Who has time for side projects? You barely have the mental energy to write a paragraph of your own work each day, let alone expend effort on some half-assed thing that may never see the light of completion or publication. You’re already in a rut; you’d rather pull your entire goddamned set of teeth than take off on some tangent, further delaying your celebrated debut or star turn on the literary scene, or the music scene, or the painting or theater or comedy scene.
But don’t sleep on the side project. The best work I’ve ever done is due largely to a lot of glorious wanderings in between. In a lifetime of making art—theater, music, and writing—my best creative bursts have almost always come after a side project, work outside my genre or practice, collaborations with others, one-offs and even joke projects. And often, some of my best work has ended up being these projects themselves.
We are boring people, by ourselves. We burrow into our own heads, absorb nothing but our own echoes, style ourselves after ourselves. We become feedback loops, escalating sound, repeating endlessly, signifying nothing but our own creative burnout.
Everyone can think of artists like this. We roll our eyes heavenward listening to their new album, reading their own book, as self-important and silly as the last one. They keep referencing their own poems. They keep alluding to their own greatest hits.
Not the Surrealists. They created the Exquisite Corpse, collaborated endlessly when they got tired of their own theories and themes. Not Roxane Gay, who wrote expansive, gorgeous essays on her blog when she was supposed to be just a fiction writer. Not Yoko Ono and John Lennon, who didn’t listen to that bullshit about never working with your significant other. Not Elisa Gabbert and Kathleen Rooney, who’ve been writing poetry in collaboration for years; not Robert Kloss and Matt Kish, working together on hybrid text-illustration for almost every one of Kloss’s novels for half a decade now. And certainly not H.P. Lovecraft, who had enormous fun writing all kinds of stuff in collaboration with Harry Houdini. Matthea Harvey, one of my favorite poets, spoke at length about the important creativity-jogging aspects of the side project when I saw her keynote a few years ago at Conversations and Connections in DC.
Almost all of these writers and artists just happen to be enormously prolific, which, okay, may give them the space and pace to work on all these side projects. I get it. I’m a parent of a toddler, and I work full time, so space to write—even my own novel or stories—is tough to come by. But let’s be real: Half the time I spend supposedly writing my own shit is spent scrolling through Facebook, cleaning my apartment, making lists of all the things I wish I’d written. Sometimes my brain needs a tangent. It needs to be retrained, and sometimes, yes, to be accountable. A side project can do just that for me. Whether it’s a poem or essay or a mixed media project, it opens up avenues, gives me new angles to consider, new ways to look at the world. And when it’s a collaboration, my sorry ass has got to get into a chair and type up something, anything that clears a path—at least sometimes—through the artistic forest.
Of course, yes, a fair question: How busy are you willing to be? You can’t say yes to everything. No one can (or should.) You have to pick and choose—but in picking and choosing, my kind of artist chooses what is compelling. My kind of artist chooses the thing sure to deepen the mystery in the world, to connect with others over that mystery. My kind of artist chooses killer fun over career goal. (Though, it’s nice when the two collide.)
Those are my people. The ones who fill their days with making, and being delighted by other people making. The ones who probably don’t need this essay at all.
From Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl : “Have you ever heard sculptors say that they don’t actually sculpt an object; they sculpt away everything that isn’t the object?…I’m writing everything that isn’t my final project, so that when I actually sit down to write it, that’s all that will be left in my mind.”
I have met a fair number of artists who’ve been working at something in secret for years, toiling in seeming joylessness at their endeavors. Some will stop me at conferences, or after hearing me speak on a panel, and ask me to read their work for them. To each their own—and maybe it’s my theater background—but I hope art will never be solitary for me, that I will never lack for friends and collaborators who can be readers, and that writing will never cease to be (mostly) enormous fun. I can’t believe it when these people tell me how miserable the work makes them. But I do get it. Doing anything in a long-term vacuum can be joyless. I could never write if I didn’t take time out to do the short-sweet things that make the long-slog things easier to bear.
So consider, maybe: Could the dabblers be so prolific precisely because their brains are always being woken up, never allowed to linger in tracks too long? Because at least some of the time, they have intellectual appointments to keep?
The side project includes, by the way, creating the writing workshop, running the reading series, planning the book festival—all are wonderful side projects that create the kind of community and conversation too often lacking in the solitary work of making art.
I’ve never understood the idea of self-care as retreat, at least not when it comes to the creative process. I understand taking the time for oneself. But the artist who simply won’t engage with any community at all risks recluse status, and risks losing (or missing altogether) the joy of creative friendship. Some of my most fulfilling projects have been with people I met in at readings, or online, talking about writing. Collaboration has given me a good hard look at my worst flaws and best features, writing-wise and otherwise. Some of my best friends now are people I didn’t know but asked to be part of side projects I was working on, and whose work I loved enough to inspire further collaboration. It’s a lonely, wild place, this art scene in America, and to find like minds in this small brief chance at consciousness—well, who wouldn’t jump at that?
To be clear, I am not talking about doing people favors, blurbs, time-suck stuff like that. I’m talking about actual artistic fulfillment, actual artistry. The rest is sometimes necessary, sometimes not, but in no way a side project unless you are either one boring or very high-concept motherfucker.
Famous side projects: Black Star, Traveling Wilburys, Dashboard Confessional, Gmail, Plastic Ono Band, Jonny Greenwood’s film scores, Mark Twain and Charles Dudley’s The Gilded Age, John Ashbery and James Schuyler’s Nest of Ninnies, The Breeders, Instagram, Sebadoh, Mr. Bungle.
Nothing is as important, as crucial, to creativity as play. But we can’t play if we’re up in here taking our work so seriously that we fall over dead with dignity. Every serious work deserves to be leavened with something fun, whether that’s playing with new forms or technique or jamming with two other drummers just because.
Besides, play is serious. David Hockney said so. And so did Matisse—or at least that it’s necessary for the serious business of making art. And what’s less interesting than a slavish adherence to some concept of self-greatness, too busy writing its own obit to have a little fun?
For a long time after I had my daughter, I told myself the side projects had to stop. There’s only so much time, I told myself. Time is a finite resource, I also told myself, sounding like a real asshole, yes.
And of course, the proverbial creative well dried right up. That surely had something to do with the lack of sleep, the weirdness of post-baby brain, of course. But in any spare moment I had to write, I found myself staring down a blank screen that might as well have been flashing “NOVEL NOVEL MAKE IT GOOD” in seedy neon letters six feet high.
Then, I had the opportunity to write something for a friend’s project, a mixed media thing for performance. And then, another friend’s project. And then I started writing essays, and lists, and poems, and messing around with maps. The maps are not a metaphor, but they’re too good not to be a metaphor at the end of this essay—they’ve redrawn the world for me in a way that just staring down the barrel of my own writing couldn’t. Art, for me, has always been collaborative, has been full of discovery, has been constantly fed by the practice and consumption of other art. My mistake was thinking the time I spent on side projects had been wasted. It was, and is, in fact, the most valuable time I’ve ever owned—the jewels in a lucky, joyful writing life.
Amber Sparks is the author of the short story collection The Unfinished World and Other Stories, which has received praise from The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Paris Review, among others. She is also the author of a previous short story collection, May We Shed These Human Bodies, as well as the co-author of a hybrid novella with Robert Kloss and illustrator Matt Kish, titled The Desert Places. She’s written numerous short stories, flash fictions and essays, which have been featured in various publications and across the web. Say hi on Twitter @ambernoelle