When is quitting not failing?

Like every sucker out there (yes, that means you too) I bought into certain beliefs without even being fully aware of it. I thing that is what is called enculturation but indoctrination might also suffice. One such belief is that you finish what you start.

Or: I am not a quitter.

Except that I am. And not because I am subconsciously procrastinating but because I choose to give up.

Mixed media painting of a coastal landscape with a cliff face and clouds
Gerhi Janse van Vuuren, “Aestus” (Tide), 2016, mixed media on paper, 20 x 24.5 cm

There was a time when I was not a quitter. My first degree is a Bachelor’s degree. A licence to study anything you find interesting. In my first year I did Political Science and Criminology and Sociology and Psychology and Economics. In the second year I had to limit my options and I chose Sociology and Psychology. But then for the heck of it I added in Cultural History and Information Sciences (Not computers but library systems). But in my second year I hit the wall of not being really interested in any of these subjects anymore (especially not my majors Psychology and Sociology).

Ideally I would have liked to turn back to year one where I had an open choice and could choose anything I wanted to. But that is not the way things are done, so I didn’t.

I wasn’t a quitter and so I forced myself through the funk and came out on the other side with a degree in subjects I had no inclination to look at again for at least another decade.

I have hit that same wall again a number of times since. And more recently I have been quitting rather than sticking through with whatever I have lost interest in.
Which gives you, of course, Guilt (yes, with a capital ‘G’).

Because there is a whole belief system that the only people who are successful are people who do not quit.


Aren’t I working with my own definition of success?

I should be, shouldn’t I? Because I can’t work on anybody else’s definition because I am not them. And if in my definition quitting is not a failure then there should be no shame or guilt involved and I can continue to quit stuff with abandon.

Like now, at this moment, I have an academic paper riding me (To be honest it is more past tense now because I already quit that jockey). It is haunting my like a lost banshee wailing in the night. And even though it would not be a very big job it is not something I want to spend my energy on. But right now I do not want to finish the paper.

But why? Because I lost interest in the paper. I have not just lost interest, I detest any idea of picking it up and finishing it. Not that I never will. Who knows what can happen ten years from now.

Sometimes it is easy to see when a thing will be finished. If you start a play you know there is going to be a rehearsal process; and a performance; and then an end; and then you are done with it. Which, if you think about it, means the thing has a deadline. And what I did not realise with this paper is that I missed the deadline.

So, how did I get landed with this indigestible paper on my plate?

Last year I found out that the SAVAH (South African Association for Visual Art Historians) conference would be held in Pietermartizburg. It was at a time when I felt that I needed to get out and connect with people and places from my past and having spent seven years in ‘Maritzburg surely qualified.

So I cobbled together and idea for a paper, mailed it off and forgot about it. I was past deadline and I really didn’t care if it was accepted or not. But then it was and I had to write a paper. Which was a bummer because I think I write better proposals that papers and so I delayed writing it until the week before the conference when I again cobbled together something.

This I presented at the conference and thereby dispensed with my obligation and the ruse under which I got myself out of the house for a whole weekend and moving in circles where I don’t normally move.

What I know now was that that was the deadline. My deadline.

Except that now the paper needs submission. Which is an interesting quirk of academic papers in that they are presented at conferences but only submitted later (much later). Except there is nothing in it for me to submit the paper.

I will not get any points for it. Maybe some teaching PD points but who cares, I will already get that for the conference. My job is not dependent on it, nor my salary. I will not get a qualification, sponsorship or anything else from completing the paper. And more than that, I learned what I wanted to learn from the tiny scrap of theory that was in my paper. I will not learn more by finishing the paper and anyway; my ideas and thinking have moved on since I presented it.I have moved on.

By the by the paper took a stance against the limited theoretical focus in teaching art to grade 12 students and the effect of that on the artist-teacher. It sounds much more interesting stated like that.

What I should have done was to prepare a more complete paper before presenting it at conference. In fact, when the ideas for the paper was hot I had to write and finish it then and there. Then I would have presented it at conference, tweaked a sentence or two, and then submitted it because the conference was MY true deadline.

And I met my deadline, I got from the paper and the conference everything I wanted to get out of it, and more. My more knowing now that I can quit this now because quitting does not make me a failure. Quitting just means I am done when I say I’m done.

I’m done.

Okay, not quite. I have added a second painting, “Aestus”, to my shop. Yes, that is the one pictured above. Because I haven’t quit painting yet. Nor trying to foist it of onto somebody.

Some thoughts on finishing a painting

There are a number of things that are striking to me in the completion of “Emanation”. Let me start with the last, which is the title.

The day I finished the painting I took a picture and placed it on Facebook. Here I celebrated me finishing a painting (which seem to happen less frequently than what I plan for) and then asked for suggestions on a title. I was then thinking about something such as “Beating about the Bush”.

Oil on canvas painting Emanation by Gerhi Janse van Vuuren showing a man hidden by some foliage.
Gerhi Janse van Vuuren, Emanation, oil on canvas, 2016

My idea was shot down and suggestions and responses focused on things such as emergence, or the opposite of emergence. This led me to thinking and typically I went to a Thesaurus and then ended up with the title “Emanation”.

This means something issuing from a source. But it also means: “a being or force which is a manifestation of God”. How is that for a kick-ass meaning to a work.

What I also really enjoyed about the interaction about the work on Facebook was the interaction. I am used to putting things out there and getting dead silence in return. This time it was different and I found the experience, and the responses from people, uplifting. What more can I say, I know some great people.

In the painting of the work I of course went through a series of revisions. When don’t I?

The painting started of as a failed canvas by a student I don’t know. It was a leftover in the storeroom when I took over teaching art at Michael Mount Waldorf School in 2013.

I first started painting some aphorisms on the canvas with the idea of putting it up in the classroom as inspiration. That quickly felt corny and I couldn’t figure out what to do with the image part of the painting. The canvas lingered for two years in the storeroom until this year when I started with the idea of doing minimalist paintings. The canvas was repainted with just a textured surface.

Next I tried going extremely minimalist with some kind of landscape element but that felt old very quickly and I reverted to something more figurative. Drawing on my personal history and interests, especially of the San Fransisco Bay Area figurative artists, I quickly sketched in two figures and improvised some vegetation. In the painting the second figure disappeared while the picture galloped to completion. On the day I finished the painting I said to myself that I could fiddle around for it for another couple of months, or I could not beat around the bush and get it finished. So I did, and I also had an idea for title, which was then scrapped as you saw.

The painting is now finished and available for purchase. I might have to check it over this week just to see if there is a glaze to even out but nothing significant will change.

I don’t have dimension yet because the painting is at school and I am home but I will remedy that come Thursday. Nor do I have a price yet or have I put it in my shop. Mainly because I only just started the shop and I am still trying it out but also because I don’t know yet. But if there are any interest drop me a line and I will reserve it right away.

And then talking about the shop. I am trying it out and have one product in there so far. My painting “Praenomen” from 2015. This one you can order through the shop so I can know the system works. I don’t have any widgets to test it with.

The next step into the beyond

As my first half century on this planet is drawing to a close I am increasingly thinking about a different way of being in the world. So far the modes I have received as common sense or practical wisdom has not brought me to satisfying outcomes.

My basic orientation to the world is in an artistic sense, being that I tend to see options and avenues where none may exist, or even be needed. Yet the expectation is that the correct approach is one of single focus, staying the course actions and results driven decisions.

I want there to be another way. A way that does not lead me to create art that may be though provoking and aesthetically satisfying but mostly irrelevant for any practical purposes. Nor to a way of work and business and teaching and work that is devoid of play and beauty and inventions and complicated solutions that tease out difficulties rather than offer of shrink-wrapped solutions.

What I want to have in art and living, and by extension then, work and business and teaching is a creative approach. In a creative process, a way in which art is developed, there is an open conversation which moves from being just that open conversation—wandering about nearly aimless—to the discovery of options and avenues that may solve problems you may not even have been aware of at the beginning of the process.

Business, as I perceive it, attempts to go through a very logical and linear process to solve problems with minimal waste and highest efficiency. Business is aimed at getting the job done, and in that can becomes boring and soulless.
The wasteful excess of creative exploration might just be more effective—though never more efficient—in keeping business alive, playful and vibrant.

In the same way all other processes and products and offers and strategies of the business need to be approached in an artistic manner. Because I think that it is a better way to engage with the world than merely on the basis of economic expediency.

I would like to do life in the same way that I do art. Because I have been preventing myself from the full development of any part of my teaching and learning and being in the world in that I have shied away from the creative excesses of an open conversation with the world. Because these creative excesses are frowned upon. Because they are unpredictable and difficult to make to work. Because they are not the way things are done.

If I get involved in any endeavour I want to be involved as an artist. Meaning that I will act with the manners and modes and maddening ways of an artist, looking for the best solutions for whatever needs doing next. Which will mean that I will go down paths that are not fruitful. Which means that I will make mistakes and create grotesque and deformed things that have no practical use. But it also will mean that I will remain open to the possibilities that anything might come to me differently than what I or anybody else might expect. And that either way I will go beyond the basic needs and take the next step into the unknown beyond.

Something not so old, something not so new

In the past I would have considered myself a failure. Last week I started a sequence of posts which I called Slow Writing posts, ostensibly to record a process of daily writing practice which I would continue with indefinitely.

This comes from a process I went through re-evaluating my current values after coming across Emilie Wapnick’s idea of multipotentialites and further reading on the idea of non-specialisation. Though I am normally happy with competence when I tackle a field the value of mastery has become increasingly important to me. Mastery of exactly what remains elusive however, though my first stab at it for this year was at fiction writing.

School started this week and the summer holiday ended leading to both a break in the writing process and the blog series. This is now resulting in a shift in both perspective and focus. Yesterday the question was just, how do I continue the process when I have missed a day or two? Today my attention has shifted to a complete new interest on the intersection between real life and art. This makes a fictional story about exploding chickens seem quite irrelevant.

But how do I deal with my lack of commitment. Which is how I would have typified my behaviour as just a couple of months ago.

Think of it like riding waves with a boogie board. Sometimes you take wave from deep and ride it all the way out onto the beach. Sometimes you miss the wave and it leaves you behind and sometimes you get thrown head over heels.

What you don’t do then is to go look for that wave that left you behind or pummelled you around. Because that wave has come and gone. No, you just go back out and find the new wave.

For me that is what I am doing now, going out and finding a new wave. Asking what tickles my interest at this moment. And for that I have to go to an article I read today called Artists and Supermarket Tycoons.

“We want to simultaneously raise the ambition of artists: to make their ideals powerful in our lives – and of business: to serve us better. The two ambitions are ultimately very closely related.”

What caught me about the article was highlighted by the call for papers for the SAVAH 2016 conference with the theme Rethinking Art History and Visual Culture in a Contemporary Context (I received a reminder for the call for papers yesterday).

18th Century Ethnography, currently being revisited and reversed
18th Century Ethnography, currently being revisited and reversed

With that I am keen to submit a proposal for a paper that takes the thesis of Artists and Supermarket Tycoons and apply it to a current South African context. But before I can work on that proposal I feel that I have an obligation to finish and submit my paper for last years conference proceedings. And I fear that that wave may have come and gone.

With school that again fills the bigger part of my day I have a load of commitments ahead of me. I have a guardian class, which brings with it a whole load of responsibility as well as new ways to engage with being a teacher. I am involved in a class 11 play, which will require me utilising and honing my theatrical skills.

Alongside this I have my subject teaching which requires continued engagement, development and refining, especially since every new group of students bring their own challenges to deal with.

Just these challenges should be enough to keep me very occupied. Except that I have also committed to help my wife Petro with Playing Mantis, which is going into a new phase of development (but more about that later).

And then my kids are also growing up, becoming both more independent and more demanding at the same time. After school activities are becoming a standard feature of our school week.

It is a good thing then that I know my own efficacy and productivity is directly and inversely related to the amount of work I have on my plate. Though I seemingly fear and detest being overworked, I tend to do more and better work when I have more to do. While when I have nothing much to do and all the free time in the world, I tend to get nothing much done at all.

Which brings me almost to the end of a post which seems to be very much self centred. Except that what entices me about almost everything that I have on my to do list, and my current selection of interests, is that almost none of them relate to my own ideas, needs or opinions. All of them work through me (what else do I have to work through?) but only makes sense in the relationships with other people.

And I must admit that that, more than anything else, is a new thing for me.

Slow Writing: Day 6

I would have been happy with fifty words tonight. Just over seventy would have taken me past a thousand word total. Effectively it has taken me a week to do one decent writing session, if you consider a thousand words decent. At only ten minutes at a time that means I have written more than a thousand words in just one hour. And it only took me six days to complete.

Just imagine what I could do if I did this full time?

Wait I know the answer to that question. Less. Because doing this full time I get bored out of my mind, and then stressed about not making progress. Or something like that.

Fiction Writing Stats:

  • Words today: 123
  • Total for the month: 1049

Slow Writing: Day 4

The other day my wife and sons discussed an unlikely situation while we were in the car. It was about a boy whose super power was that he would blow up when he got excited. Except that after he blew up he would still be fine. Illogical and super cool and it led to much speculation.

I must admit that I am stealing a bit from that discussion for the piece I am writing at the moment. It is great to have a wildly creative family.

It came to 180 words tonight. In ten minutes. It depends on how much I have to correct in cycling back. There is a piece that I am not getting clear yet. I know what I want to get across but it still feels muddled. A couple or more passes over it and it should straighten itself out.

Well, four days of writing a bit every day. From here on it will become much harder to sustain.

Fiction Writing Stats:

  • Words today: 180
  • Total for the month: 823

Slow Writing: Day 3

I think it is much better to start slowly. I have tried before to set the bar high. Thirty short stories in a month. Two thousand words in a day. Famous by the time I am twenty-five.

Those kind of high goals don’t work. I am trying a Confucian thing. At least I think it is Confucius. I have to read him one day to make sure everything attributed to the poor guy was possibly said by him. But not now. The Confucian thing is, that it is not how fast you go but rather that you never stop. Or that you have to make progress and slow is better than nothing. Or something of the sort.

Anyway. Still only ten minutes today. But a better word count.

Fiction Writing Stats:

  • Words today: 205
  • Total for the month: 643

Slow Writing: Day 2

I am keeping my expectations very low. Only ten minutes of writing tonight. Less new words than yesterday because I cycled back and made small corrections and alterations to what I already wrote. I have to get up very early tomorrow morning so this is it for today.

Fiction Writing Stats:

  • Words today: 149
  • Total for the month: 438