I know a thing about craftsmanship, I know too much about hunger, but I’ll tell you one thing about mastery –– it’s that I know nothing.
This article is purely a personal story.
I’ve always loved observing people who are good at what they do or do well in the field of their choosing. They rarely hesitate, even at the moment they define as “having doubts” or being “not sure about it”, they’re pouring into their focus. But you know what I love more? Masters in their element. People who are exceptionally good at the thing they’ve nailed for no matter how long, and they’ve become one with their work. Observing them submerged in their craft is a different type of atmosphere. It’s more than watching a sports game with two top-tier teams of the season. Even then, it’s unfair to compare it to anything. Personally, observing the masters at work is a thrill that sends a chill down my spine. Like watching a beast having a grand feast. Because it begs me questions like “Is it innate talent? Is it a skill they’ve just picked up? Are they the universe’s favorite? Would it be fair to call them genius because of what they were born with when they’ve spent a lot of their time sharpening that skill?” and the million-dollar daydream,
“I wonder what it’s like to experience that kind of focus.”
I subconsciously dehumanized something that was rather very human.
A lot of my friends work in the creative industry, including myself. Some have sailed long, some have just taken off. They do one thing full-time, and another passion as a hobby. One creative can have multiple passions, which is not that new — rather natural. And when it comes to craftsmanship, there is this collective opinion that craftsmanship sharpens over time, because mastery is not tamed overnight. That rather makes sense, and I personally agree. There’s nothing instant in this world, other than your favorite pack of instant noodles or my favorite instant oatmeal brand. But every time I remember how long it took Hayao Miyazaki or Junji Ito to be where they are right now, it intimidates me. Malcolm Gladwell’s blockbuster book Outliers even rules it out as the 10,000-hour rule that “it takes 10,000 hours of intensive practice to achieve mastery of complex skills and material”. Craftsmanship and mastery have a long, tedious journey. Sometimes, you just want to be so good at what you do that it frustrates you, then you remember trials and errors will be a constant on the paths. Not to mention endless self-doubts, impostor syndrome, self-loathing, all that. But does that scare me? No, let me ask you.
Does it scare you?
I was constantly drawing when I was little. Scribbling to my heart’s content, mostly the cartoon characters from the series I used to watch, comic books I used to read. They were fun to draw. Until I wasn’t spending much time drawing because high school got its grip tight on me, I just shrugged it off because maybe “it was just an activity”. Just scribbling. Fast forward to university, I chose graphic design because it’s got all the things I love in one. The visuals, the verbals, storytelling. Perfect. But I wasn’t doing that much drawing back then either. I was just focusing on semesters, which didn’t ignite any design solution to have them properly drawn anyway. But on a sketchbook or a drawing pad, whenever and whatever I was drawing, they were fun to draw. Fast forward to 1 year down my full-time writer job after graduation, it was around October 2020 and the pandemic was much worse than it is today (at the time of writing, in Indonesia at least). I had nothing better to do, so you know what I did?
I started drawing again.
I picked up my drawing pad (a Wacom) and sketchbook. Having fun, scribbling away in my secluded little world. I drew my friends as fictional characters, different worlds, little comics, and even more fictional characters. Until the New Year came around. One of my New Years' Resolutions was to get an iPad.
“Huh… I kinda want to do more of this,” I thought.
They were crap drawings, obviously, (and you’re going to let me be my own critic on this so bear with me) but I noticed that the entire time I was drawing, I didn’t spend too long complaining. Of course, the impostor syndrome and doubts were there, but they never consumed. I got an iPad mid-2021, post office hours and on the weekends, I’d draw. It was fun. About 4 months later, my gut instinct told me if I do want to take it seriously and I don’t set a goal, there’s no way I can see how far I’d come. It would just be wasting time. So I came to one audacious, ambitious goal: I want to combine my crafts and create my own kind of novelty. I want to write and draw a fiction novel then serialize it. I started looking at world-building, character writing, drawing more. Since the pandemic wasn’t stopping, I continued the fun whilst working full-time as a writer. But this time, the fun was consuming.
One of my dear friends would scold me for drawing until late because I wasn’t aware of how much time had passed (If you’re reading this, I owe you one). Like any job, I’d get stuck. But with drawing, I pushed through, quicker. Over and over again. I had too many ideas I wanted to realize. If it was running, I wanted to go further even on difficult terrains, to the point that I didn’t mind getting my legs scratched from stumbling. All that kept on going until I was given a professional’s advice to take a break from drawing for a few weeks because I would draw for 6 hours straight without a proper break.
With that professional’s notice, it felt like I was catching my breath from a marathon I didn’t realize I had participated in. I couldn’t sleep if I didn’t finish my drawing. My WIPs (Work-in-progress) were like an itch. And pardon me for the exaggeration but it was killing me. I tried to shrug things off with the thought, “Maybe this is just me catching up on what I missed out on.” Or maybe I was fixated on it because it’s not a full-time job, and there are tendencies when the thing you love doing becomes a job, it’s not as appealing as they were when they were just a passion project. A few weeks after that notice following my minuscule hiatus, something else clicked, but it hadn’t dawned on me what it was. Until one evening.
That evening, said professional asked me two very simple, yet unnerving questions. Two questions that left my brain malfunctioned for probably 5 minutes, airing our conversation completely silent. It goes like this:
“Why do you want to draw so bad?”
“Because it makes me feel good.”
My assumption was that surely she didn’t look convinced with my answer, but I was persistent that I was telling the truth. And it *was* the truth. Or, I thought, maybe she was after a more solid basis my behavior was forming from.
“Let me rephrase that. Why does drawing feel good to you?”
That question broke my brain because all these years and the fun times I had from drawing, I never genuinely asked myself that. There were plenty of rationales and lots of ‘why not?’. Why does it feel good? Why would I be so consumed with getting my brush strokes right? Why is it so satisfying when I could think of what a character’s backstory could lead to? Why am I spending all those hours on something that is not even going to happen, given the ambitious goal? Why would someone be fixated on mastering something? Is it because they have to? Or because they want to, to their own satisfaction? Is it because they have a personal standard to keep up? Is it all just ancient desire? That 5 minutes felt dragged. My brain was like that one scene where Spongebob forgets his name and a bunch of Spongebob’s run in chaos with papers and desks on fire all over in his brain. It wasn’t until all those times I spent sitting on my office chair, at coffee shops, and in bed clicked.
“Because it makes me feel like I’m in absolute focus. It’s the only time I feel like I’m in my element. The only time I feel good about my craft, even when it’s a sh*t drawing.”
I never believe achievements in craftsmanship are driven purely by innate talent. It’s unfair for everyone, for people born with and without said talent, completely disregarding hard work. Passion? Passion or love wouldn’t suffice for thus far of a push. Then I realized, we grow and evolve further because of our cater to needs and much less because of our wants. Not that wants are not important, but when we want to, we could. Whereas when we need to, we have to.
It dawned on me that it was most likely hunger. Because hunger would drive anyone far enough to the point that there’s no need for self-doubt. I just need to fill this empty stomach. I remember thinking, “I don’t care if it’s a sh*t drawing. This drawing is not perfect but finished, I know where my mistakes are, and I will get better on the next canvas.” In hunger’s purpose, to be full is all there is.
Now, I’m far from being a “master” at drawing or visual storytelling, but this craving and thrill for improvement is something I never knew existed. The entire time I was drawing, I never thought of ‘failing’ nor ‘becoming crap at it’ let alone hating myself for always repeating a brushstroke. I never really minded all that, because I will do it as many times until it serves its purpose in the story I’m writing. Sure, maybe because it’s something I don’t pursue as a full-time job that there would be fewer expectations and pressure. It’s a possibility, but right now, what’s definite is that:
Hunger is a different type of focus that feels good. A focus that has a goal, and is pursued to be completed.
It’s a feel-good feeling, not in a way that gives me validation. It’s no longer about how I think of my work, it’s now more about how much I need to complete something — or how much I need to fill my empty stomach. Until I’m hungry again, I put in the work, and it fills me again. Similar to that constant feeding moment as living beings, because, automatically, we eat when we’re hungry. It’s the natural thing to do. This is the feel-good that makes me completely invisible because I don’t think about anything else but the drawing, looking past self-doubt, past wanting to be proven that I’m worthy of something. What’s crazy is that invisibility goes way past the drawing medium as catharsis. But what’s crazier is that, now that I know what that hunger gives me, I would kill for that invisibility.
I want more. I wish I had all the time in the world to draw my story. But there’s no time for a wish. There’s only time to draw.
It’s that “I want more”, the “I know I can do more than this because I know myself better than anyone else––that I know my limitations but I’m capable of much more beyond that limitations.”
I wonder if Hayao Miyazaki or Junji Ito felt a similar kind of hunger at any point in their journey. If they wanted to keep drawing or writing stories because they have something to fulfill, or maybe for other reasons. The possibility that hunger is a sand grain to the boulder that is something much more challenging, more terrifying in the times ahead intimidates and excites me at the same time. The thought that there’s another level of hunger that might as well kill me one day exhilarates me. Mad? I know. But then again, even with these thoughts, I’d still think that I will probably never know what mastery is like. And the one thing I’ll ever know about craftsmanship is its essence of the unknown, because of how vast the possibilities are to hone one’s craft. The ‘will probably never know’ and the unknown part of this journey doesn’t scare me. For now. Because who knows, maybe I’ll change my mind years later. Strange enough, this is the only time I want to be proven wrong.
I wonder if someone out there feels the same way about their craft. Do you feel this way?