This is the second in a series of posts on what I can think of as the most useful information on becoming a voice actor/voice over artist/person who gets paid to talk into a microphone. This post focuses on understanding the creative process better, in order to build tools and avoid mental traps in a field that asks a lot of you creatively.
Now, these posts come with a huge caveat. They’re what’s worked for me, and that may not work for you. And it’s the best advice I have right now, so next Thursday I may have an epiphany that throws half of what I know out the window. But if I do have that epiphany, I promise to share it with you.
Also, it’s worth noting that writing these kind of posts, there’s a real danger that I end up sounding like I’m coming down from the mountain, holy tablets in hand and that I have this all figured out. That I’m presenting a very carefully articulated self image sans dirty laundry.
Just as creativity is a cyclical process, so is understanding and managing this stuff. I’ve realised that I just spent the last three days procrastinating about getting a second opinion on some sound quality before I record an audiobook, because I was afraid of looking foolish. And when you defeat the obvious procrastination, it levels up, and looks deceptively like work that just happens to keep you away from what you’re holding off.
So I’m not perfect, by any means. But I’ve spent a number of years travelling down cul-de-sacs I might be able to help you avoid, and I spend a large chunk of my waking time thinking about this stuff and getting advice from people far smarter than I, so maybe there’s something in all of that that might be useful for you.
The Post Proper, And The Creative Process
With all of that out of the way, this post is going to be a little briefer than the last, but we’re still not getting in front of a microphone yet.
Last time around we talked about building systems. This time around we’re going to talk about a system someone else put in your head: the creative process. And why are we talking about all of this? Because understanding the creative process better, and where you’re headed, along with what’s going on in your own head, can save you years of self-sabotage. You’ve got enough going on already without tricksy belief systems and hard-to-spot negative habits getting in your way.
A chunk of what I’m talking about here came from thinking I wanted to be a writer When I Grew Up, and dabbling in long form fiction and screenwriting. Eventually I ran off to join the voice over circus instead, realising I preferred to use other people’s well-crafted words. But from that experience, there is a lot of great advice out there for writers that I’ve kept as tremendously valuable.
Writers like the incredibly talented and prodigious Chuck Wendig produce incredible amounts of content for writers learning the trade as well as an enviable body of work. And a large portion of this advice isn’t specific to writing only – it’s for people Making Stuff, and dealing with all the inner monologues and turmoil that can entail. And one of the biggest pieces of advice I’ve found is…
Enjoy the Process of Getting Better
That phrasing comes straight from Crispin Freeman, whose voice acting masterypodcast I cannot recommend enough, and it’s a wonderful concept that shut down so much wasteful inner monologue the moment I heard it. I’m going to link to Crispin Freeman a few times in these posts, because he creates an amazing wealth of information for voice actors that is freely available.
Going back to enjoying getting better, this great video putting an artistic spin on a brief monologue by Ira Glass hits the problem right on the head.
We start in a creative field with defined, immaculate tastes. We know what we love, what resonates with us. And we know what we like about that stuff. But when we set to creating stuff ourselves, it feels like playing piano wearing boxing gloves. Our results are ham-handed and clumsy, and have nothing of what we love in them.
If you see your initial attempts as the best you’re ever likely to create, you get disheartened, or horrified quickly and stop right then and there, weeping over the fact that you will never be as good as the people who inspired you in the first place.
But you need to remember that your creative development is an ongoing thing. Rocky didn’t start the movie able to take down Apollo Creed, and the creators you love didn’t start out doing the amazing stuff that drew you to them. They went through a long process you can likely only see closer to the end, by looking at the examples of their work that are accessible. Robin Williams and Wil Wheaton are both great examples of actors who reinvented themselves through stages best summarised as “And then I bust my ass for five years training in acting classes“.
You’re in your training montage. And that’s such a liberating shift of perspective. Once you acknowledge that you’re not going to be immediately brilliant, you can shut down that inner fear response whenever you get in front of a microphone, and throw yourself at just playing and making stuff. Because making stuff continually is what gets you better. And if you can shut down the procrastination traps, which typically come from fear of some sort, then all that energy pouring into beating yourself up can go to making so much more stuff instead. Of getting your crappy first draft of something together because you were able to quieten that internal critic, and just explore what’s going on with a particular space.
Of course you’re not going to be making the kinds of things you love right from the start, silly rabbit. So you consciously acknowledge that, and instead of beating yourself up, you take pleasure in the gradual process of growth. Give yourself a mental high-five in those moments where you recognise that you’ve learned something, or taken a step forward.
And in ten or twenty years time, ultimately the process is not going to be different. You’ll have improved so much that chances are you can’t recognise your earlier work and current as being from the same person, but you’ll still have daily creative challenges to meet. Starting the habit of enjoying that process of improvement now means you’ll have a much better time of it all, as well. And be more pleasant to work with.
Muses Are Optional
One of the best books you can read on making stuff is “On Writing” by Stephen King. His output speaks for itself before you’ve even cracked the cover; if you’re going to read a book by someone on making things, a writer who has come from humble beginnings to be one of the most prodigious and successful writers around is a good pick.
The core of “On Writing”, for my two cents, is that there is nothing inherently magical about the process of making stuff. The most important part is not waiting for inspiration from on high, but getting stuck into the process, regularly. With grit.
In fact, the whole idea of grit itself is worth having a read on. There’s a number of books discussing it as a distinguisher between people who are talented, and people who are successful. While artistic ability is absolutely necessary, business acumen and hustle (in the baseball sense, not the con artist sense) are also critical if you’re looking to have an artistic career.
It’s unlikely that you’ll be discovered by someone willing to cart you in a divan off to be developed as the Next Big Thing. Much more likely that you’re going to get at least part of the way there by your own hard work, and that person ‘discovering’ you will bump into you at the right time when you’re ready.
Another big thing to figure out is how to keep the creative tanks full, and move toward working patterns that are sustainable. And by that I mean creating a regular schedule of work that doesn’t leave you wanting to jab a pen in your hand.
One of the big ones here is extrinsic versus intrinsic reward. If you’re doing all of this (the big picture) because you love the warm fuzzies that come from putting something out there and getting positive feedback, then you may have a problem. This is not to say that people loving your stuff is a bad thing; not at all. But if that’s the core reason that gets you out of bed in the morning, then you’re going to have problems sustaining that.
Because first of all, it’s dependent on other people. If you’re not visible to them, you don’t get the juice you need. Second of all, it’s dependent on their tastes. You’ll automatically lean toward whatever gets the most positive feedback; self-correcting for your audience’s tastes. You need to become the Wolverine of creativity. If someone air-dropped you into the Arctic cold, you’d be self-sufficient and self-sustaining because you’re working off intrinsic reward. Now, that’s not to say that having peers headed in the same direction isn’t valuable. In fact, quite the opposite. But that initial spark – the locus of what gets you moving – needs to be inside YOU.
And that’s really what’s at the heart of a few of the previous points. Removing the magic behind creating, becoming kinder on yourself so you can create without judging yourself too early or too harshly, and developing a sense of what is good in your work based on your own excellent tastes that got you equipped for this long, amazing journey in the first place.
Another big part of the creative process is consuming. Consuming a lot of what you love to make. It was such an eye-opener for me to realise that most authors I knew were rabid readers, and that combing through material and finding ideas you love is such a common part of the creative process. Being inspired by clever, strong, authentic choices. Of course, there’s a distinct difference between this and plagiarism, but the exchange of ideas, for example between directors like Akira Kurosawa and Sergio Leone, has given me some of the pieces of art I enjoy the most, and none of that conversation feels like hollow imitation.
If you dig commercial voice over, then ad breaks are your friend now. Or sit on YouTube and get served up a steady diet of ads. If it’s animation you dig, sit down to a Netflix buffet of cartoons. If video games, then Let’s Play videos might well be your thing. You get the idea.
Creativity and Happiness
Now, this is one point that is likely to be incredibly subjective, but it feels dishonest to not include it as part of the discussion. Creativity and following your passion isn’t automatically going to make you happy, at least not in the sugar plums and rainbows sense that we think of happiness. By shifting direction to embrace the thing that makes you most complete, you’re not automatically going to be insanely cheerful every day. And I think that’s a good thing, because it leaves you open to the full spectrum of emotion in life.
Chuck Wendig nailed this so brilliantly and so concisely at GenreCon 2013 about what motivates him to write, especially on the hard days given that he’s dealing with raising a two year old son at the same time. And for him, it boils down to the difference between happiness and satisfaction. Slacking off and watching TV or playing video games might feel good in the moment and make him happy, but that feeling fades and is eventually replaced with guilt. It’s the fast food feel good. Whereas knuckling down and writing may feel a LOT like work on those days, but afterwards there’s a satisfaction that’s much more long-lasting.
That’s been my personal experience. In fact, I’ve gotten addicted to that feeling of satisfaction, because it comes with a forge-fired, durable feeling of purpose, and that’s put me into a virtuous circle of working harder at getting where I want to be. But I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m measurably happier than I was eight or ten years ago. I’ve definitely lost that nagging background panic that I’m wasting my time here on Earth though.
So you may find this entire post a little woo-woo, but the core of all of this is shifting to an intrinsic motivation to make your work much more sustainable, and your cycles of creativity less volatile. By studying how creatives in other fields manage their work and careers, you can find invaluable approaches you can adapt to your own work. Agonize less. Do more. Analyze more. Consume more.
Next time around, we’ll FINALLY be talking about how to be a better voice actor.