Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Conscious Incompetence

The two pieces I posted the other day are notable for two reasons.

- because they were the fulfillment of the high water mark I set myself at the beginning of the semester and constitue the first (stumbling) steps I took toward figuring out paint handling for myself.
- because the two months I took to finish them (well... there was a month of fractured pelvis in there, too) led almost immediately into the most intense wave of conscious incompetence I've ever experienced.

Conscious incompetence is this: that lurching shift of perspective, after which you suddenly come to the realization that what you've been doing is nothing but bad (which is an overreaction) - but you're pretty sure you know not only which mountain you now have to climb, but also possibly how.

As I'm sure no one will be shocked to learn, I'm able to articulate this because of an essay Elizabeth Bear wrote, in which she named the process The Suck. It's worth the read.

For those frightened by the word 'essay', here's the bones of it:
"Supposedly, we go through four stages in learning a new skill--unconscious incompetence (where we aren't any good but we don't know we aren't any good, and don't have any idea how to get better); conscious incompetence (where we kind of know we suck, and we kind of know how to improve); conscious competence (where we know what we're doing, more or less, and we know how to do it); and unconscious competence (where we have internalized the lesson and do it automatically).

"'s the first part of the mechanic of the Suck, or the plateau. It requires that the artist have recognized, consciously or not, that she could be doing something better. It's conscious incompetence."
Reading this was like a lightbulb going off. Before, I didn't know why I hated my two best paintings with a passion I usually reserved for deep moral affronts - I just knew I did. I could, in fact, barely look at Blood and Iron, even though I could identify actively successful elements in it every time I forced myself not to turn away with a huff. It was painful and frustrating and bled into my process, culminating with a really stunning prolonged hissy fit over the new piece I had started painting by that point.

I was in a pattern I'd observed in myself before: tantrums of greater or lesser drama and patheticness tended to presage a noticeable upswing in my art. And suddenly, I got the first inklings of why.

It's simple, in the end: It's the painful emergence from a place of comfort into a place of struggle, and casting off old assumptions is always hard - especially when they're lovely assumptions about the quality of my own art. It sucks, because realizing that what I'm doing Is Not Good Enough is usually crushing (to greater or lesser degrees of the word) and it's hard to pull oneself out of the self-pity and frustration and carry on. More Elizabeth Bear:
"Anyway, somewhere in here, the Suck first hit. I realized that my stories weren't working, that I wasn't writing well, and in fact what happened was that they looked worse than they had before. Not because they were worse, but because my brain had identified was that they could be better, but I was still writing at the same level. I had moved, in other words, from unconscious incompetence, to conscious incompetence."
She's talking abut her writing, but I could take that paragraph and replace all of the key writerly nouns and verbs with arty nouns and verbs and tell you about my life. I have a friend who gives me the same 'I am only tolerating this conversation because I love you' look every time I trashtalk these two paintings, because I came down so hard on them (and myself) when The Suck first hit and I didn't understand it enough to compensate. I very nearly scrapped what turned out to be a turning-point painting because of it - but:
"...that brings us to the next stage of evolution of the writer: conscious competence. This is the point where the plateau breaks, and suddenly, one is writing better, and one knows it. (I suspect this applies to other arts as well.)"
It does. I finished that painting I nearly scrapped, and it wound up being the best thing I'd ever painted by such a margin that my professor advised me to scrap the rest of my portfolio and start from that painting as a baseline. Since then, I've completed two more at or above that level, meaning that wasn't a random spike.

I feel like I have my feet under me for the first time - which is what I've said at the end of each Suck Plateau for the past year and a half. Which is the beauty of the whole thing, really.
"And the trick is, the Suck never really stops. You get a breakthrough, you get off a plateau, but then the back brain is happy enough to hand up another complex of things you could be doing better, and a whole fresh wave of Suck starts. And it doesn't actually mean you're writing worse, but it fells like you are writing worse, because the things that you were aware of doing well before--"hey, I figured out this characterization thing, go me!"--have receded to the level of unconscious competence, so you are no longer aware of doing them well.

"Because that's just baseline now, and it probably could be better. But it doesn't suck as much as this one thing right here.

" one improves, one's standards of incompetence come to embrace things that others would consider competent. Because one learns the difference between serviceable and elegant.
"It never stops, unless you stop improving. But you can become inured. Even somewhat Zen about the whole thing."
Hopefully, I will never stop improving, but being a little more Zen about the process would be nice. That was one hell of a hissy fit I threw, after all.

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