On Thursday I concluded a short story called Free Cleaning Service. This piece featured two moments of abrupt menace, situations where the main antagonist appeared to startle the audience. I reworked those sequences more than any other part of the story, constantly trying to polish them into something truly memorable. I saw these moments as the crux upon which the entire work would be judged. Either the readers would be legitimately frightened and remember the experience for a long while since, or they might only be mildly amused and forget about it not long after, or they might find it outright clumsy and smirk at how my reach surpassed my grasp. Even now I can’t say for sure how successful the piece ended up being. I wouldn’t say that I dislike the result, but my feelings for it are definitely divided. On the one hand those scenes came closer to the ideas in my head than almost all of my previous written work, and I am proud of that accomplishment. On the other hand, I am very much aware that the gap between the idea and the outcome is still much wider than I would wish.
That chasm between vision and manifestation is not a unique experience. Anyone who tries their hand at something creative has felt the exact same disappointment. When an idea first comes to mind it seems so perfect. The images are so evocative, the emotions so real, the messages so timeless. We may not know all the little details of how the work should come together, but we do know how it should feel when complete. We get so excited about our own cleverness and are sure that our creation is going to rank among the finest that mankind has ever seen. Then we set about trying to make it into a reality and learn that the real talent isn’t in being able to come up with great ideas, most anyone is capable of that. The real talent is in having the skill to actually express them. Turns out those little details make a whole lot of difference!
Even those that don’t consider themselves the creative type have still experienced this sense of shortcoming in their work at some point or another. Just think back to your drawings as a young child. You knew what a person was supposed to look like, but did the pencil know how to imitate the image in your head? I have one such memory from when I was about four years old, it is my earliest recollection of where I came to understand the shortcomings of my creativity. It all started when I tried to draw a person wearing their shoes. Now I knew what shoes on a foot were supposed to look like, I had plenty of firsthand experience with the subject, and I held a perfect vision of how the end result should appear. That end result, though, looked a little something like this:
In case you’re confused, that is a foot inside of a sock inside of a shoe. See, I knew that in real life that was was the process by which these shoe-things ended up on a person’s feet, so I logically thought if I drew them in that same process it should come out looking just perfect. It did not. At this point, I did not need anyone to come along and tell me that I had failed, I already knew that it was wrong. It was obvious, because I still had that image in my head of what the picture was supposed to look like and the one on the paper did not match it at all.
This is a common agony in creation. Perhaps you have heard that an artist is his own worst critic? It’s true. No matter how hard he works, how technically skilled his execution, how praised his final work becomes, there yet remains a deep disappointment in his own work. Why? Because he still isn’t capturing the image in his mind exactly as intended. The thing is, no one but the artist is burdened with that knowledge of what it was supposed to look like, they just see it for what it is. To the world it might be a masterpiece, but to him it wasn’t the masterpiece he was trying to create.
While it may be easier said than done, any creative perfectionist has to learn to accept these shortcomings if they are ever to be truly happy in their work. The frustration stems from a belief that ones’ work should be perfectly identical to the image imagined. Let go of that belief. It should not be the same, it is not the same for anyone else, and it will never be the same. The key to being a happy artist is being able to accept your work just for what it is and not rejecting it for what it isn’t. Your work does not have to be perfect, it just needs to be good enough. We rightfully praise the genius of Van Gogh, Da Vinci, and Picasso, but rest assured that they were just as surprised at how their creations turned out as you are.
This isn’t to say that you should avoid improvement. While we may not ever hit the mark exactly, we do want to get as close to it as we can. With time and practice, the shortcomings in your work will indeed lessen, and you will find ways to express yourself more accurately. As you do improve, allow yourself to enjoy the journey. Now, I am not sure what pattern improvement will take over a lifetime. Does creative skill peak and then decline in old age, or does it plateau and maintain its quality, or can it continually improve the whole life long? Is it even the same pattern from one person to another? Because I do not know the answer I am not going to hold an unrealistic expectation of how far I have to progress before I allow myself to be pleased in my work. It is possible to be both content with your abilities now and excited for where they might be in the future.
Finally, if you require one more reason to let go of being a perfectionist, consider that even if the creator could flawlessly recreate the ideas held in her mind, it would still be received differently from what she had intended. Because we each have our own unique life experiences we will each process the same experience in different ways. And so, though you and I may be given the same character description, we will each have a separate mental image of what the character actually looks like and neither will be what the author even intended. That’s alright, so long as the work is quality we will both appreciate it in our own way and that is enough.
If you’ve struggled against the inability to express yourself I hope you’ll be able to go easy on yourself and trust in the process of practice and improvement, enjoying the journey along the way. On Thursday I will share a short piece that is meant to elicit a very specific sense of wonder and discovery from the reader. I have not written a word of it yet, but I do have a clear image in my mind of what I want it to look and feel like. It involves some strange creature awakening in a deep forest, unaware of the past of self or of this world. The creature will therefore be discovering everything simultaneously with the reader, and the whole piece will move forward at a slow, deep pace. I want the work as a whole to feel mysterious, tranquil, and full of rich ambience. That’s a tall order, particularly for me, and I don’t expect to finish the piece without any regrets. I already see shortcomings just in this summary. I do believe that if I put the work in, though, I will still be able to create a piece that I am proud of. Perhaps some small elements of it will even surprise me by being better than what I had imagined! I’ll see you there.