permission to suck
Doesn't matter why you do what you do, or what you want from it. Any reason for any creative pursuit is valid and worthy. It's alright to want it small and rooted and cozy. It's alright to jockey for exposure, as long as you don't jockey for exposure in undignified or toxic or cheapening ways that bite you in the ass later. It's alright to want a bit of both. A small, rooted, cozy community with a back door and one day there's a knock at the back door and it's someone who says Hey. Where can I buy one of your paintings?
It's important to know why you're doing this. What your point is. What you want. But it's not the spectrum of creative ambition that interests me. It's what keeps us from our beginnings. A fear of sucking is the ultimate in self-sabotage. It keeps us paralyzed. It makes us mutter to ourselves Why bother? I can't. I'll never. They'll think... never mind.
90% of all creative beginnings end here, slammed shut. I just made that up. But I bet it's true.
There's only one thing that separates the Grammy Award winners and the Giller Prize nominees from the common mutterers, other than sheer talent, which isn't always present, and besides, there's nothing I can say to that except I guess we have to practice.
The issue of talent is beside the point.
Grammy award winners and Giller Prize nominees and pretty much anyone who's managed a creative life—even on a small scale—have all done one thing on their respective epic journeys. An album. A gallery show. A juried exhibition. Their own shop. Whatever.
They were all willing to suck. In front of an audience. Repeatedly.
Babies suck for nourishment.
I am an infant. So are you. Right now, it is our profound duty to suck. Know that and you won't get knocked over so easily when someone looks at your obligatory Shitty First Draft and says, Gee, I dunno or I don't get it or Uhh, neat. Know that and your creative dream will not hang in an iron cage at the mouth of the harbour, pecked at by crows, with a sign around its neck that says THIS IRON CAGE COURTESY YOUR EGO.
Don't let the entitlement of your modern, first-world birthright make you write off the person who says Gee, I dunno as a hater who's trying to dim your precious, sparkly light. The point is to reach the end of your Somewhat Less Shitty Second Attempt, and to begin the third. Listen to that person with whatever part of your brain listens to reason. Pretend you didn't write or record or photograph whatever it is they're shrugging at. Just listen, quietly, like an editor. Be detached. Consider that they might be right. It's only what you've done that kind of sucks—and that's only because you're at the beginning. It's not you. Refrain from getting all sputtery about it inside your head.
Listen. Really listen. (Except not to your mother, your father, your husband, or your paid employee when they say it's perfect just the way it is.) Or else you're done.
There's the sucking of creative infanthood. That's sucking with a purpose. That's profound and necessary. Then there's a lack of mindfulness around the process, the motivation, the presentation. And it's there that you and I both have the opportunity—right now—to suck less.
The first thing is to get over yourself. The iron cage, the creative dream pecked at by crows. Your precious sparkly light. The inner tantrums, shocked that you're not yet THERE. The Scarlett O'Hara grandstanding, the knuckle-biting, that "OMG! My first draft sucks!" thing.
Yeah. It sucks. So what? So does mine. Don't give a damn. Work on it.
The second thing is to remember why you're doing this. Then consider what you're presenting to mentors, potential readers, listeners, supporters, enablers, and collaborators in the context of those wants. Would the right person be compelled to knock, if they found your door? Take social media, for example. It's a low-hanging-fruit sort of sucking, the kind that's easy to influence.
Do you go WAGGGGH WAGGGITTY WAGGH WAGGH! and then hit PUBLISH six seconds later? Do you indulge in petty, incomprehensible crap on the internet that only means anything to other people who indulge in petty, incomprehensible crap on the internet? Is your avatar one-half Marge Simpson in a hydrangea swimcap, one-half I HONK FOR FURRY FELLAS twibbon? Do you use the same crappy blog template that you and ten thousand others have used for five years? Does it include a Celine Dion power ballad? Is your space a Jerry Springer stage for trolls? Is your identity and your name consolidated across all the places you show up, from twitter to your URL? Are you, in any number of ways, a dog's breakfast? Worse yet, are you invisible or otherwise undeclared? Do you apply the same care to your handshake as you do to your art?
This isn't to disparage the raw, authentic power of WAGGGGH WAGGGITTY WAGGH WAGGH! and petty, incomprehensible crap. Tired blog templates make the earth spin. If you've got no designs on a creative life that might be underwritten by what you present online, you are free to WAGGGGH WAGGGITTY WAGGH WAGGH as much as you like. It's okay. Having a need to WAGGGGH is just as okay as having any other designs.
But if you want to create something that self-propels—even if you're in your creative infanthood and do a lot of knuckle-biting about the worthiness of your first draft and the indigestion of your credit line—sucking less is not that complicated. You don't need a business plan or a soulful revelation. You just need to keep your house clean and make it easy for people to remember you. Don't be memorable for your headless cleavage unless your left breast wants to write the next Great American Novel and your right breast wants to sell pottery on Etsy. Because all this stuff matters. If you want to be an artist, have a beautiful space that reflects your art. If you want to be a writer, don't blog like you've got food poisoning of the fingers.
Because you never know who's out there, looking for you. Not Marge Simpson in a hydrangea swim cap.
There's a lot on the internet about how to get and make and sustain inspiration, voice, a creative life. I've poked at it with a stick before.
I just don't think it's that sexy. Nor that intimidating. It's not something divine, and it's not something that has anything whatsoever to do with magic. Epic creative journeys are hard work, and they're easily derailed by your own whiny inner monologue.
Like mine, for instance. I don't mean to posture like I'm practiced at any of this. I am not. I am terrified. But I will fake willingness until it becomes, at least sporadically, real.
OMG MY SECOND BOOK SUCKS. It sucks. It really does. It's a steaming heap of wooly mammoth poop. The pacing is off. The story is too ambitious. There are holes in it big enough to swallow a tractor. I've reached the end, almost, but it's just the beginning.
Penelope will start out by saying Okay. Here's the thing. This kinda...
I know. I am an infant. Now, to work.