Art & Fear, by David Bayles & Ted Orland, has been one of my favorite books of creativity since my now-spouse introduced me to it in graduate school. In particular, I’ve come back to this story again and again:
The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.
His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”.
Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.
Simply put: I’m trying to make fifty pounds of terrible pots.
Beginners are frequently the loudest about their struggle with “perfection paralysis,” but it can plague creators at any stage in their learning curve. For those of us in the performing arts, attempting to switch from performance to choreography or composing can cause a mental Blue Screen of Death. We’ve always executed what we were told to do; what should we do when there’s no one telling us how?
I became interested in composing back in high school, but it wasn’t until recently that I had both the tools and the time to try my hand at it. I’ve been playing music since my mother taught me how to plunk out the chorus to “Jingle Bells” on the piano when I was five, but except for a brief course in blues improv in high school, I’d never tried to write any.
And the sheer volume of my knowledge of music served to stall me out – big time. With thousands of hours of playing and hundreds of hours on music theory behind me, I should be able to produce something good on my first try, right?
…If you believe that, go listen to the Bad Carols, in order.
They get consistently better as you go down the list. The first one, in fact, is crap compared to any of the others. I didn’t really hit my stride until “Skin Carol” at the earliest, and I wasn’t close to happy with a piece until the melody of “By Candlelight Swans Three.” Halfway through “In Christmas Hot Damn” I switched gears to writing an arrangement of “Riu, Riu, Chiu,” which I also currently hate.
I had to get past my belief that I had to produce something good. I had to produce just anything.
And I was getting bored with just asking Botnik’s predictve-text keyboard to generate histories of various holidays. I wanted to do something more involved with the tool.
Hence “Christmas Carols Nobody Asked For.” They didn’t have to be good – in fact, limiting my lyrics to those generated by predictive text pretty much guaranteed they wouldn’t be good. They just had to appear regularly. And the automatic deadline of December 25 made it fairly easy to ensure they’d happen on time.
I generate a lot of creative work, every day. It’s literally my job. And I recommend this method for improving in any creative genre.
Want to be a better writer? Assign yourself half an hour a day in which your only goal is that your pen/fingers never stop moving across the page/keyboard. If you write “I’m a terrible writer and I should go walk into the sea” fifty times in that half hour, so be it. Eventually, you’ll learn what you need to know from that and try something else.
Want to be a better choreographer? Write 32 to 64 counts (4-8 sets of 8) at every rehearsal/practice session you have. If you can’t decide on a piece of music, set your playlist to random. If all you do is plies for your first 32 counts, fine. Eventually, you’ll learn what you need to know from that and try something else.
Want to create a better vlog, host a better podcast, draw better Lovecraftian horrors? Generatefive new ideas every single day. Hell, make it ten. Make it twenty. If the first hundred are all variations on “Interview [insert Lovecraftian horror here],” fine. Eventually, you’ll learn what you need to know from that and try something else.
A lot of beginners, in particular, fear that if they just start with the basics – simply writing “My mind is a blank and I suck at writing” over and over, or drawing the same anime characters again and again – they’re wasting time. They’ll never move past those basics. Their masterpiece novel/manga/interpretive dance will never materialize.
As the ceramics class proved, however, the masterpiece won’t materialize if you don’t make fifty pounds of crap first.
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