I once had a would-be collaborator who wanted to work on a really sprawling, ambitious story with me. He had it mapped out in considerable detail, but could never actually put the key in the ignition and turn it and start driving. Something always came up. I finally decided this person wanted more to talk about the work than actually bring it into being — a work you never finished is always perfect in your head, right? — and gave up. We lost touch entirely not long after that.
"I'm not ready" is such a creative buzzkill. After having confronted it a few times, both in myself and in others, I think I know now that it's got nothing to do with being ready or prepared or any other such red herring. It's about not being willing to accept failure of any kind as the cost of creative work. It's about perfect or nothing, which is Not How Any Of This Works. And you probably know that, but how many of you ignore it when it comes up and just do stuff anyway?
The fellow I mentioned above "knew" all this, but he didn't know it. I don't really blame him too much, because neither he nor I had any idea how widespread these kinds of traps are, or how to avoid them. He didn't really understand, and neither did I, that there's no way to really be "ready" for something that big.
I'm talking about the mistaken idea that there will someday come this stage where you can sit down to work on Your Thing, whatever it is, and you'll be so ready for it that there will be nothing between you and the doing of the work. It's just pour out effortlessly, because you'll be READY for it, see.
But even people who have been doing these things for decades don't feel that way. The best of them only get anywhere because they play over their heads, because they seek out difficulties to overcome so they can seek out other difficulties to overcome. People who work effortlessly on something are either geniuses — that is, there's no point in trying to emulate them because they're singular — or are not doing anything that good to begin with, because they're not pushing themselves or their audiences.
Back in 2006 or so, when I kicked off the writing spree that turned into Genji Press, that was when something finally clicked for me — when I realized this wasn't a homework assignment and I wasn't being graded on anything I turned in the first time. Mistakes, dead ends, sunk costs, "wasted" time — none of that is the problem. Repeating mistakes, not recognizing the same dead ends, not ameliorating sunk costs, not recognizing what was of value in your time — those are the problem.
I have to pause here and make another note. It's too easy to go from this to an insight like "nobody is ever ready for anything" and make that into an inward excuse to never do any preparation at all. None of this is an argument against a sensible amount of getting ready; it's an argument against assuming preparation is the goal, rather than just a lead-in to some trial and error, and that the costs of trial and error can and should be entirely ameliorated. They aren't, they can't be, and they shouldn't.
Some kinds of creative people have this allergy to failure on any scale. When I first learned how to type — on a clunky manual typewriter my father used to write his first papers — I had this thing where I'd try to type something from memory, and if I got one letter wrong I'd rip the page out of the typewriter and start over. My father showed me how correction fluid was cheaper than reams of paper, but I still did it. I didn't want to turn my sentences into sticky little rivers of white paint. I wanted to get everything right the first time, and if I couldn't get it right the first time, then clearly I had no business using a typewriter! Thank goodness for computers, I guess.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind