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Coming Back to the Conversation: Art Through Repetition

I’m a perfectionist by nature and that has been a big stumbling block when it’s come to creating art. The finished product in my head doesn’t always line up with what I’m able to create on the page. Once I identified that it was holding me back a lot in my writing, it became something I’ve been trying to let go of. It’s a work in progress but something I’ll likely always be struggling with.

One of the ways that I’ve been working on this is through questioning the pushback I get from my brain telling me something isn’t good enough. Why isn’t it good enough? What’s preventing me from completing this idea or piece of art? When you ask enough questions, you run out of reasons and excuses. The perfectionist in you reverts back to saying, “it’s not perfect, that’s why we can’t finish this”. That’s where you need to be able to say, “so what?” to that part of you.

The trick is to have the perfectionist part of your brain run out of arguments.

It was in doing this little charade that I came up against an argument that I wasn’t prepared for: you’ve already used this idea, you’ve already written that. It caught me off guard. Nobody wants to be the artist that runs out of ideas and has to start repeating outfits, so to speak. Nobody wants to read something that’s pretty similar to that other thing, right? I let the perfectionist win that round. I didn’t write the story.

But did it win? I thought a lot about it after that night and I realized I have subconsciously avoided creating anything using an idea I’ve already used before. Of course, I’ve written pieces about similar themes and subjects but as a general rule, I have never given myself permission to write about something more than once. I was always of the mindset of trying to find something new to say, a way to dive deeper into a different area. I was restricting my writing in a lot of ways without even realizing it.

And when you think about it? That’s really silly. Who says I can’t write about ghosts a million times? There’s a lot to say about ghosts. In fact, it makes sense to come back and revisit something you’ve talked about or painted or created in the past because it allows you to build on it with the new skills and new experiences you’ve acquired since you made it the first time. It gives you credibility.

Coming back to the conversation lets you pick up where you’ve left off to improve, expand and discover. Remember, you’re not the same person you were when you originally created the piece. You’re coming at it from a different angle, a different perspective.

There are a lot of successful artists and writers out there who became famous for doing the same thing over and over again. Art via repetition. Van Gogh and his sunflowers. Shakespeare and his sonnets. Monet and his water lilies. There are countless examples of this. They all returned to a subject that was familiar to them because they decided they had more to say. Another perspective to offer. And each time, they were able to try something new with it. They were able to experiment and get creative with a subject they had already exhausted.

Sometimes you need to work through all the mud in order to dive deeper into the lake. Sometimes you need to get all of the ideas out of your head and onto paper before you can push past them and really find something new and interesting in it to share.

The other thing revisiting ideas does is it creates breadcrumbs, a thread throughout your work. I was reading a collection of Louise Gl├╝ck’s poetry recently. The collection spans over 50 years and in it, you see her write about a lot of similar themes. She picks up an idea, she speaks to it, she sets it down. Later, she picks up that same idea or a similar one and offers something new. She revisits memories, love, loss again and again, calling back and making reference to things she’s talked about before. She’s telling a story and every time she picks up the conversation, she continues that story. If I wasn’t reading her body of work, I may never have picked up on that but what it did is it humanized her. I was able to see the breadcrumbs, the references to events in her life that she has talked about before. And that creates a human connection. When you write about something multiple times, you’re letting the reader in. We often write to try and resolve, understand or make peace with things that happen in our lives and when you repeat a theme or a subject in your work, you’re saying, “I don’t have this all figured out yet, let me try again.” We as humans, love to see ourselves in other people and it’s important to see that they also struggle with letting things go.

Maybe I’m alone in needing to give myself permission to return to the same subject but I don’t think so. I think as artists, we’re aware and fixated more than ever on what people will think about what we create. We live in a world where we have the ability to share work immediately after it has been created.

We often don’t have the time or don’t give ourselves the time to revisit a piece and recreate it or make it better before the rest of the world sees it so there’s a pressure on us to get it right the first time.

And once it’s been shared? It didn’t occur to me at least, that I should go back and revisit it sometime.

My argument in all of this is that there is a lot of value in repeating themes or subjects in your artwork. It allows you to dive down deeper and explore the subject more thoroughly and push your art past what is expected. And on a more personal side, it gives you the opportunity to come to terms with emotions you’ve been wrestling with for a while. There’s that opportunity for resolution. What’s more, it builds a sense of trust with your audience. By doing similar things over and over again, you become the guy who can write descriptions of dragons really well or the painter who can do beautiful paintings of wild roses. You become known for something and people begin to recognize your “style” or “specialty”. An audience wants to know who you are and witnessing you pick up the conversation again and again, lets them be a part of the story.

Is there a time in your life or a subject you keep returning to again and again? How do you continue the conversation?

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