Of late, I have been thinking a lot about the relationship between one’s artistic standards and their creative drive. Generally (unless you are preternaturally gifted), I feel it goes like this – the greater the quantity and quality of the art that you consume as an artist of any sort, the more likely are you to create good stuff. David Nicholls, British scriptwriter and novelist [One Day (2009)], raises the point I am trying to make in a video (uploaded by “MakingOf”). To the question: What advice would you give someone who’s aspiring to be a [TV/film] writer? he replies:
You have to watch and read everything. So much you learn from absorbing other material, great films. Don’t just watch recent films, watch films from the 30s and 40s and 20s. Read as widely as you can. Read and read and read. I think I have read a book a week and watched five movies a week since I was 10 years old. I have sucked everything in. Not always great movies, not always wonderful novels but you just have to read widely and with as much concentration as you possibly can.
Immersion in proper creative products is important. It’s the very basic thing you would need to do to be able to make something decent of your own.
too much knowledge of the arts can also be a hindrance. When you have much in mind, you are very conscious of what has worked and what hasn’t worked over years, perhaps centuries. When you have engaged with the most glorious expressions of humankind – in speech or stone or anything else – your expectations from yourself will rise. You will compare and contrast your projects with those of the brightest luminaries in your field. Chances are anything and everything you end up constructing will look like utter rubbish.
British author Howard Jacobson (who won the 2010 Man Booker Prize for his novel The Finkler Question) explains this frustration in a video (uploaded by “Studio 28”). He says that he always wanted to be a novelist, then he made the classic mistake – studied English literature (at Downing College, University of Cambridge), and that slowed him down. Jacobson was born in 1942 and was able to get his first novel published only in 1983 (at the age of 41), which was, according to him, pretty late. And that was written out of sheer desperation. What happened? What impeded him when he’d had both ambition and an excellent education? He says:
The standards were so high that you could only feel, you were meant to feel you were no good. If anybody ever wrote anything it was like breaking rank, it was an improper thing to do. And because we had such a high standard about writing and we admired such books, it was impossible to write for a long time. I wanted to write The Golden Bowl, I wanted to write Crime and Punishment, I wanted to write Anna Karenina – they had all been written which was one problem, but I wanted to write at that level and it wasn’t happening. I wasn’t writing novels and submitting them and failing, I just wasn’t getting beyond the page, and then I became an academic…and the years go by and the book’s not appearing…
On the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s Isaac Asimov. A recently published article on Quartz titled “Isaac Asimov wrote almost 500 books in his lifetime—these are the six ways he did it” gets to the heart of the celebrated science-fiction writer’s prolificity. How could Asimov do it? One of the major reasons behind his productivity is that he simply “lowered his standards”. He was against the pursuit of perfectionism. Charles Chu, the author of the piece, writes:
Trying to get everything right the first time, he [Asimov] says, is a big mistake. Instead, get the basics down first: Think of yourself as an artist making a sketch to get the composition clear in his mind, the blocks of color, the balance, and the rest. With that done, you can worry about the fine points. Don’t try to paint the Mona Lisa on round one. Lower your standards. Make a test product, a temporary sketch, or a rough draft. At the same time, Asimov stresses self-assurance: [A writer] can’t sit around doubting the quality of his writing. Rather, he has to love his own writing. I do. Believe in your creations. This doesn’t mean you have to make the best in the world on every try. True confidence is about pushing boundaries, failing miserably, and having the strength to stand back up again. We fail. We struggle. And that is why we succeed.
The fact of Asimov’s triumph over the frequently draining and debilitating human desire to be perfect brings me finally to the figure after whom I have titled this post – Elizabeth Gilbert [author of Eat, Pray, Love (2006) – no, I haven’t read it]. I’d like to quote from two portions of her 2015 book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear wherein she provides helpful tips to those who are despairing over the unfinished-ness of their creative attempts. Here’s Gilbert:
Nobody’s Thinking About You
Long ago, when I was in my insecure twenties, I met a clever, independent, creative, and powerful woman in her mid-seventies, who offered me a superb piece of life wisdom. She said: “We all spend our twenties and thirties trying so hard to be perfect, because we’re so worried about what people will think of us. Then we get into our forties and fifties, and we finally start to be free, because we decide that we don’t give a damn what anyone thinks of us. But you won’t be completely free until you reach your sixties and seventies, when you finally realize this liberating truth – nobody was ever thinking about you, anyhow.” They aren’t. They weren’t. They never were. People are mostly just thinking about themselves. People don’t have time to worry about what you’re doing, or how well you’re doing it, because they’re all caught up in their own dramas…Go be whomever you want to be, then…Create whatever you want to create – and let it be stupendously imperfect, because it’s exceedingly likely that nobody will even notice. And that’s awesome.
Gilbert links her theme of “stupendous imperfection” with a note on the virtue of “getting things done”. She writes:
Done Is Better Than Good
The only reason I was able to persist in completing my first novel was that I allowed it to be stupendously imperfect. I pushed myself to continue writing it, even though I strongly disapproved of what I was producing. The book was so far from perfect, it made me nuts. I remember pacing around in my room during the years that I worked on the novel, trying to gin up my courage to return to that lackluster manuscript every single day, despite its awfulness, reminding myself of this vow: “I never promised the universe that I would be a great writer, goddamn it! I just promised the universe that I would be a writer!”
A little later, she comes up with some very wise words that might make your day:
A good-enough novel violently written now is better than a perfect novel meticulously never written.
I also think my mother understood this radical notion – that mere completion is a rather honorable achievement in its own right. What’s more, it’s a rare one. Because the truth of the matter is, most people don’t finish things! Look around you, the evidence is everywhere: People don’t finish. They begin ambitious projects with the best of intentions, but then they get stuck in a mire of insecurity and doubt and hairsplitting…and they stop. So if you can just complete something – merely complete it! – you’re already miles ahead of the pack, right there. You may want your work to be perfect, in other words; I just want mine to be finished.
Of course, mere completion doesn’t guarantee success. But with incompleteness, failure is always certain.
Watch Gilbert’s TED talks below for more of her thoughts on creativity: