What do Captain Morgan, Eliza Doolittle, and WritingHannah have in common?
Well, after my previous post and youtube vlog I heard from several people who felt the "judgement-free creating time" and "stop worrying, sit down and start" advice was helpful, and I'm always glad to be of help. (that sounds totally self important.)
In this post I will endeavor to describe what I now realize is the secret second half of those ideas. (I'm bored, this post sucks balls, and I want some fucking cake!!)
If you haven't already noticed, I'm joined this evening by a nagging alterego who many of you are familiar with, whether you know it or not. She is the cousin of the sweaty gyrating sleazy thoughts I mentioned in the last post, a multifaceted personality at once resembling your mother, the Trunchbull, and a coked up hummingbird. Let's call her Ethel. Mostly because I don't know anyone named Ethel so there's no risk of gravely insulting anybody. Unless of course your name is Ethel... In which case you are more than welcome to create a psychologically abusive alterego and name her Hannah. (not funny)
Anyways, for all you non-Ethels out there, let's say you've been meaning to write a rap song about monkeys, mosaic your bathroom counter, or invent a new type of ice cream (fatty,) and you're off to a really good start because instead of wringing your hands and deferring the starting of the project until... infinity, you've actually given yourself a break from cripplingly high expectations and sat down. My latest youtube video (enough with the flagrant self promotion) www.youtube.com/writinghannah contained a favorite quote of mine which expressly states that "the art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair."
But that's not entirely true. Because once you're sitting down Ethel is just raring to sink her teeth into all of your ideas... they are either half-baked or derivative. Do you know what people will think when they see what you're doing? Your idea is a dead-end which you're never going to finish, and even if you did it would be offensively uninteresting. People are going to yawn or laugh at you. The Daily Show is on! You need a drink. You need a snack. You are a socially awkward pathetic excuse for a (fill-in-the-blank) and nobody likes you. Nobody. (No really, nobody.)
Needless to say, no matter how determinately you have positioned your ass in your work-chair, this sort of nonsense makes it difficult to keep your momentum. If you're not a fraud and a failure you're being lazy... if you're working really hard you're not working smart, if your ideas are interesting your execution is sloppy. You can't win.
But guess what? You're in good company. I think it's safe to say that most of the best ideas sounded totally insane in their conception, and only a fool doesn't think to question himself.
I keep an old sugarbowl next to my computer. There's a little crescent notch in the top which is meant for a spoon, but that's not what I keep inside. Inside the sugarbowl are dozens of little shreds of paper. I have not opened said container for many weeks, but I feel it's important to share some of the contents with you in order to silence the nagging power of our collective Ethels, so here is a selection of the real scraps within...
"prose nauseatingly bad."
"OMG so bad."
"you are dry... creative pools all are behind you."
"People are going to be pissed off about this."
"never going to finish"
...and my personal favorite which simply says "FUCK YOU!" accompanied by a big jumble of angry squiggles.
I'm not purporting to know anything more about the creative process than anybody else, but I do know that when I was a kid I always imagined Joyce and DaVinci and Mozart rocking back and forth in an artistic trance producing scores upon scores of brilliant earth-shakingly original ideas which flowed together with silky certainty.
In school you read about great generals and great journalists and all the great things they did, but rarely does anybody mention the universal Ethel.
Everybody questions themselves, and capable people are often the harshest self-critics. DaVinci was actually so frustrated by what he perceived to be his own lack of self-discipline that he was often quoted as appealing to God with the question "tell me if anything was ever done!" Alan Lerner, triple Tony & triple Academy Award winning musical writer (he did one of my favorites, My Fair Lady,) was such a notorious procrastinator that his partner literally had to lock him in his hotel room any time they were nearing a deadline. Dickinson, Proust, Tolkien, all of them struggled immensely with self-critique to the point where much of their work was kept away from the public/ destroyed.
Which is to say, you're in good company. There's a crazy Amadeus myth out there about people who are so brilliant at what they do that they just churn out brilliance by the barrel-full all the time, but that's bullshit. Successful entrepreneurs in the media spotlight today (everybody from Trump to JK Rowling to Gates & Bono) don't want to have you hearing about how difficult it is to overcome their insecurities and creative roadblocks, they aren't going to admit how often they lie in bed questioning the value of their contributions. They're quick to share success stories, but rarely share any of their Ethel. She's a nasty little secret that everyone's embarrassed to have around because maybe all those nagging doubts are true, and if anybody ever knew about them then...
*shudder* (shut up Hannah, only lame-o 6th graders express actions with asterisks... asterices? You can't even spell right, how do you expect to write right?)
The point is that at least for me, growing up with stories of great leaders and thinkers like George Washington and Shakespeare, it never occurred to me that everybody has a creative process, which means doing something totally brand new is ALWAYS scary and ALWAYS fraught and ALWAYS peppered with a billion little Ethels no matter who you are.
Everybody's seen this picture of Washington crossing the Delaware on December 25th- noble, resolute, rocking the "I'm such a bad-ass" Captain-Morgan stance...
But rarely do we talk about December 24th... the day Washington probably had a bit of a tummy ache, and smoked a bit too much tobaccee, and couldn't fall asleep anxiously anticipating his next move after being completely WALLOPED by the British at both the battle of White Plains and the battle of Long Island (which was the largest battle of the entire war!) We remember him as a strong commander, but nobody as savvy and humble as Washington would have been blind enough to rock the Captain-Morgan stance on December 24th. He wasn't the first president on December 24th, the rock of democracy, he was barely even a competent general. Plus he had just gotten a ton of people killed and fucked up the biggest battle he would ever fight in. Way to go Georgie.
But people don't paint pictures of the presidents' tummy aches, or write epic poetry about whiners. They write about winners. Heros. We come to worship these heros- the "greats." The dead white men whom we quote in thesis papers. The dead white men whose last names have become adjectives...
Well behind ever great man is a great woman. And behind ever great person is an Ethel.
So don't despair if she's jabbering rather loudly of late. Only fools have the good fortune of not having her around. The bad news is that she never goes away. The good news is that the more frequently you manage to hear her and then shove her latest quotation into the proverbial sugarbowl, the more creative potential you unleash.
Don't let your Ethel convince you that you're the only shmuck shmucky enough for her to hang around with. She's more than a bit of a tramp. She's been dogging everybody from Aristotle to P.Diddy since the birth of man. Such is the curse of sentience.
So know that you are never alone in feeling unproductive, untalented, unoriginal, or unloved. We're a queer bunch, us humans, and for all of our innovation and diversity we often forget what unites us... and that what unites us often undoes us. Self Awareness can lead to a desire to understand, to create, to communicate, and from thence comes civilization, science, art. But with the help of an insidious Ethel and others to compare yourself with, Self Awareness can also breed jealousy, self-criticism, competition, and all of the other ingredients of the war and senseless carnage we're so famous for.
Trust yourself. Trust yourself for long enough to get all the way to the end of that project you've been putting off. Because I guarantee you will surprise yourself, and even if you look back and you (as all your creative forefathers and mothers before you have done) think it kinda sucks, it'll be more satisfying than looking back at nothing at all. And you'll be more prepared for the next thing you try. And (if you're the type of person to believe in this sort of thing,) you'll be discovering your destiny along the way instead of lamenting a lack of one.
Get out those sugarbowls, rock your best pirate stance, and ford into the wild unknown knowing that you know what you don't yet know that you know. (well if the rest of this treacly crap didn't scare them away, that certainly did.)
"Trust thyself, every heart vibrates to that iron string." Emerson