(Hands Typing) I’m a bit of a perfectionist.
(Brain Interjecting) Impossible. Either you’re a perfectionist or you’re not. A bit of a perfectionist is an oxymoron.
(Hands) Fine. I’m a perfectionist. Happy now? Damn … where was I? Oh yes. Perfectionism. I learned about being a perfectionist at a Weight Watchers meeting.
(Brain) Don’t announce to the whole world that you went to Weight Watchers. TMI!
(Hands) Hmmm…. but I think it will demonstrate my point.
(Brain) Which is?
(Hands) Hello! A perfectionist is inclined to take an all or nothing approach.
(Brain) You lost me at hello.
(Hands) The perfectionist method of dieting is either you’re all in, or you’re all out. You’re either counting points like a CPA, or you’re sucking down whipped cream straight from the can. There’s no happy medium.
(Brain) What does this have to do with writing?
(Hands) The same applies. If you can’t create amazing works, then you give up on writing altogether. It’s incredibly defeatist. You can’t imagine.
(Brain) I think what you wrote sucks. Do NOT post this. Delete it.
And so it goes until I’ve ground my ego into the earth, thrown up my hands and walked away. Which is why I fell in absolute adoration of Ira Glass, Host and Executive Producer of This American Life, when I read this quote —
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
For the full unabridged version you can see Mr. Glass, or as I like to call him, Ira interviewed here. If you’d rather listen to Ira’s distinctive voice while his words literally leap from the page then check out this creative video.
This quote has resonated with artists of all kinds. It’s been all over the Internet. Yet, – and I know it’s a bit (what’s with the bit again?) melodramatic to say this – but reading these words felt as if Ira had looked into my soul and was speaking directly to me. Holy-moly, my writing perfectionism was actually an embodiment of killer taste. This master of storytelling was telling me to just do it and do it and do it. Don’t think about the quality. Ira was giving me permission to write poorly. What a liberating revelation! Writing crap, a lot of it, is a necessary means to a potentially rock-star end.
Ira’s words have become my mantra. I might never bridge the gap between what I write today and what I want to write someday, but my only shot is to write – output be damned. Now, when friends and family ask, “How’s the writing going?” I tell them about the preliminary draft of my first-ever novel I’m working on. I say with conviction that I have a firm completion date of 1/1/2013, and I typically add, “It might not be a good novel, but it will be a novel.” At which point most listeners inevitably feel obliged to assure me it’ll be great.
But it won’t. And that’s o.k. I’m working on a first draft of a first novel. The probability of greatness is nil, but according to my guru Ira, even if it’s horrid it will be one draft closer to filling the gap. I’ll be one draft closer to filling the gap.
Take that brain.