Save it for your daydreams

I once was talking to a young writer—I say young, though he was probably around my age—who watched anime, just as I do. We were talking about the stories we were working on, and at one point, he began tell me about his grand designs.

He wanted it to be an anime, done by this studio and with these seiyuu. He could see a live-action movie as well, and described how some of the special effects would look. He thought it could then make the leap to TV, and wondered how the story would have to be changed to fit that medium.

That’s when I stopped him. Okay, that’s a lie—I didn’t stop him at all. I probably changed the subject because I didn’t know how to respond. Allow me to indulge in a little l’esprit de l’escalier, and tell you what I should have told him then.

Whoa. Slow down. You’re getting ahead of yourself. If you’re writing a novel, focus on that. If you’re drawing a webcomic, focus on that. Bend your energy toward making what you’re doing right now a success, rather than expending all your energy looking forward.

And as for the movie or the TV show, save those for your daydreams. Save them for when you’re talking a break after a hard day of work, when you lean back and imagine “what if?” That’s fine. Daydreams can propel us forward, and be a pleasant indulgence after all our effort.

Then get back to work. No amount of looking to the future can make your dreams come true if you don’t do the hard work of taking the first steps right now.

Delusions of importance

“Don’t you think that that’s why we ended up here [on TV]? It takes a slight delusion … to believe that what I have to say is worthy of people sitting there and paying money to listen to.”

“That seems natural to me.”

“It does to me too, but I don’t think it seems natural to everybody else.” -Jason Segel and Stephen Colbert, The Colbert Report, 9-9-14

I’ve always thought it was the height of arrogance to want to write. Who am I to think that what I have to say is so great that people should stop and listen? What gives me the right? Why am I so amazing?

I’m not. I’m nobody. No one gave me the right. It’s ridiculous to expect people to listen to me, and it’s more than a little arrogant. It’s unreasonable.

But it’s the unreasonable man who changes the world.

You’re not good enough

I remember reading an article some time ago about how men and women approach new job positions. It said that while women waited until they were 100% qualified, men would jump at a new position when they were only 60% qualified. Men figured they would learn the rest once they were on the job, the article explained.

I don’t know if that’s true, and it’s a generalization regardless, but if it is I think men have it right this time. If we all waited until we were 100% qualified before jumping in, a lot of great work would never happen—because for many challenges, you’re never ready. Sometimes you just have to leap.

And the truth is, you usually rise to the occasion. That’s how it’s been for me. You jump in, and it’s sink or swim, so you pour everything you have into the challenge … and more often than not, you figure it out. You swim.

My older brother always told me to never apply to a job I’m qualified for. Aim higher. I know that’s worked for him as well. So that’s two data points, at least.

Yes, you’re probably not good enough to do what you truly want to do. Yet.

Do it anyway. Jump in. Leap. You’ll rise to the occasion, or fail attempting the remarkable. Either one is a win in my book.

Flawed genius

I’m always on the lookout for flawed genius. Rather than solid perfection, I prefer the crazy, quirky, and niche every time.

I stole this term from Paul Barnett of Mythic Entertainment, who was discussing his (late) game Warhammer Online, and its rival World of Warcraft:

“I believe WoW is a work of flawed genius. When you dismantle [these works] you can never be sure whether you get genius or flaw.”

I once evoked this in the finale post of Sakurasou na Pet no Kanojo, and though my prose is awfully unpolished, the sentiment stands.

What flawed genius is, to me, is a work with all the quirks left in. There’s a tendency—especially among business types—to sand down all the edges, in the hopes of broadening the story’s appeal and making it accessible to as many people as possible.

That’s the absolute worst thing you can do. There’s a word for something palatable to everyone, and it’s average—and average slides into mediocrity awfully fast. A work of flawed genius is one that dares to push away some so it can delight others. It’s a particular taste, even an acquired taste, but when you’ve got it, it engenders nothing but love. It’s a story all the greater for its flaws, because those are what make it feel real.

Characters are like this too. Flawed characters are more compelling than perfect characters, because we can relate to them. It makes them feel real, to know that they too have their imperfections, just like us. So it is with stories—the flawed ones are all the more compelling, because they echo our own flawed lives.

Technically perfect but artistically void KyoAni quasi-originals. Paint-by-the-numbers gunmetal gray and military brown AAA video games. Blockbuster movies focus-grouped into mediocrity. These have no soul, so even when they’re enjoyable, they dribble out of the mind and melt away. They’re pleasant pastimes at best, but they have trouble being more.

But flawed genius stays with you. They’re usually the work of one passionate individual, who channeled the unique them into a work only they could create. They are the stories that, when they strike a chord, change the way you view the world.

Striving for perfection isn’t a bad instinct. Every artist should try to produce the best work they can. But it should be their best work, not the Frankenstein’s monster of other works they’ve seen sell before.

Artists steal, but they shouldn’t steal something because it’s worked before. They should steal because they love it, because it calls out to them, and because incorporating it into their own work will improve it for the better.

Tell your own story. Leave the eccentricities in. Remember that true geniuses are always flawed. But most of all, don’t sand down all the corners. To some people, those corners will be the most interesting part.

Steal like an artist

Among certain circles, I think there’s too much focus on the unique. It’s nearly a fetish. “I’ve seen it all before” or “This is just like ______” are not the dirty words some imagine them to be. They’re the result of a creative truth you may not be aware of.

Artists steal. Artists steal all the time. Any artist who tells you she doesn’t is lying. There’s nothing new under the sun, but there are new combinations of what’s been seen before. And often, what you think is original isn’t; nine times out of ten, you just don’t know the references involved.

If you’re an artist, or would like to be an artist, or would like to understand artists, read Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative. Check it out at your local library—hopefully it’s there.

Real artists steal. We take ideas from anyone who has ideas worth stealing, and we weave them together into something totally our own. Go watch any Quentin Tarantino movie; you may notice that all the elements he uses have been used before. But what he does is combine them in a way that only Quentin Tarantino can. That’s what makes something unique—it’s not the ideas, but the execution. It’s in the combination that something new is born.

This isn’t an excuse to phone it in. The obvious aping of something successful in order to cash in on what’s worked before is poison to good storytelling. But you don’t have to be utterly unique to tell a good story, nor should you look for it in the works you enjoy. To do so is to reject the wealth of ideas lying around us, and the wonderful stories that can be woven from their cloth.

Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn.” -T.S. Eliot

Unique is overrated. Look for good instead. Not everyone can make that distinction, but it’s an important one.

Fast, easy, guaranteed

“…pick none.

That’s the work that’s worth doing.” –Seth Godin

What this tells me is that I’m doing work that’s worth doing right now. Writing this book has been neither fast, nor easy, nor is it guaranteed to succeed.

What else this tells me is that as soon as my writing is any of those things, I need to reach further. Especially easy. If it gets too easy, I’m not pushing myself hard enough to tell even better stories than I have before.

Slow, difficult, uncertain. That’s more like it.

Anchor

One of my friends likes to joke about how slowly I’m writing my first book. Fair enough. I myself thought it would be out by now, and I was clearly wrong.

I know I’ll be able to go more quickly next time, despite evidence to the contrary. That’s because I know what’s been holding me up. It’s a combination of self-sabotaging personal habits, lack of experience, and fear. These elements combine to make some days a productivity void, where I’m only able to write by dint of great effort, and that’s not the fastest way to go.

But fear is the largest portion. I sat on a finished draft for a couple of weeks before I finally found an editor, mainly because I was unsure, riddled with doubt, and afraid of taking the next step.

I can fix my personal habits, eating healthier and exercising and, most importantly for me, getting enough damn sleep. I’m trying to do that now.

I can get more experience. I’ve been doing that for years, and will continue to do so for many to come.

But fear… The only way I’m going to get over the fear is to finish this book and release it. Then I’ll know I can do it, and once you’ve done something, it’s always easier to do it again. The first time is always the toughest.

Even then, I know the fear won’t go away. It will only lessen. But I’ll learn to dance with it, to lead my fear rather than letting it take control of me.

The gap

If I were to sum up my original editor’s opinion of my book, it would be this:

Your ideas are good, but your execution isn’t there yet.

Trust me, I already knew. Or at least the second part.

The other day I came across a speech by Ira Glass. It’s called The Gap. If you’re at all interested in doing creative work, or important work of any kind, go watch it. It’s two minutes long. It’s worth it.

I know my taste is good. I know my ideas are good. But I also know my execution isn’t where I want it to be. I have to catch up to everybody else who has been doing this for a lot longer than I have. But if there’s one thing I know above all else, it’s that there’s one thing I have that other people apparently do not:

I will not quit.

Neil Gaiman’s Eight Rules of Writing

I love reading what great authors have to say about the craft. It’s often revelatory, and Neil Gaiman is one of my favorites. So here they are – Neil Gaiman’s Eight Rules of Writing:

  1. Write
  2. Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.
  3. Finish what you’re writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.
  4. Put it aside. Read it pretending you’ve never read it before. Show it to friends whose opinion you respect and who like the kind of thing that this is.
  5. Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
  6. Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.
  7. Laugh at your own jokes.
  8. The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it ­honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.

#3 is important, and difficult for many. Finishing has never been a problem for me, though. Finishing quickly, perhaps, but I’m stubborn, and I know I will finish eventually. #6 as well – I have no problems with imperfection, though I may need to get even more comfortable with it if I’m to finish this book and move onto the next. It’s a continuum, and I haven’t found the right spot yet.

#5 is revelatory, and exquisitely lonely. While I’m fine with doing my own thing, I like to collaborate with others as well, so I often find myself wanting to talk to my friends when I’m wrestling with a thorny scene. Sometimes they lead me to the answer, but other times they offer strong solutions. Do I take them? Do I not? It’s a case-by-case thing, but I know that when I’m getting feedback from proofreaders, I’ll pay far more attention to their problems than their solutions.

Then there’s #8. That’s the refrain. It’s the goal and the reward of the honest storyteller. As I read that, I’m uplifted. So I’ll write with assurance and confidence, knowing I’m not as good as others, but if I tell my story as best I can, I’ll get to keep telling the stories I want.

Personifying your muse

Now that I’ve just finished telling you that your muse is a lie, let’s talk about my muse, shall we?

No, I’m not backtracking on what I said before. Muses do not exist, and it’s vital to constantly remember that in order to avoid surrendering responsibility for your productivity. It is useful to define the environment in which you are best able to be creative though, and we humans are much better at responding to stories than lists of facts. So I’ll describe my “muse” as I understand it, and then translate that into prescriptions for myself.

My muse is greedy and selfish. I have trouble writing or editing if I have to fit it into whatever free time I have. I work best when I can devout vast tracts of time to my writing. If I have an hour, I’ll waste time, run out the clock, and get very little done, but if I have four hours, I’ll write well.

The twisted part? If I have four hours, I may only write for an hour anyway. I can’t seem to rush my muse, but when I have plenty of time, sometimes it’ll rush itself. I guess my muse is bad under pressure too.

My muse is possessive. Mental domination is the name of the game. The more I multitask, the worse I do, but when I can give my whole mind to the story – when I’m thinking about it, preparing for it, and looking forward to it even when I’m not writing – then I do well.

My muse is consistent. You could call it business-like. I can sit down and write every day without waiting for the “mood” to strike, and I’m better the more consistently I write. I like to think of it like Miyanaga Teru’s ability from Saki. The first day in a chain might be slow, but the longer I go, the higher my score gets, until eventually the momentum becomes crushing.

My muse is stodgy, but also flexible. It prefers to write in the same place every day, but when I’m out of town, I can write there too. I just need some peace and quiet, and to be away from people and distractions. I guess my muse is antisocial as well.

Finally, my muse is incapable of dreaming small. If most people decided they wanted to start blogging, they would have started their own blog first, but no, I went for Random Curiosity right off the bat. I probably should have started with short stories as well, but no, I had to start with a novel, and the first in a series to boot. My muse dreams big.

Can you picture my muse? Greedy, selfish, possessive, hates to be rushed, consistent, stodgy, flexible, antisocial, and loves to dream big. Can you see it?

My muse is a lie. Those are facets of me, and the environment I need to give myself to create well. I need to give myself plenty of time, even if I don’t use it. I need to think about my story a lot, and only focus on one at a time. I need to write every day. I need to write without distraction. I need to dream big.

The more I learn about my muse, the more I realize it’s just me. That’s the creative Stilts.

What’s your creative you like?