Hey! Happy Veterans’ Day! (Apparently I only post blog entries on days of national importance.) I hope you’ve found a veteran and taken him/her out for ice cream. Also, consider donating some money here.
Last week–while the Republicans were taking control of the Senate thereby guaranteeing it near-impossible for progress to be made in the next couple years, which is unfortunate, seeing as the climate change we’ve wrought is causing the world to unravel–I wrote about Meredith Vieira and dental conventions in 2004. This week I’m switching it up and writing about my creative process; specifically, about being a perfectionist, which is one of the biggest daily obstacles in my work.
Being a perfectionist sounds like a good thing, right? Like, that’s the answer you’re supposed to give at a job interview when they ask you to name one of your weaknesses. (Certainly better, anyway, than “I can’t help but sexually harass the people I work with.”) But trust me when I say that, when it comes to creating art, the need to make things perfect is a straight-up hindrance.
This term perfectionism needs some clarification, though; it’s sort of a misnomer. Because, when I’m sitting down to work on something, it’s not that I’m thinking to myself, “This needs to be perfect.” I’m aware, after all, that there’s something beautiful about imperfect art. No, for me, it’s that I want to sit down and output something that is immediately awesome.
This desire for immediate awesomeness trips me up again and again. So, for our purposes, let’s call this state of being awesomeism. It’s a tricky term, maybe, because it sounds like something helpful. But fuck it, that’s just my inner awesomeist trying to poke holes in this blog post, and he needs to shut his mouth.
He’s actually been talking the whole time I’ve been trying to write this entry. This, what you’re reading now, is my third attempt in three days at trying to write it. Two days in a row I’ve tinkered a bit, ultimately coming to the realization that, “This is too hard, I should save this entry for some later week. I don’t even know exactly what I’m going to say, and who the hell am I to write about my thoughts on being a perfectionist? The brilliant Anne Lamott has already covered this topic exceptionally well in the “Perfectionism” chapter of Bird by Bird, her indispensable book of writing advice.” (If you’re a writer/artist of any kind, you need to read this at your earliest convenience. Lamott is smart, funny, self-deprecating as hell, and so inspiring.)
But I can’t listen to that voice, especially not when I’m in the first draft stage.
Because if I do, I won’t make anything.
I can name right now at least ten projects I’ve worked on over the past years, some with others, some alone, that are now decaying in the creative graveyard because there was some element of awesomeism that got in the way.
Now’s as good a time as any to recognize that two huge intertwined components of awesomeism are Ego and Fear. These two guys team up and produce the little voice in my brain that says, “I should only work on this right now if I already know it’s going to be awesome. Otherwise, I’m just wasting time on something stupid that people will think is stupid, thereby making them think I am stupid.”
But two things: 1. Some people actually will think you and your work are stupid regardless of what you do. That’s their business, not yours. 2. You cannot know what the hell it is you’re making until you have a first draft.
This second thing bears repeating, mainly so I can ram it into my own dense skull: You cannot know what the hell you’re making until you have a first draft.
The frightened awesomeist in me wants to believe that a creative idea is only worth pursuing if you know in advance that it’s guaranteed to be awesome, and that is incredibly foolish.
Writing a book, or a musical, or a screenplay is not, it turns out, the way I imagined it to be as a kid: that you pretty much know in your head the way the whole story is going to go and then you write it down.
This is a ridiculous thought, but I think some part of me still wants to believe that it’s true. Because it’d be so much easier that way! I could skip the part where I’m floundering, staring at a blank screen, feeling like a failure, taking a break to search for validation on the internet, not finding any, feeling horrible and guilty and useless for being on the internet instead of working, writing some more words that feel stupid and meaningless and unconnected to the story I think I’m writing, generally feeling a TOTAL LACK OF CONTROL.
Awesomeists want to be in control. The opposite–not being in control–is powerfully uncomfortable. And it doesn’t matter what stage of your career you’re at. When I was writing Denton Little’s Deathdate completely on spec, this feeling manifested as, “Why the fuck am I spending my time writing something no one’s even asked me to write? This isn’t even good!” And once I sold Denton, along with another book, this feeling turned into: “People are paying me to write these books, and I have no idea what the fuck I’m doing! This isn’t even good!”
But I’m learning that the TOTAL LACK OF CONTROL is necessary. If you commit to floundering every day, to–as Anne Lamott says–writing “a shitty first draft,” you will make bizarre and exciting discoveries. It may take days of working, maybe even weeks, but you will dig up gems from within the piles of shit. The story you’re writing will surprise you, and it will be a thousand times more rewarding than knowing the route in advance.
So let us not be awesomeists in the early stages of a new piece of art. As we take the leap of faith that this work inevitably requires, let us be shittyists. It’ll be scary and powerfully uncomfortable and maybe even smelly sometimes, but we can lean into the fear and know that just by doing the work, we earn the right to call ourselves artists. The road to Awesome is paved with Shit. Let’s all pave together, one shit-stone at a time.