Thursday, February 2, 2012

Sucking, and what really matters

Recently I've had a few interactions that have me thinking about process and skill and inspiration and results and what matters.

Three different people over three days, all totally unconnected to each other. All of them pursuing one sort of creative expression or another. All three of them producing good work. And all of them overwhelmed with self doubt to a crippling degree.

Actually, the first of the three involved multiple people. I posted something a few weeks ago about how I saw no reason to write another book. A lot of people misinterpreted this as me saying that I was disillusioned, or that I didn't think I was any good, or something of that nature. And as a result, I've heard from many people about their own doubts. But I don't have any doubts. I started writing knowing I was unsuited to it, and I've been very happy with my progress, I know pretty much how good I am, and I know I've reached a point where I can't get any better. Simple.

But those people, who doubted themselves in some way... Most of them, I've read their work, and I know it to be good. So I started pondering this. Why were they so fearful, so uncertain? What were they afraid of? And I came to this generality: I know two kinds of writers: those who are gifted, who have a story in them, or a gift for perception or who knows what. I'm not one of those. The other kind are people who started out bad. I know, because I've read their stuff. But they kept doing it, refining and practicing. Here's the insight: After a number of years, what happens is that the people who were gifted haven't improved, and the people who were bad have. I don't know why the gifted ones haven't improved, though I suspect it's due to the same thing that makes the bad ones better. The bad ones produce, and fail. And try again. And again. Learning from the failures and working to not create that failure condition again. What's happened is that now: the 'bad' ones aren't so bad, and in addition, they know how to work, and how to adapt, and produce, and market, and interact, and all sorts of ancillary things that are important if you're going to be a writer. The 'gifted' ones are just the same. They write stuff that is really brilliant still. But they're stunted in all those other areas. I guess it's because they never had to leave their comfort zone. The 'bad' ones and the 'gifted' ones alike all have doubts about their work, but the 'bad' ones now know how to cope with that and overcome it, while the gifted ones... I don't know. I'm not sure what's up with them.

That whole thing put me in a state of mind though, so I was sensitive to issues of process and genius and what-all. And then the second person: A young photographer contacted me for some tips about astrophotography, something I'm passable at at best, but I gave him all the help I could. Following on from that, I got a message from him expressing that he despaired of getting honest feedback, because people usually are so nice (the 'help' I gave him came in the form of twenty paragraphs or so about what was wrong with the picture he'd posted and was asking for help with). And that was fine. I reassured him and gave him some advice. And then he said, in so many words, that he was sorry that he was presenting such mediocre work, and that he'd continue to improve his skills. That caught me off guard, and told him so. I told him that his work already was good (it is), and that further: the fact that he hadn't achieved mastery was no reason not to publish and be proud of his work. I told him that I still have pictures that I took thirty years ago, when I had no idea what I was doing, that I still cherish because they are great. And this got me thinking more. I know more now, and I can produce more good pictures in more situations. But I think when I was fourteen, I could still take a good picture sometimes. And I thought some more. … Because: what makes a good picture, isn't anything to do with the process. What makes a good picture is knowing what makes a good picture. A 'good eye', so to speak. And sure, a good eye can get better, but that doesn't mean that the work produced at a na├»ve level is in any way inferior. If it's good, it's good. Who cares how it happened? (well, some people. Pedants.)

So I felt pretty good about that. I'd figured something out, and maybe helped a kid have a happier time with his hobby/profession. I hope so.

Then today, I was buying a painting from a guy I know in town, really cheap. And we were talking, and he said much the same thing to me, about how he felt he hadn't reached the point he wanted to with his skill, and I thought of the photographer again. But the difference here was that this painter... I know him because he's out there. He's selling himself. Selling his paintings, his performance. He knows he isn't as good as he'll be, but, maybe through circumstances (i.e. he has to sell his work to eat), or personality, he's not letting his doubts get in his way. His work is cool. It has a core creativity and uniqueness to it, and he's a hard worker. He'll succeed.

And so I started thinking about succeeding. And how, of the people I know, the ones who succeed are rarely the best, and in fact are often the not the best. The ones who succeed are the ones who realize what matters, and do it. They do it good enough and get it out the door. They don't let fine details slow them down, and: and this is the critical point, I think: they don't mistake the process, or the fine details, for what matters. They know that it's the result, the effect, that matters.

So I went back to the writers, in my pondering. And I think it's possible that those gifted people may have reached a state of obsession paralysis. They've been working at refining their writing, so much so that they've lost sight of what the point is. They're obsessing over details that even other writers don't understand, much less readers. And they won't publish because they know that their book has many sloppy sentences. And that there must be dozens of punctuation mistakes, or passive voice, or who knows what. So they don't share. And they don't get the feedback that's important, that their stuff is good. And maybe it's because they're afraid to possibly hear that it's not good. I don't know. But if it is that, I feel sorry for them. Because they're crippled. And it's so pointless.

I've read a lot of these first draft books, to the point where I kind of like it that way. Maybe I'm better than normal at ignoring first draft issues of spelling and punctuation and weak characters and such, but it's not important, because those things aren't important. They're either trivial, or fixable, or both. And in no case do they get in the way of a good story. So I get to read a lot of good stories. And half the time or whatever, the author thinks it's horrible. Because they've lost sight of their original good idea, and how cool it was. Now all they see is the weaknesses, the mistakes. And sadly, in many of those cases, they shelve the book. Because they think it's horrible, and they don't have it in them to fix it.

(and let me detour here in parentheses to restate something I think I've said before: No detail of execution, no mistake, no weakness, no sloppiness or any other detail of any kind will ever derail a good story. A slobbering drunk in the cold, in the dark, with a lisp and poor memory and attention span can still tell a compelling story. And on the other side of things, no amount of money, skill, talent, time, people, intention, production, or anything can make a bad story compelling. (see: Hollywood) – it's the story that's important, and you probably have a good story. If it intrigued you enough to spend the time writing it out, it's probably interesting enough to read. So there.)

And it happens to all writers. It's so arduous to create a book that you have to get mired in the details. But you don't have to let it cripple you. My advice, which I know is sound, through experience, is to let other people tell you if your work is good or not. Do your best, in a draft, and hand it out. There's no point in revising at all until you hear back from your audience. And this first audience will have lots of bad things to say, which is why you gave it to them. That's not a surprise. But what might happen, and always has in my experience of reading these things, is that there is stuff that's really good. Stuff that's a surprise to the author. Stuff you won't know about, no matter how many revisions you do on your work by yourself. And many of these people have reached the point of quitting. Because they don't think they're good enough. Because they can't satisfy themselves. Because their work isn't perfect.

Now, I've never been talented in any way, and also: I've seen too many people succeed at all sorts of things without any talent or even skill or even any good output to ever give something up just because I was bad at it. In fact, large chunks of my life's motivations have come from being bad and trying to get better. It is the greatest puzzlement to me when somebody won't try or do something because they're bad at it. When I see this, I wonder: what must it be like to be good at something innately, and enough somethings, to be able live life that way. Life must be so easy for some people. But: I take pride and hope in knowing that I have become good at some things. Pride in my accomplishments, and hope for myself and for others, because I know that, within reason, anything is possible.

Anybody. Can play the guitar, or the piano. Anybody can knit, or juggle. Anybody can be a politician or a car salesman. Not everybody can run 110 meter hurdles, you have to be sensible. But the list goes on for ever.

I'll admit to preferring the work of the truly gifted. They really are better, and what they do is transcendent. I've known a few actual geniuses in my life, especially musicians or mathematicians, and being around them is a tangible, palpable experience. They're different.

In motorcycle racing, they call these people the aliens. Valentino Rossi, Casey Stoner, Jorge Lorenzo. I think that's a good term, aliens. These guys are gifted and skilled and practiced, and they win most of the races, but not all of them. They represent a small percentage of the grid, and the rest of the guys out there are still racing, still doing what they do, and not infrequently beating the aliens. Colin Edwards is my favorite, I think. He consistently finishes around fifth place. Best of the rest. Never reached any sort of pinnacle at all in his career, but he keeps doing it. Keeps doing his best, and he's respected and has had a long career racing motorcycles. Come on! Think about it? He races motorbikes for a living. How cool is that? I bet he's frequently annoyed or depressed that he hasn't been able to go that one notch up into genius, probably spent his whole career with it hanging over him. But he never let it stop him from trying. Trying anything and everything. Over and over again. And that's really cool. I admire the ones that keep trying.

Even though watching the gifted, the prodigy, the savant, the alien, is a magical and transcendent thing, it doesn't mean that the merely talented and good are without merit. They do great work in all their fields. And sometimes they come to a solution through slog and hard work that genius would never imagine, or maybe would imagine and disregard as inelegant, or pedestrian. And I believe that often, the really big paradigm shifts in whatever field come from these workmen, rather than the geniuses. Because the geniuses, by and large, don't know how to work.

I guess what I take from this is that: okay, so I'm not a genius, I'm not special, so what? I can still be good, or even really good, and that puts me in so much of a better place than somebody who insists on being an alien or nothing.

So how is it done? How do you overcome limitations and doubt? There're probably a lot of ways, maybe drinking, or meditation. But for my part, it's always been a matter of taking a deep breath, and going out on that stage, whatever form it takes, knowing that I'm going to be awful. And not caring. Not caring because I know this is what it takes to be good. And not caring because I realize that other people don't really care that much about me. That they won't really be bothered if I suck. I guess I've had the luxury of failing at a lot of things. I know that for me, succeeding at anything is going to require me to fail at that thing, and a lot of other things a lot of times.

First time I remember intentionally putting the secret weapon of failure into action was when I was a teenager, I was short and heavy (still am). But I went out for gymnastics and track. No idea why now. Horrible at both of them. One time at a track meet, somebody got hurt, and I was asked to sub in for the hurdles. I knew I couldn't clear a hurdle. I'd looked at them. Run up to them. Tried to climb over one. Looked at the angles. I knew. There was no way possible my body could go over a hurdle. But I said sure.


Because I knew I wasn't going to win. I knew nobody expected me to win. I also knew I was probably the only guy who would do it, so I felt some responsibility. And the big thing for me, as a teenager or whatever, was that I knew that I'd be able to think, and know, and say, that I ran the 110 meter hurdles at a state event. Can you?

I asked for a side lane, and ran straight down that lane, pushing every single hurdle over in front of me. Far as I knew, and still know, there's no reason not to do this, other than that it's really slow. I finished in something like 29 seconds. Really spectacularly badly. And there was a lot of laughter from the bleachers and the sidelines. But I held my head up and waved. And then I walked back and reset all the hurdles.

And I suspect that a lot of people reading this will read that anecdote and think I'm a moron, or ridiculous, or unbalanced or unserious or disrespectful. They'll miss the point. Because that event. That process, and thousands of others similar, are how I got good at the things I'm good at. And there's no picking and choosing. I'm good at the things I'm good at because at some point, when I was not good at them, and had no reason to think I would be good at them, I did them anyway. And failed really badly. And then did them again. And again.

I never ran the hurdles again. Because nobody asked me to. But I do still run for exercise and enjoyment, despite my total unsuitability for it. It's kept me healthy and sharp, and all sorts of good things.

Thanks for reading,

Dave DeHetre

1 comment:

  1. As always, you really dig down and find the heart of the matter. I'm not sure what cripples us - maybe it's because we need the validation from other people or maybe we lose sight of why we started doing what we do. We can't be objective of our own work, either, which is why you are so right about the need to let other people evaluate our work. So yeah, you may be getting my manuscript sometime this weekend. But anyway. You're right. I'm going to keep trying and failing, because with each failure, I get better. And really, I think the only way to actually fail is to give up completely. Thanks for reminding me of that. I hope you will always keep trying, too. I really enjoy all of your art.