Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working.” –Pablo Picasso
This week’s post is for my students at the Portfolio Center where it is currently studio week: time to produce the projects students have been planning and designing all quarter. It is an exhausting and occasionally exhilarating week: full of coffee, laughter, tears and very little sleep. Productivity and moods are subject to big swings. Please remember: you’ve got this! And you have so much to learn…I try to remind my students: if you already knew everything about design, you would not need to be in school. We are impatient, but it takes time to integrate what you have learned and produce work that is all that you want it to be.
Here are some reminders and some thoughts as well as inspiration. to help you approach your work with an open frame of mind. First, this great short video that uses the words of Ira Glass, a public radio personality and the host and producer of the radio and television show This American Life.
The best designers and storytellers have put in tremendous amounts of work and learned to proceed even when things do not seem to be going well. Sometimes this will be very uncomfortable, but it is the only way toward progress. In the past few weeks I have had multiple discussions with students about the difference between thinking about your work and actually engaging in the sometimes messy process of actually making. It is so easy to get stuck in one’s head. I remind my students that they are here because they love to solve problems and make things. We are MAKERS and problems get exacerbated when we live in our heads instead of making with our hands and eyes. When the two processes (making/thinking) get out of synch, our work goes awry.
Often it is the misguided thinking that an idea must drop perfectly realized from the brain to the page or screen that sets off a paralysis and an imbalance between thinking and making. In her book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life — one of the best books on writing and more generally, the creative process —Anne Lamott explores how perfectionism paralyzes us creatively. She recounts this wonderful anecdote, after which the book is titled:
“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
In this bird-by-bird approach to writing, there is no room for perfectionism. (Neil Gaiman famously advised, “Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.” and David Foster Wallace admonished, “If your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything.”)Lamott cautions:
Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft… Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist’s true friend.”
What people somehow (inadvertently, I’m sure) forgot to mention when we were children was that we need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here — and, by extension, what we’re supposed to be writing [designing].”
Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, offers perhaps the best description of the trap inherent in perfectionism:
I think perfectionism is just fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat, pretending to be elegant when actually it’s just terrified. Because underneath that shiny veneer, perfectionism is nothing more that a deep existential angst the says, again and again, ‘I am not good enough and I will never be good enough.”
So free yourself from the the perfectionist trap and make sure that you are doing what you love: creating and making, not stuck spinning in your head thinking. There is no time like studio week to take those initial steps.