Six Ways to Fail at Creative Endeavors

Posted in Savor The Flavor on November 9, 2011

Are you succeeding at too many creative endeavors? Do you keep dashing off absurdly excellent novels in your spare time? Do you wake up to find yourself surrounded by genius-level sculptures, format-altering decklists, and functional ornithopters? Good news! Today I'm going to tell you how to grind that overflowing creative impulse to a halt and get your procrastination back on track. Get ready to return to the halcyon days of wistfully hoping that someday you would get up the gumption to accomplish what you've dreamed, because today we're talking about failing.

I understand the problem. You're a dynamo of creative output and you're just tired of accomplishing all of that genius all the time. Well, there's hope. The first step is to stop jumping into your writing, drawing, or songwriting so regularly. Break all those habits that make you get started in the first place, even when you don't feel inspired. You need to sit around, stare out a convenient window, and long for a fully formed work of artistic splendor to make a pit-stop at your brain.

Be patient, and be prepared to wait until conditions are completely perfect before you start. Inspiration may or may not visit you today, and that's the beauty of it. The muse gets to decide whether you generate creative output today instead of you, which will ratchet down your rate of creating significantly. I recommend you not put it off until tomorrow—get started on your patience now. There's plenty of time to create that thing you've always wanted to see exist next week. Don't jump in and work through your lack of inspiration—that's just going to get a whole bunch of work done. Best just to wait.

But maybe the unthinkable happens, and inspiration actually strikes. You might accidentally get excited, get busy, and make something. What then?

If you have a creative soul—and if you're a human or other sentient being, you do (let's not be anthropocentric in a column about elves and dragons, shall we?)—then you have a set of creative standards. Your standards tell you what's cool and what's amazing and what's complete and utter crap. To slow down your own creative efforts, what you want to do is judge your earliest efforts by the same standards you apply to grand masters. Compare your first fledgling short story to the best epic poem you've ever read. If your first guitar solo isn't any good, then quit. If you haven't managed to quit for some reason, then check your tenth and twentieth and hundredth guitar solo. Does it still need work? Well then you're probably imperfect, so it's time to end your career.

Compare yourself to your heroes. See how those career painters who've put in thousands of hours over a lifetime of effort are just way better than your first few attempts? See how the prose in the first page of your first draft isn't shining like the dawning morn? Don't revise. Don't work, and iterate, and put in the hours trying to improve your early fumblings. Use that initial disappointment as ammunition to put a hole in your enthusiasm for your own art, and use that sense of deflation to prevent yourself from trying to make cool stuff. Try it, it works. I mean it.

Say what? You're still managing to pour your soul out into various artistic expressions? Then we have more work to do.

Consider your wide range of strategies for success. You probably have a network of tips and tricks that help you stay motivated, keep your spirits high, and avoid distraction. You're probably a member of several clubs and social networking groups that churn up your ideas and foster your creativity. You read websites, forums, Twitter feeds, and Tumblr blogs that relate to your interest and continuously challenge and inspire your work. If one technique doesn't get you the results you want, you adapt by trying seven or ten or a hundred other things. Well, that's part of your problem! You're simply over-methoding.

If you truly want to snail's-pace your art, hitch your wagon to a single process and cling to it slavishly. Narrow down your options so that if that one method doesn't get you what you want, you have no other recourse but failure. Don't even put all your eggs in one basket—that's getting all fancy-like. Instead, select a single, fragile egg and combine it with one precious, woven carrying device and just wish super hard that those two will work out for you. When they don't, you'll be out of options, just like that! Failure will be dead ahead like an iceberg, and you will have no choice but to crunch your hull slowly and sickeningly into it. Simple.

Good gravy, are you still managing to get things done? I tell you, you have a serious productivity problem. But don't worry. I have just the thing.

I get it. You're an unstoppable engine that generates game designs, web cartoons, and some pretty decent fan fiction despite all your best efforts. You can't really be blamed for this—you have been cursed with an encouraging inner monologue and relentless confidence. But what's to do? Can your output ever be throttled? I have the key for you. There's a weapon inside of you that is lethal to getting art created, and you can reach for the hilt of that weapon at any time. It's something we're all born with, it's easy to use, and it's free. It's called your inner editor.

The inner editor is your critical inner voice. It's a running commentary of self-defeating talk that drones along inside your head—if you let it. Since you're already doing all that amazing choreography, screenwriting, and modern architecture in your spare time, you're probably going to need to encourage it a little, to let it blossom. Here's the key: imagine what a harsh critic would say about what you're working on. Don't let yourself get a draft done before you listen to this critic—that's far too late. Twist up the volume knob on that crabby crank as soon as you start working. Let it beat down your creative spirit. Let it strangle the sense of "hey, this is kinda cool" that puts the wind in your artistic sails. Return to it often, repeating its critical mantras to yourself so that you never get a head of steam up, and you never get to the end of that sonata or that children's book.

Don't tell me—I know, I know. You've tried to listen to that inner editor, but you're still making all this pesky art. You're a tough case, you are. But that's okay. This next one is sure to help you reach failure.

Since you're such a prolific da Vinci, you've probably consulted a lot of experts about your chosen field of creative expression. You were probably a fan of the genre in which you operate before you started creating in it yourself. That's bad times, but it's okay—that's fixable. You were just doing it wrong, letting those who went before you engender a passion for art inside of you. What you want to focus on, instead of the great works that make you excited, is the rules. Mimic the conventions that those previous creators set down for you. Find lists of general rules that specify how to succeed, so that you can parrot them awkwardly, square-peg them into your specific case, and fail.

Don't pick and choose from among the advice and insight generated by the world of artists in the last few thousand years and hone it down to just what makes sense for you—apply it all, so that every maxim and recommendation contradicts another one and your work becomes a bewildered mess. Instead of learning from others, mindlessly imitate them, thereby draining the sense of pride out of the process, misapplying the legacy of other creators, and encouraging your work to become a quagmire of frustrated false starts and dreary retraced paths. You'll know it's working when you say, "I've done so much research in my chosen field that I don't know which rules to follow!"

Congratulations—your art is now at a standstill! Enjoy your creative logjam and your reality television! Don't you dare skip off the tracks, explore something new, and trailblaze. All that will do is get your adrenaline pumping, and of course all that leads to is a virtuous spiral of creative work that might even lead, if you're not careful, to a career. You'll want to straightjacket yourself with so many rules that you can't possibly succeed and—

Wait. Are you telling me that you've tried all these things and you still can't find a way to fail? Well, I hesitated to provide this last bit of advice, because it's a doozy. But if you're saying your creative impulses are still overflowing, and you haven't managed to asphyxiate your childlike can-do fervor yet, then I have one last recommendation for you.

I see it now. I have finally diagnosed why you stubbornly persist in crafting neat things out of your soul. Why, you are doing it out of enjoyment! Your motivation is the sense of joy it gives you to forge something new! Ha ha! That has to stop.

In order to constrict your creative output to a trickle, be sure to shackle it to an hourly rate. Figure out exactly how much your chosen type of creative yield is worth, and only do it when you can rake in at least that much. Attach a dollar amount to every blog post, every recipe, every piano recital, and refuse to put on your Creator Chapeau unless someone coughs up the coinage.

Now, I don't just mean "earn money from your passion." That's not enough to ensure failure. In fact, if you want badly enough to earn a living doing what you love, that's actually deadly—you'll probably succeed and just generate a string of even more creations. We're trying to put the wrong motivation for your work in place, so that instead of getting hours of free practice by designing furniture or haute couture because you love it, you in fact see work as a necessary evil that people use money to compel you to undertake, so that you eventually burn out and drop your productivity to absolute zero. Get mercenary. Get miserly. Replace your free-labor enthusiasm with pay-for-play, resentful drudgery. You'll generate so little art that you won't even be good enough to get paid for it anyway.

Congratulations! Mission complete!

But hey. If you're like me, and you're actually looking for more ways to succeed at creative endeavors? I don't know what to tell you, my friend. I hope we can figure something out.

    Letter of the Week

Between Planeswalker's Guide entries and my colleague Jenna Helland's recent Innistrad story, I haven't been answering your letters much recently! Let us rectify that. We are rectifiers of things. It is what we do.

Dear Doug Beyer,

I was just philosophizing about myself as a planeswalker (come on, we all do it), which was inspired by what I have read/seen about existing planeswalker stories, which in turn again made me think about something that didn't yet make sense to me.

There are a number of planeswalkers that all come from different planes. You would think that because they come from different places, they have different languages. However, whenever I read about one planeswalker encountering another, they seem to get along just fine.

Is there a universal language, spoken throughout the multiverse, like English on Earth? That would be very handy indeed, but seemed very unlikely as different cultures develop differently and have no contact, except for planeswalkers which -I assume- don't spend a lifetime enforcing a single language upon everyone. Also, if there was a special planeswalker language they invented themselves, Sorin and Nissa would have to know the truth about each other, but Nissa didn't know about Mr. Markov being a planeswalker until much later in the book (In the Teeth of Akoum).

Do all planeswalkers have vast knowledge of other languages, because of their many travels? Perhaps, but then still, if one would encounter another, they'd have to agree on a specific language and they could tell the others were planeswalkers. I have never seen them go through the hassle of deciding on a language before real communication.

Is the first spell they learn some kind of blue magic that lets them very easily understand what someone else is saying and/or learn new languages quickly? I don't think Chandra or Garruk would have any interest in mind-magic, or that many planeswalkers have easy access to that kind of magic.

May your spark ignite!

Thanks Carlo! When I read this I knew it was a great question, because it instantly made me squirm. I mean I was a slug with salt on its back—serious squirmy-times, guys. At first I thought, "Oh, there's no way I'm answering that one in the column." But I've pondered the issue a lot and decided I want to talk about it after all. The answer is essentially this, Carlo: we don't address it, as fun as it would be to go into the language problem once or twice, because over the long haul the cure would be worse than the disease.

First of all, I agree with you. It is unrealistic that planeswalkers can talk to the local planebound population and to each other without setting up some kind of telepathic dictionary-spell or putting in the time to take language classes. (I recommend Nephalian 602: Nautical Symbolism in Post-Avacynian Nephalian Literature—great class.) After your spark ignites, your first planeswalk should involve not only a bewildering trip to some far-flung plane, but also an encounter with the incomprehensible, foreign-language-speaking locals that involves lots of pointing and possibly a series of hilarious misunderstandings and cultural gaffes.

Imagine if we did make interplanar languages an issue that way. We do refer to "goblin words" and other language-specific flavor occasionally—imagine if we took that to its logical conclusion and demanded that only planeswalkers who were dedicated polyglots and mind mages could speak the language within days of arrival on a new plane. Did you ever see "Darmok," that episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where Picard's universal translator doesn't work on the aliens' metaphor-based language? That was a freaking great hour of television. The painful process of two thinking people learning each other's language and connecting despite a gulf of otherness has potential for powerful, heartbreaking storytelling, and I'd love to see that happen in a planeswalker story.

But imagine if that had to happen every time. Imagine if Picard had to negotiate a language barrier in every episode. Imagine Law amp; Order, but the detectives have to travel to a new country to solve a crime, learning the local language of every crime scene they ran into before interrogating some perps. Realistic, but miserable. If the language barrier wasn't the cool twist of that one episode, then it would just get in the way, taking precious minutes away from telling the real story for the sake of box-checking for realism.

So what if we solved things the way sci-fi often does? What if planeswalkers did have a magical universal translator? We could just postulate that that's one of the powers that an active planeswalker spark affords you—you just get handed the ability to speak all planar languages. Maybe that's even the best solution, if we were going to answer the question. But I'm not super fond of that, because it just leads to weird other questions. Is Garruk now some kind of metaculturally-minded James Joyce because he planeswalks? Are there other secret spark-powers beyond the ability to planeswalk that Wizards hasn't told us? Why haven't planeswalkers ever made a big deal of how crazy that sudden multilingual ability is? It just shines a spotlight on the language problem in general. It's a common issue in fantasy, and the general solution is: just leave it alone and get on with your story about werewolves and wizards.

The risk is over-explaining. To use a Star Trek example again, this time in a negative way—it's like the episode where they explain why all the humanoid races on the show all basically look alike. Ugh. It's one thing to poke fun at the show's makeup budget and do armchair xenobiological critiques of how the aliens resemble each other so much, but it's quite another to expect the show to provide an in-universe explanation of those budgetary or story-based limitations. Either you didn't think it was a problem before and now this explanation throws an awkward spotlight on it, which diminishes your enjoyment of the formula, or you did think it was a problem but you had learned to live with it but now suddenly you have to live with the show's one groan-worthy and set-in-stone explanation forever.

An explanation like "Well, everybody across the Multiverse happens to speak the same language because a long time ago blahblahblah" or "Well, all planeswalkers find that they can communicate just fine because the spark blahblahblah" may ultimately cause more problems than it fixes. It might actually reduce enjoyment to patch over one of those weird, load-bearing plot-holes that are kinda ugly but that make the fantasy genre possible.

We're Magic players and fantasy fans, so we're curious and we love discovering the answers to mysteries. So it's natural for us to seek explanations. But sometimes it's better in the long run to politely step over some of the cracks in the foundation for the benefit of our enjoyment of the structure built on top of it. I think the language question, Carlo, is one of those times.

All that said, Jace could probably read somebody's mind and learn fluent, idiomatic, flawless Korean no problem, which is kind of awesome, and it would totally make for a cool hour of television. Heh. Anyway, thanks for your squirm-worthy question, Carlo! See you next week.

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