learning how to do things (so long as I got to decide what the subjects would be) and didn’t mind that most of the rudimentary work generated along the way went unseen while I figured out a craft. So when I speak with painters or musicians or DJs, I’m not speaking from a place of curiosity, but experience. I lugged DJ crates onto the stage at the Ravari Room to work for food. I dabbed at still-wet paintings until the doors opened at an art exhibit opening. I know what comes after a power outage and you’re the cat playing a rack of synthesizers at a festival.
I never spent enough time in one place for the roots of my dreams to sink into the earth of the discipline required. I could never muster the skill to play the albums I recorded live because I had poetry slam practice that week. I never figured out how to paint the things I saw in my head because I chose to write poems for the next chapbook because I could at least sell a few chapbooks at somebody’s poetry reading. Much of that activity was driven by the same motivation that compels most artists, which is fear: fear of failure, or not being good enough. All seemingly reasonable conclusions in the moment, but ultimately lies.
One day I was so depressed over my many failures that I couldn’t stomach another morsel of humble pie. I slid the abacus beads of my many to-do lists and calculated all of the goals slipping away from me. Things had gotten to the point that I couldn’t blame audiences or venues or a lack of press anymore. The problem was me trying to be so many things, but only adequately so. Just enough to say I did them, but not well enough to claim any of the titles without an asterisk.
So I made a list of all the creative things I did and cut it by 50 percent. I told myself I would revisit the deleted crafts in a year. Except for rare instances, I didn’t pick any of them back up. So long painting. So long miniature building. So long music. So long deejaying. I don’t mind telling you that it was a rough day.
But it worked.
I’m as busy as I was then but I’ve tightened my creative aperture in reverse, only letting so much light out on my creative endeavors, which is a fancy way of saying I learned how to focus my energy on fewer things. And the wins came quick. I published more, and better stuff. I picked up more poetry gigs. I toured smarter. I got a few books done. And what hustling I did do, I was able to do on behalf of fewer things, which meant my developing audience had less to take in, and my friends were off the hook from supporting me every week to every other week.
Mind you, I’ve totally beefed up my to-do lists again, so I need to do some weeding. But all of the weeding is in the wheelhouse of what I’ve already been doing. It’s just variations of the skills I held on to. I hustle less and earn more. And at a point in my life where time is even more valuable than it has ever been, I can’t wait to figure out how to apply it even deeper.
Scott Woods is a poet, cultural critic, essayist and founder of the arts nonprofit Streetlight Guild.