Quoth Mark Twain,
Name the greatest of all inventors. Accident.
One lesson I've learned in the last couple of years is that epiphanies are nice (and damn useful) to have, and, additionally, that one can actively pursue them instead of kicking back and (vainly) awaiting them. (Though I suppose it's less about pursuit than about putting yourself in places where epiphanies are likely to occur.) The obvious epiphanic high comes in the form of that "Hey, from now on, I'm probably going to do better" feeling, but there's a downside, too, because every change for the better reveals that, for the entire time preceding the epiphany, you've been DOING IT WRONG.
I recently had to admit over twenty straight years of doing it wrong. Like, really wrong. So wrong that it quashed most of my potentially notable accomplishments before I could take a full step toward realizing them. Aborted, much-fantasized-about projects litter my childhood and adolescence. I'd admire a comic — a Tintin adventure, a Calvin & Hobbes Sunday strip — and, unable to replicate it, would abandon my own drawing. I'd admire a game — any of the PC graphic adventures I'd burn through on a weekly basis, or maybe one of the more elaborate Phantasy Star installments, — and, unable to replicate it, would distract myself with a different, equally ill-thought-out project. I'd admire a piece of music — something from Steely Dan, to name a particularly advanced range of examples, or even tracks by far more pedestrian artists — and, unable to replicate it, put the instrument down and call it a day. "This isn't that," I'd think, and then throw in the towel.
However different these pursuits, my approach never varied:
- Enjoy something, envision self creating something very similar
I was, in other words, locked into what I've previously called a "director" as opposed to "conceiver" mindset. Instead of asking myself, "What's cool about that, and how can I implement that kind of coolness in my own context?", I asked myself, "How can I make that?" I pictured what I wanted to make and then attempted to make it exactly. Such an aim is destined for defeat, since (a) to replicate something, I'd need exactly the same resources, tools and thoughts as the original creator had and (b) even if I could replicate it, my version would be redundant and unnecessary by its very nature. There is much wisdom in, as Paul Graham puts it, copying what you like, but I took it to a paralyzing extreme, trying and failing not just to copy what I liked about what I liked but the things themselves that I liked.
My realization that that the relevant ability of creation is not to faithfully replicate but to harness accident is certainly welcome, but I wish it'd come a tad earlier. Who knows where I'd be now if I'd figured it out before? And I guarantee that I wasn't the only one afflicted by the inability to do the small and kind of lame — or at least to do it with commitment — because I hadn't realized that I could iterate it toward something bigger and better; hundreds of aspiring writers are no doubt staring at a Word document even now, comparing it to The Catcher in the Rye or The Great Gatsby or Sweet Valley High: Wrong Kind of Girl, thinking, "This isn't that," and twitching toward the old upper-right X.
The solution seems to require no less than a teardown/rebuild of one's own view of stuff-doing: the goals, the expectations, the metaphors, all that nonsense. There are worse starting points than Twain's premise. Making profitable use of accident — which I mean more in the sense of unpredicted input and restriction than of, say, auto pileups — won't get you the very same work that spurred on to create something yourself, but, used well, it can put you on your way to quality equivalence. Perhaps the core of the issue is that it's easier on our weak human brains to think in terms of how best to react to developments rather than to go nuts focusing on the countless points at which our projects, in their incomplete states, fail to mirror their idealized inspirations. If this is true, I suppose it's another vindication of the Organic, Iterative Creative ProcessesTM of which I've been so enamored lately.