So, you want to create something, right? The 21st century Mona Lisa, a debut album that would put the Velvet Underground to shame, maybe even the next great American novel! You’re gonna be a legend, an icon. In 2119, bored teenagers will have to read about you in their holo-textbooks… only catch is, you still haven’t started yet. But you swear one day you’ll actually do it. You’re just waiting for motivation. Just one little spark is all it’ll take, surely. Any day now…
Failure is Never Starting
For me, the hardest thing about starting a project has always been… well, starting the project. I put the “pro” in procrastination. I’ve always been the person who waits until the last minute (sometimes literally) to do my homework; in my first semester of college, I made my final PowerPoint presentation in class on the day I had to present. I’ve always just figured that, well, you know, I don’t particularly like doing homework or essays or presentations, so naturally I’ll put them off, but, eventually I realized that the problem was a bit deeper than that. I noticed myself putting off even things I was actually passionate about, like starting my book or practicing my saxophone. But why?
Well, turns out I’m a bit of a coward. Deathly afraid of failure. That wasn’t exactly news to me, don’t get me wrong, but it finally gave me a reason to change (or try to, anyway).
You see, when my problem was procrastinating on a research paper about road construction in Ancient Rome or whatever, I didn’t really care about improving anything. As long as I finished it and got a decent grade, it was all fine. But when it was something I actually cared about… well then, anxiety, you just made it personal!
Every once in a while, a brilliant idea pops into our minds. Thing is, a brilliant idea can be priceless, but only if you actually do something with it. Seems pretty obvious, right? Then why do so many of us shelf those ideas until they grow stale and dusty, waiting for a spark that we know deep down inside won’t ever come?
Because of Schrödinger’s cat. What is Schrödinger’s cat, you ask? Well, it’s a thought experiment relating to quantum mechanics that I’m far too dumb to understand, let alone explain it to you, but the extremely simplified version is this: there’s a cat in a box. You know there’s a weird Rube Goldberg-esque device that might kill the cat, but you have no way of actually observing it. Since you have no way of observing it, you have no way of knowing if the cat is dead or alive. I’m sure I butchered that, but, basically, as far as you’re concerned, it’s in a state of flux.
When you have a great idea in your head but never actually make it concrete, it is, in a way, much like Schrödinger’s cat. You know it’s there in theory, and, while you know it’s a possibility that you could completely fail to actually pull it off, there’s also a chance that you could, and you can hold onto that hope. After all, if you try and fail, you have to face the fact that you’ve failed, but if you never try, you can always tell yourself, “yeah, but there’s a chance I could succeed, once I find my motivation!”
Sometimes, that hope enough to sate the thirst, but in actuality, it’s meaningless. Maybe it’ll make you feel good about yourself in the short term, but all you’re really doing is avoiding the risk of failure at the expense of that possibility of success being realized. If you truly want to create something great, you must risk failing, you must do the hard work that might not always be pleasant.
Schrödinger’s masterpiece is a mirage. It’s pretty to look at, it can give you a false sense of hope, but at the end of the day it will never truly be able to sustain you.
Motivation can be a great thing. But waiting for motivation can often be an excuse you tell yourself to justify putting off doing something, because doing things can be scary, and hard, and you can screw up or fail, but in your head every idea is golden. Don’t hide from that fear and give in to the placebo, though. Embrace your fears.
The Rough Draft Blues, Movement One: No Success Without Failure
A famous quote, sometimes attributed to Ernest Hemingway, goes, “the first draft of anything is shit.” Regardless of who really said it, there is some truth there.
Anyone who’s done anything is well aware that you don’t get things right the first time (or second, or third, or seventeenth…). As a musician, I still have nightmares about the awful duck-like squeaks I made during my first year of band, and I apologize to my family for having to listen to me practice. In the end, though, it was temporary, it was necessary; I wouldn’t be the painfully mediocre but still somewhat passable saxophonist I am today if it weren’t for those initial screeches.
It’s the same with every artistic venture. Sometimes, an aspiring author will write the first chapter of their novel, reread it the next day, notice how many problems it has, and get discouraged. But, if anything, that realization is a great reason to be encouraged. After all, if you can go back and point out what you did wrong, that means you’ve learned something, and that means you have the opportunity to improve.
Sure, your prose might be clunky, and your dialogue banal, and maybe your pacing is seriously screwed up, but now that you know what you need work on, you can actually address those problems. In my opinion, the most worrying reaction to rereading your first draft is “wow, that was perfect!” Nobody’s first draft is perfect.
If you’re reading this now, trying to convince yourself to start writing your first novel, I can only quote the great 21st century philosopher Shia LaBeouf and tell you three simple words: