Depression and anxiety don’t make for great bedfellows with creativity, yet more often than not you’ll find them stuffed together. From Vincent van Gogh to Franz Kafka, there’s a strange paradox at the heart of the issue: a creative person’s wish to put their work out their for the world to see, invariably coupled with their view that their work isn’t worth the ink/paint/bandwidth it’s made up of. It’s an issue I’ve seen a number of people struggle with over the years, and something I’ve had to deal with time and time again.
As if to stress this, what you’re about to read is actually the third attempt I’ve made at writing something on this topic. There are two completed versions gathering metaphorical dust in the depths of my Google Docs, and in each case I came to dislike them so much that I couldn’t bring myself to publish them. Neither of them ever quite managed to convey what I hoped they would, and neither quite came together in the way I’d pictured them.
That’s actually where I think we can lay the blame for this issue.
THE CONCEPT VS THE FINAL PRODUCT
The computing industry has a wonderful term called ‘vapourware’, coined to describe a piece of software or product that is announced to the public but never made publicly available. In many cases this causes consumers to build an increasingly large amount of anticipation about said products, which in many cases reach such ridiculous levels that the final product (assuming it ever sees the light of day) cannot hope to match expectations. It’s an issue you see time and time again with video games, to use an example close to my heart: ask any Valve fanboy about Half Life 3 and you’ll see what I mean.
What this helps to illustrate is the fact that the idea of something will always remain more appealing than the reality of it. Within our minds, that perfect article/story/painting/etc. is semi-solid, translucent, shifting and reshaping itself at will. This is what allows it to retain that image of perfection. In setting it down on paper or on our word
processor of choice we solidify it, nail it down into precise words and terms.
In adding flesh to the bones, in adding shape to the concept, we are no longer able to view our idea as what it might be. We are forced to face what it is.
COMING TO TERMS WITH THE FLAWS
For me at least, this is what I can’t help but remember every time I’ve tried to read back over something I have written. Doesn’t matter if it’s a blog post, a story, or even my academic work: I can still remember the possibilities they once were, but am nonetheless forced to see them for what they wound up as.
And there will always be a spelling mistake or two, a turn of phrase I might have used better.
The internal editor is mean like that.
It’s an intensely frustrating experience, one that makes me want to slap the metaphorical (or literal, in the case of blog stuff) ‘EDIT’ button and take another crack at it. Maybe this time I’ll get it right, I’ll tell myself. Maybe this time I’ll nail it. Resisting that urge can be awfully difficult. But it’s important that I do.
You have to accept when something is finished. That you’ve hit that point where you declare enough is enough. In moments like this, I’ve always found it helpful to remind myself that I’ll never be entirely happy with something I’ve written. It will never quite match that ill-defined concept I had in my head.
Here’s the important thing, though.
IF YOU DON’T PRODUCE, YOU’LL NEVER IMPROVE
Putting yourself out there is a pretty terrifying experience, especially if your brain chemistry is so adept at stressing just how dreadful it thinks you are at everything. This is why it’s so tempting to just slap a permanent ‘WORK IN PROGRESS’ label on everything you’ve produced and forever tweak away at it in perpetuity, telling yourself that one day it’ll match your expectations.
As we’ve established, though, it won’t.
What’s worse is that by applying the ostrich technique to your work and burying it in the metaphorical sand, you deny yourself one of the most vital things you need to improve the things you create: feedback. Critique, suggestions, comments and opinions are all fantastic ways to shed new light on your work, to see how others view and experience it. Without such insights you are heavily stunting your ability to develop your chosen craft. Yes, some of it will sting. Some of it may even be harsh. That’s unfortunately the nature of things. But denying yourself the chance to develop because you’re afraid of a few ego bruises is ultimately doing yourself a disservice.
Finally, unless you can declare something finished you cannot move on from it, which means you can’t engage with new projects without dragging all your old baggage along with you. By stating that you’re done with a piece of work, you’re allowing yourself to start thinking about what you might work on next. Frankly, if it really is as you fear and your work is the turd you think it is, then no amount of polishing is going to save it.
Better to cut your losses, learn what lessons you can and see where your work takes you next.
And who knows? Maybe someone will like it. As we’ve established, after all, you’re pretty biased about the things you create.
Give other people the chance to judge it, and they might surprise you.
TIPS FOR DEALING WITH CREATIVE VAPOURWARE
- Deadlines: One of the benefits of starting a blog and maintaining other writing commitments is that it gives me a deadline for when something needs to be finished: if I want this site to expand and grow then fresh content needs to be supplied, and no amount of excuses or re-drafting can negate this fact. Deadlines, even self-imposed ones, therefore represent a valuable tool in helping to push past the idea that something just isn’t good enough for your liking. Again, it’ll probably never be quite to your liking. That doesn’t change the fact that your blog needs to be updated on Friday, or that you promised to upload your new illustration on Monday.
- Third Party Critique/Critical Readers: Let’s face it, you’re pretty biased when it comes to your work if any of the above applies to you. You’re never going to be able to look at something you’ve worked on and not see what it could have been. This is where external parties can come in extremely handy. They’ve never experienced the initial concept of what you wanted to create. They’ve not gone through the process needed to produce the final product. All they can see is the final product, on it’s own merits and little else.This means that their opinion on your creation is actually way more valuable than yours in this regard. So find someone you can trust to give you a reasonable and objective critique of what you’ve worked on, and consider carefully what they have to say.
- Not Looking Back: There’s nothing wrong with reflecting on what you’ve produced in the past. I’ve found it extremely beneficial, and actually quite heartening, to go back over stories in the past and compare them to the stuff I produce now: it’s amazing what even just a few years of practice can make in terms of quality. Yet all things in moderation, as the saying goes, which means there’s a point where it becomes quite unhealthy to constantly ruminate on what you’ve previously produced and the flaws in it.The solution to this one is pretty simple, then.
Focus your attention on the future instead of the past. Reflect more on what you’re going to do, rather than what you’ve done. Instead of freaking yourself out over the flaws in something you wrote last week, you’re far better considering things you might work on next. They’ll never be perfect either, of course. But what they will be is better. This is a far healthier and more productive way to expend mental energy, and it will help to improve your work. At the end of the day, what’s done is done. Far more important is what you do next.