I’m beginning to hate writing. What do I do? — Frequent Questions

Q: I’m beginning to hate writing. What do I do?
A: Keep writing, of course.

One of my writers got frustrated the other day. We’re past the halfway mark in the Bennett Ink 90-day Writing Challenge and finding something to write about for 15 minutes every day was becoming a slog.

I congratulated her.

Congratulated?

Yes, because she’s exactly where she’s supposed to be as she establishes her daily writing practice. As Seth Godin reminds us in his brief but wise book The Dip, everyone who tries to do something different goes through a rough patch. Those who persevere will eventually climb out of it; those who don’t get stuck.

Godin isn’t the first person to articulate that concept of the Dip. Writer John Bunyan wrote about it in his famous Christian allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress. Wikipedia tells us that the book, written in 1678, “has never been out of print”—quite a publishing feat. Bunyan called his version of the Dip “the Slough of Despond.”

hate writing? keep writing
The Slough of Despond, in the last third of the first panel. See? Fixed borders. From an 1821 edition of The Pilgrim’s Progress, Public Domain

So just what is this “miry” place, the Slough (rhymes with “cow”) of Despond?

“…it is the descent whither the scum and filth that attends conviction for sin doth continually run, and therefore is it called the Slough of Despond: for still as the sinner is awakened about his lost condition, there ariseth in his soul many fears, and doubts, and discouraging apprehensions, which all of them get together, and settle in this place; and this is the reason of the badness of this ground.”

I added the emphasis there. Does that feel like anyplace you’ve ever been?

Now, Bunyan was talking about Christians’ doubts about their faith—marketing to his niche audience, if you will. But Godin argues—and (big surprise) I agree—that everyone trying something new travels through that dark, discouraging place. The trick is to keep traveling. That’s what Bunyan’s Pilgrim did. And that’s what we need to do too.

Hate writing? Keep writing

So you enjoy writing enough to want to do it every day. Maybe for your own enjoyment, maybe to meet a business objective. You start out full of enthusiasm and then, little by little, you realize the joy has disappeared. Some people will give up.

Other people may get confused: “Didn’t I use to like doing this?” Their memories of past enjoyment may keep them slogging through a little longer. But when the “fears, doubts, and discouraging apprehensions” stick around, they might just give in and give up.

The trick is to know that the Slough of Despond has fixed borders. Keep plowing through and you will get to the other side. Eventually. I promise.

You just have to keep doing whatever it is that landed you in the Slough to begin with. If that’s going to yoga classes every day, then get out of the damn bed and grab your mat. If it’s writing every day, then—love it or hate it—you write every day.

And celebrate the heck out of it when you do.


Write better when you write more often. Join my 5-day writing challenge: Write for 15 minutes a day and I’ll donate your registration fee to a global literacy nonprofit. More info and registration link here.

Nora Bayes, the Beyoncé of the early 20th Century

Nora Bayes
Nora Bayes in 1912, Public Domain

What do Nora Bayes and Beyoncé have in common?  Vanity Fair included them both in this video celebrating the fashions of “top pop stars” of the past 100+ years.

No doubt you’ve heard of this Beyoncé. But what do you know about Nora Bayes, star of Broadway and vaudeville?

She made a cameo appearance in one of my recent blogs. Nora Bayes, née Eleanora Sarah Goldberg, introduced the world to “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” She followed that with several other hit records. George M. Cohan personally chose her to record his morale-boosting song “Over There” during World War I. It became an international hit. Shortly after the war ended in 1918, she became the first woman to have a Broadway theatre named after her, the Nora Bayes Theatre, of course.

Bayes’s second husband, Jack Norworth, wrote some hit songs for her, like “Shine On, Harvest Moon”—probably their biggest hit. But Bayes also wrote songs in her own right—music and lyrics. In fact, most sources neglect to mention that she co-wrote “Shine On, Harvest Moon” with Norworth.

More than half a dozen Broadway shows—including Ziegfeld Follies of 1931—featured “songs by Nora Bayes,” according to her listing in the Internet Broadway Database. Several others bear the credit “additional lyrics by Nora Bayes.”

She died in 1928—but her memory apparently lived on, because in 1980 writer Garson Kanin used her as the central character of his novel Smash. If that title seems familiar, yes, the book served as at least part of the basis of the television series Smash. But the producers swapped out Nora Bayes for a more contemporary figure, Marilyn Monroe.

Who was Nora Bayes?

I could end this post right now and you’d have an interesting bunch of trivia about a star of the early 20th century. But Nora Bayes was more than “…one of those rare female triple-threats in vaudeville entertainment” and “easily the most popular female entertainer in vaudeville for much of the first quarter of the 20th century.” She was also a fiercely independent woman, unafraid to forge her own path. Perhaps the comparison with Beyoncé runs deeper than their fashion style.

The Jewish Women’s Archive profile of Bayes tells us:

“In…battles with male businessmen and in her unconventional personal life, Bayes provides some flamboyant, indeed extreme, examples of the broad social changes happening in the United States in the early twentieth century, namely the questioning of traditional roles for women as well as the challenges to male political and economic power that marked the women’s movement of the time.”

Florenz Ziegfeld banned her from show business after she walked out on his 1909 Follies. But she had the last laugh—audiences missed her. She returned to the stage triumphantly, with an even more lucrative contract than she’d had before: $2,500 a week—more than $60,000 in today’s dollars.

Several years later, she broke her contract with a vaudeville producer and set out on her own:

“…she launched her own two-hour, one-woman show in 1917, starred in the musical Ladies First in 1918, and then continued to perform in vaudeville in the England and the United States through 1927.”

Who knows what Bayes would have done if her cancer hadn’t been misdiagnosed early on? But she died in 1928, leaving behind three young children adopted with her fifth husband.

Story Safari

I love finding stories like these. How many other strong women have been all but lost to history? I’ll look for an opportunity to bring Nora Bayes back to life in one of my clients’ speeches.

 


Write better when you write more often. Join my 5-day writing challenge: Write for 15 minutes a day and I’ll donate your registration fee to a global literacy nonprofit. More info and registration link here.

Details make the story sing

Yesterday I wrote about the classic song “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Written in 1908, it remains a staple of baseball games today, sung in every ballpark at almost every game, for nearly 50 years now. While stories vary on when and where the song made its first appearance in a game—go down this Wikipedia rabbit hole if you like—one thing about the song remains indisputable: the songwriters had never been to a baseball game before they wrote the song. So what makes it ring so true for baseball fans everywhere? Details. Details make any story sing. Even those without music.

In this case, actor and lyricist Jack Norworth saw an ad for a baseball game while riding the New York City subway one day. Always on the lookout for fresh material, he wrote the song for his wife, Nora Bayes, to sing in their vaudeville act. When you know the lyrics to the verses, the song makes much more sense sung by a woman.

For the record, the music was written by Albert Von Tilzer, and it remains his only apparent claim to fame since Wikipedia describes him as “the younger brother of songwriter Harry Von Tilzer.”

The chorus, the part of the song that’s remained ubiquitous in ballparks at least since 1971 (though it was sung during the 1934 World Series), is full of the details that evoke nostalgia and pride in baseball fans everywhere. Yet lyricist Jack Norworth never saw a baseball game until 1940—more than three decades after he wrote the song.

Details paint the picture

How do you describe something you’ve never seen? Pile on the details, as many as you can find or invent.

“Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack.” First sold in ballparks in 1896, Cracker Jack had become a baseball staple by 1908. The specificity of the brand name—vs. the generic “peanuts”—makes this detail come alive.

I don’t see Cracker Jack in the stores as much as I did when I was a kid—maybe I’m not looking in the right places—but I expect we’ll be seeing it in baseball stadiums until they switch over to 3D digitized games we watch through VR headsets. Wikipedia notes that the Yankees tried replacing it with a different coated popcorn treat in 2004 but “after a public outcry” switched back to the brand in the song.

“Root, root root for the home team”—it doesn’t take genius to imagine that’s what fans do. But people are always happy to have happy activities mirrored back to them.

details
Public Domain

“One, two, three strikes, you’re out”—Yes, a novice could get these details from the rule book, or from any news account of a game. But could Norworth have imagined how much satisfaction fans would get from mimicking the umpire like this?

At Mets games, the singalong is “led” by Mr. Met, our oddly disturbing baseball-headed mascot. When you create a mascot with a baseball for a head, how many fingers do you put on his hand? Four, of course: Three so he can count out the strikes in the song, and a thumb to tell the opposing batter to take a hike.

With songs and with mascots, the genius is in the details.


Write better when you write more often. Join my 5-day writing challenge: Write for 15 minutes a day and I’ll donate your registration fee to a global literacy nonprofit. More info and registration link here.

Women love baseball — Song for a Sunday

Women love baseball. Always have, always will. Just ask Katie Casey.

Who?

I know, I know—most people, even die-hard baseball fans—have never heard of Katie Casey. But the song that introduced her to the world remains ubiquitous, even 109 years after its creation.

Women love baseball
detail from an illustration of “The Average American Woman of 1908

Yes, friends, Katie Casey is the heroine of the song “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” We don’t know about her because we never sing the verses of the song, only its chorus. For the record, then, here are the original lyrics (now out of copyright), by songwriter and vaudevillian Jack Norworth:

Katie Casey was baseball mad,
Had the fever and had it bad.
Just to root for the home town crew,
Ev’ry sou
Katie blew.
On a Saturday her young beau
Called to see if she’d like to go
To see a show, but Miss Kate said “No,
I’ll tell you what you can do:”

Chorus

Take me out to the ball game,
Take me out with the crowd;
Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack,
I don’t care if I never get back.
Let me root, root, root for the home team,
If they don’t win, it’s a shame.
For it’s one, two, three strikes, you’re out,
At the old ball game.

Katie Casey saw all the games,
Knew the players by their first names.
Told the umpire he was wrong,
All along,
Good and strong.
When the score was just two to two,
Katie Casey knew what to do,
Just to cheer up the boys she knew,
She made the gang sing this song:

(Repeat Chorus)

Women love baseball, then and now

We tend to think of Edwardian era women as all buns and corsets. But enough of them spoke their minds, even back then. Women participated in the 1908 Democratic Convention that summer, even though only a few states had granted them the right to vote. Earlier in the year, 15,000 women garment workers marched through the streets of New York City, demanding political rights and economic justice. That was March 8th, the day we now commemorate as International Women’s Day.

So the idea of a woman speaking her mind and demanding that her beau take her to the ballgame rather than the theatre—well, it probably amused audiences in 1908 but her outspokenness wouldn’t have come out of left field.

I’m not surprised baseball embraced the chorus of the song. It’s an anthem of consumerism: Buy a ticket. Spend lots of money on the concessions. But I am surprised at how thoroughly Katie Casey has disappeared.

Not just because women love baseball. Although—news flash—we do. And not just because male-dominated society always finds a way to make women invisible.

But why in over 100 years has no one has thought about how odd the lyrics are if the “me” in the song is the guy in the stands singing it:

“Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack”

Just who’s doing the buying here? And why are you, red-blooded American male baseball fan, incapable of buying your own?

There’s more to say about this song, and the men who wrote it. But I can’t say it now. Gotta run—I’m going to the ballgame.


Write better when you write more often. Join my 5-day writing challenge: Write for 15 minutes a day and I’ll donate your registration fee to a global literacy nonprofit. More info and registration link here.

Your vision, clarified — when editing helps

editing helpsEditing helps only if it’s the right kind of editing. Some people will read a manuscript about, for instance, a farmer with an apple orchard and say, “Wouldn’t it be better to write about a farmer growing avocados?” Well, avocado farming may be fascinating, but that’s not what the piece is about. The best editors respect the writer’s vision.

As I learned from my legendary playwrighting teacher Len Berkman, the best editing enhances and clarifies the text but does not change the writer’s intent. “Comment on the piece the writer has written,” Len told us on the first day of class, “not on whatever you would have written given that material.”

An editor can help you weed out the great writing that must be in the piece from the (perhaps equally great) writing that weighs the piece down.

Does every detail drive the story forward? If not, move the passage into your Outtakes file.

Yes, no matter how brilliant your writing is, you will have passages that don’t belong in what you’re writing. Editing them out of this piece doesn’t mean losing them forever when you maintain an Outtakes file for each project. You’re not “killing your darlings,” just moving them to another room until you find the right place for them to live.

Editing helps identify overused tricks

Do you have any favorite stylistic devices? Things you just love to make words do. When you dip into your bag of writer’s tricks too often, you draw attention away from what you’re saying. Instead, the reader focuses on how you’re saying it. Not good.

Every writer has tricks like that—in fact, I just edited one out of the paragraph beginning “As I learned from…” Originally, the paragraph read:

The best editing, as I learned from my legendary playwrighting teacher Len Berkman, enhances and clarifies the text but does not change the writer’s intent. “Comment on the piece the writer has written,” Len told us on the first day of class, “not on whatever you would have written given that material.”

What’s wrong with that? Nothing much, except that I make the same stylistic choice in two back-to-back sentences. I interrupt the narrative flow with a clause set off by commas—”as I learned from my legendary playwrighting teacher Len Berkman” and “Len told us on the first day of class.”

I love identifying a speaker in mid-quote. But you can’t pull that sort of trick in every sentence. It gets really boring, really quickly. So I kept the mid-quote identification and edited the previous sentence instead.

Do-It-Yourself editing

When you’re studying writing, your teacher becomes your first editor. Eventually, you learn enough to become your own first editor. Even Fran Lebowitz—who famously doesn’t let anyone else edit her—edits herself. Probably too much. As she told The Paris Review:

“I write a sentence a thousand times, changing it all the time to look at it in different ways.”

Imagine how much time that wastes—editing yourself sentence by sentence. No wonder she hasn’t published anything for more than two decades.

I advise my writers to just write—get their ideas out, create a first draft and then let it sit—for an hour, a day, a week, depending on how long it took you to write in the first place. Editing helps, but not until you’re ready for it. So you’ve got to take a break; let it rest.

And don’t edit a thousand times; edit once. Then let that draft sit while you do something else. And when your head has cleared, re-read it and see what you think.

I’m cooking up a webinar program to help writers become their own first editors. (Click here and I’ll let you know when we launch. ) Smart writers know their work can always be improved. Great writers discover how to do that themselves. And then they’re ready to seek advice from a trusted editor to make their work extraordinary.

Prepared remarks — prepare for anything

When you deliver prepared remarks, do you read them over before you hit the podium?

Longtime readers of this blog know that’s a trick question: Of course you read them beforehand. In fact, you rehearse them beforehand, too.

I recently heard a speaker correct himself in mid-speech. His prepared remarks had him talking about some sort of training program started under his watch. The text had him saying, “To date, we’ve trained X number of people.” But he actually said:

“To date, we’ve trained—well, I haven’t trained anyone; the program has trained…”

It got a laugh from the crowd, but I winced. He clearly hadn’t read through the speech in advance.

Make sure they’re your prepared remarks

Now it wasn’t the worst speech-reading gaffe I’ve ever heard. That prize would have to go to “Uncle Joe” Biden. He may have rehabilitated his reputation somewhat after eight years as Vice President. But to me he’ll always be the clueless pol who, in one of his presidential runs, delivered a stirring speech about his ancestors, their challenges and their joys. Problem was, they weren’t his ancestors. He lifted the speech from a British politician.

Of course, it didn’t take long for the press to out him—even in those dark days before Google.

He said it was unintentional. Really?

Keep your ears open

Prepared remarks represent the speechwriter’s best guess about what you should say at the event. But stuff happens. You have to be aware of your environment, of who’s spoken before you and what they’ve said.

I once gave my client a speech that mentioned “rabbit ears” TV antennae as a reference that will outlive its usefulness when the Baby Boomers pass on. Turns out an earlier speaker had used the same metaphor. Staffers alerted my client before he went on and he was able to adjust on the fly, making a joke of it. Awkward situation averted.

The speaker I saw at the women’s business conference this week did not have his wits about him. Or perhaps he hadn’t been paying attention to the introduction, because he bounded to the podium and said,

“Thanks, Ann, for that terrific introduction.”

What’s wrong with that? No, it’s not that he got her name wrong (I actually don’t remember her name, only that he used it). It’s that the “terrific introduction” consisted of—and I quote:

“Our next speaker is the only man here, so let’s give him an enthusiastic welcome.”

Is that what you’d call a “terrific introduction”?

I’d call it about the bare minimum anyone could say. Now, obviously he can’t go out there and say, “Thanks for doing the bare minimum to introduce me.”

But he could have said, “Thanks, Ann.”—surely no one needs a speechwriter to tell them how to say that—and then just skip to the second sentence of his prepared remarks. Which was probably something about how honored he was to be there.

Not honored enough to pay attention to what was going on. But honored enough to have someone write up some remarks for him. Too bad he didn’t read through them beforehand.

“All first drafts are sh*t” — why editing matters

Ernest Hemingway allegedly said, “All first drafts are sh*t.” Of course, if he did say it he said it without the asterisk. But it’s the most concise explanation I’ve found for why editing matters.

I’ve written before about my friend who proudly announced that he’s never edited anything he’s written. He’s also never sold anything he’s written, and I think the two things are related. But Fran Lebowitz has published—and in The Paris Review interview I’ve been writing about all week, she claims:

I’ve never once been edited. I’ve never let anyone edit me, even when I was a kid. When I started publishing, I was writing for this small magazine, deservedly small, called Changes, which was what was then called an underground magazine. I wouldn’t let that editor edit me; it didn’t matter because they paid me ten dollars and no one read it. Then a few real magazines began calling me and asked, Would you be interested in writing for us?

I’d say, Well, yes, but you can’t edit me.

Click.

Then I started writing for Interview, where I made a deal (no editing), which also didn’t matter since no one read that magazine either. More people would call me, from real maga­zines now, like Esquire and New York magazine . . . and I said no editing.

Click.

My first book was not edited. Henry Robbins was my editor and before that Laurie Colwin. Neither one of them edited me. Joe Fox, who is now my editor at Random House, never edited me. So I’ve never had the experience of being edited and never will.

Fran Lebowitz goes it alone

The Paris Review published that interview in 1993. One year later, Lebowitz released a children’s book and her publisher released an anthology of the two books of essays she’d written. That was 1994. Since then…crickets.

I can’t say whether Lebowitz’s nearly three-decade-long drought has anything to do with her aversion to editing. But you’d have to think that having someone to bat ideas around with would help. Someone to say, “This is brilliant. This…maybe you want to rethink.” Actually, Lebowitz does have that someone—Joe Fox, her editor at Random House. She just refuses to accept any of his comments:

Lebowitz: In the novel I’m writing now, there is something that Joe doesn’t like, quite a big thing. He said, I’m just telling you what I think. I said, Fine. I don’t agree with you.

Interviewer: Even before he had said it?

No, I let him say it. I may be tough, but I am polite. He disagrees with the way I have the narrator narrating the book. What he would have me do would be an easy thing to change. But it’s just out of the question; it’s not something I would seriously entertain.

Why editing matters

That “novel I’m writing now”—that would be Exterior Signs of Wealth, a book that remains unfinished 24 years after Lebowitz gave that interview, and some 34 years after she signed the contract to write it.

Would making that narrative change solve a structural problem and make the novel easier to write? We can’t know that. But I do know that often when I feel I’ve written myself into a corner, I’ll ask someone whose opinion I trust to read it and comment.

Clients, though sometimes maddeningly conservative, can also offer fresh perspectives that can improve my work. And since it’s their work in the end, not mine, I have to listen to them. Some might find that constricting but I like it. It forces me to be accountable, and to ship. That’s why editing matters.

Fran Lebowitz has a distinctive way of looking at the world and a unique writer’s voice. It’s  a shame she can’t (or won’t) let us hear it.


Shape your stories to make them memorable—discover how in my hands-on editing workshop. Click here and I’ll let you know when we launch.

Why do people get writer’s block? — Frequent Questions

Q: If writer’s block isn’t real, why do so many people have it?
A: It’s real if they think it’s real.

In The Paris Review interview I wrote about yesterday, Fran Lebowitz talks about her 1o-year struggle with writer’s block. Ten years!

It gets worse: the interview happened in 1994 and she still hasn’t published the novel. That’s 34 years of writer’s block, longer than many writers have been alive.

I will not be the person to tell Fran Lebowitz that she’s been suffering for 34 years from a self-inflicted injury. The ordeal seems genuinely painful for her. Even more painful than writing, if we are to believe what she tells the interviewer.

Interviewer: What did you do during those five years before you started writing the book?

Lebowitz: I sulked. Sulking is a big effort. So is not writing. I only realized that when I did start writing. When I started getting real work done, I realized how much easier it is to write than not to write. Not writing is probably the most exhausting profession I’ve ever encountered. It takes it out of you. It’s very psychically wearing not to write—I mean if you’re supposed to be writing.

Let writer’s block reroute your creativity

One of my theories about writer’s block is that it’s not a failure of one’s creative powers—it’s a failure to be open to new ideas. It’s a matter of insisting on writing THIS thing rather than THAT thing. But maybe THAT thing isn’t ready to be written yet. Or maybe it’s not the thing you should be writing.

Lebowitz set herself a goal to write a novel:

I had an idea for this book, but I wrote very little. When I was about twenty and had just started publishing, I thought: I’ll write two books of these funny essays and then I’ll write a novel. I never wanted to write a novel first.

writer's block
Image by John Cox

She published those very successful collections of “funny essays” and then signed a contract to produce a novel. Thirty-four years later, all we know is the book’s title—External Signs of Wealth. It remains unfinished. She wrote a children’s book and her publisher released a collection of her essays in 1994, but those are her last published works. I can’t even begin to imagine how that feels.

Maybe Lebowitz just isn’t a novelist. Maybe she’s a writer of “funny essays”—and a very successful one, at that. Why can’t that be enough?

What’s scarier than not writing? For some people: Writing

I guess so many people believe in writer’s block because it allows them to attach the word “writer” to something they’re doing. If you invent an external reason for your inaction, you don’t have to face the (probable) internal reason—a reason Lebowitz identifies as fear.

Interviewer: In general, why is it so difficult to write?

Lebowitz: Because it’s intrinsically difficult work. The only job that is worse is coal mining. All writers have a normal healthy amount of fear, but I have an excessive amount of fear.

What is the fear about?

For some people it’s the fear of not being good enough, for others it’s the fear of being good enough. It’s tempting the gods to write. Think of the terrible attacks Philip Roth was subjected to early in his career, and even now. This is why people do horrible things to themselves when they are writing, punishing themselves so maybe someone else won’t.

Stop punishing yourself. Write. Even if you’re writing “I have no idea what to write.” Force yourself to sit down for 15 minutes a day. It will help. I promise.


Write better when you write more often. Join my 5-day writing challenge: Write for 15 minutes a day and I’ll donate your registration fee to a global literacy nonprofit. More info and registration link here.

Ideas and the ineffable: Fran Lebowitz on writing

ineffable
Fran Lebowitz in 2011. Photo by Christopher Macsurak, Creative Commons license

Twenty-four years ago, The Paris Review published an interview with writer Fran Lebowitz. It’s a veritable cornucopia of blog ideas.  I’ll start with this passage, a perfect example of what makes the creative process so ineffable—and also, sometimes, so infuriating to those of us who lack patience (I’ve changed the formatting to make it easier to read):

Lebowitz: …For one month I went everywhere—to map stores, bookstores, looked through catalogs. Then I went to every kind of weird library—to specialty libraries and businesses that had their own libraries.

Interviewer: What were you looking for?

I didn’t know. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been so catholic in my wanderings.

But why maps?

Maps.

You thought that the key to unlock your problem was in a map?

There’s this Rand McNally store that has every kind of map and map book. I spent an entire workday there. I went out to lunch and came back. I thought maybe a key to a map might be of use to organize the chapters. Of course that didn’t work out. After a month I couldn’t find anything. But I decided that was all right, that I had absorbed all this information, and what I needed would just come to me, pop into my mind. And it did.

That last part bears repeating:

I decided that … I had absorbed all this information, and what I needed would just come to me, pop into my mind. And it did.

Fran Lebowitz and the ineffable

That’s the ineffable thing about writing. Maybe about all types of creating, but I can only attest to the writing part. Ineffable—Dictonary.com describes it as more than indescribable; the second definition is “not to be spoken of because of its sacredness.” And that’s about right.

When you leave yourself open to ideas, ideas will find you. Maybe even the right idea.

So Lebowitz did her research, trekked from library to library, spend a month in a map store and “decided that was all right” (I would have decided it was “alright,” but I don’t edit The Paris Review). She trusted that the idea she needed would show up. And it did.

Well, sort of. To be continued…


Write better when you write more often. Join my 5-day writing challenge: Write for 15 minutes a day and I’ll donate your registration fee to a global literacy nonprofit. More info and registration link here.

In praise of imperfection: “The things that are wrong make it art”

Imperfection?
photo from Taylor Hill’s Instagram account

I don’t know who Taylor Hill is. The April 2017 issue of  InStyle magazine tells me she’s a “megamodel”—so even more super-er than a supermodel, I guess. As I said, no idea. But she displays a mega-impressive understanding of imperfection, courtesy of her high school art teacher who told her:

“Don’t try to perfect things. The things that are wrong are what make it art.”

Now, Hill trots out this piece of wisdom in reference to the art of makeup application—she megamodels for Lancôme’s makeup line—but I think it applies to any creative endeavor.

I preach the virtues of imperfection. But do I practice them?

I need to interrupt this ode to imperfection to note that I spent a couple of hours last night ripping out several very long rows of the afghan I’m knitting because I spotted one stitch out of place. But it would have ruined the pattern! And every time I looked at the finished product, that’s the only thing I’d see.

If I truly embraced imperfection, I’d be able to enjoy the tens of thousands of stitches that are in the right places. Or in Taylor Hill’s milieu, I’d still feel gorgeous even if the ends of my eyeliner don’t wing up at exactly the same angle. But to judge from the photos in InStyle, which I cannot link to, anyone who looks at Taylor Hill and sees only mismatched eyeliner needs some serious therapy.

Now, I do actually care about my eyeliner, when I wear it. But I happily release blog post after blog post into the world, knowing full well that some of them are much w*rse—let’s just say less well-written—than others. See for yourself: scroll down.

What’s the difference? Why do I care about an imperfection in the knitting project hardly anyone will see but I’m perfectly nonchalant about imperfections in my blog that the entire internet may see?

Two things:

  1. I’m committed to ship.
  2. Perfection doesn’t exist.

Imperfection and commitment

No matter how much I want to fuss with my makeup, I know that at some point I’m going to have to walk out the door. Because if I’m putting on makeup in the first place that means I have someplace to go. So I’d better get there.

I’ve committed to publishing a blog post every day. I could wrangle with it until 11:59 p.m., but chances are 12+ hours of fussing wouldn’t measurably improve the draft. And, anyway, I have other things to do, a life to lead—which may or may not involve knitting and makeup (though usually it’s one or the other).

So I recognize that it’s imperfect, and I bless and release it. I ship.

I don’t know if you count my blog as “art.” Maybe some days.

But I do know it’s the best my imperfect self can do on any given day. And that’s good enough for me.


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