Friday, November 16, 2012

When Vision Exceeds Execution

It wasn't until a third of the way through school that one of my instructors put a name to a problem that plagued almost every beginning photographer: Vision Exceeds Execution. It stuck with me. Years later I still use it to keep myself in check. (Do I have the skills to do this project justice? Yes? Do it. No? Set it aside, keep learning. Come back when I'm better.)  I pick my battles, because sometimes it seems like waiting on an idea too big to do now will keep me from getting discouraged.

I've had the same problem with writing. 

The summer I turned sixteen, I outlined my first novel. It will forever remain trunked.  I never wrote more than a few chapters.  I'd done all the plotting and world-building, but it was too big for my First Attempt. I couldn't even wrap my head around where or how to begin. 

Attempt Two is actually worth writing. It’s my my white whale. It was--is--so huge, so perfect in my head, that I still feel like I'll mess it up if I try...and I've been sitting on it for eight years.  

Attempt Three--I had The Idea, the one that would finally exist on paper. I started and almost finished a novel for the first time ever. What changed was NaNoWriMo. I gave myself permission to fail. This is important, peoples. You're allowed, and even encouraged, to suck. And suck I did. That story is trunked for now while I figure out how to unravel the beautiful mess I created for myself. (A wonderful learning experience I would never trade for anything.)
So for Attempt Four, I wanted to try something different. I took an idea out of my idea folder with two pages of notes and no clear plot and just dove in. The words just spilled out. Every page was a surprise. And I finished my first novel ever. Why? Probably because I tried pantsing instead of over-outlining. Because I didn't have a monumental  vision of what this book had to be, it evolved naturally without any pressure. I'm figuring out my process.

See, the problem isn't my ability or lack thereof, but my expectations. When I build up an idea in my head until it's this perfect, shining thing, I set myself up for failure. There's no way I can reach such unrealistic heights with novice abilities. My ideas will almost always be greater than my ability to execute them. And that's okay. As an artist, giving yourself permission to fail is the most freeing thing you can do. 

Permission To Fail doesn't mean disregard for the craft itself. It just means that no matter how much you research, or how much effort you put in, you will never attain perfection. And that's okay, too. I've let fear of imperfection hold me back from too many projects. Even if you utterly and spectacularly fail at your attempts, you can always try again later. That's the beauty of art. Trunk it and come back when you can figure out where you went wrong. It's okay to suck. In complete suckitude, there are countless learning opportunities.


Ideas are easy. Writing (creation in general) isn't. So you have no idea of how to tell a story? Learn by doing. Educate yourself in the process.

My advice to myself, to other writers, to artists starting out in any medium, is this: hone your craft. Set aside your pressure-filled "perfect" idea if you have to and work on something you can allow yourself to suck at while figuring things out. 

I keep learning and writing and am finally (mentally) ready to tackle my white whale. It's been almost ten years in the making and will probably be one or two more as I finish this current novel, untangle my trunked project, and perhaps write one or two more that are nagging more insistently than my ever-patient dream project.

The moral? Don't let fear hold you back. The only way you will become a better writer/photographer/painter/installation artist is by doing. You'll fail. You'll recognize your failure. You'll do better next time. 

(That said, don't fall so in love with your ideas that you get ahead of yourself. Don't neglect craft thinking that your idea will carry your art. It won't. Poor technical skills might kill your awesome idea. Please don't do that. Treat your art with the care and respect it deserves. Learn the ins and outs of your field so that when you finally tackle your Mona Lisa or whatever, your readers/viewers/listeners will  be just as enamored of it as you are.)

And don't be afraid to try. 

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