Why Artists and Creative Professionals Should Let Us See Their Early Work

Yet another failed attempt…

When I sit down to write, I only have a vague idea of what I want to write about. I type the first few sentences, and it all seems wrong. My fingers linger over the keyboard, it is almost as if my brain stopped sending signals to them, they don’t know what to do anymore. I don’t get any ideas — I stare at the blank screen for a few seconds, minutes, whatever, and then decide that it’s pointless. I give up, closing down the word document. To distract myself, I go online and see what other people are writing, or pick up one of my favorite books. Everything seems so well-structured, so seamless. It’s hopeless, I tell myself. I will never really be a writer.

Does this feel familiar? Go ahead and substitute your favorite creative verb in place of “writing” — painting, designing, film-making. Everywhere around us, there are people making amazing masterpieces and directing breathtaking movies and creating products or images that dazzle. And why stop there? If you design apps, you can point to a dozen or more perfect apps, or if you want to start a company, you can get overwhelmed looking at the bevy of successful startups. Why even risk inevitable failure and humiliation, when the outcome is guaranteed — guaranteed to disappoint?

Every successful writer, film-maker, poet, painter and entrepreneur knows something that many beginners do not — that it takes a lot of sweat, cursing, trashing pages or throwing away of entire prototypes before something amazing is born. Films spend months in the editing room, software goes through several phases of beta testing, and books get edited multiple times, before the mainstream audience is allowed to experience (and judge) these products. And yet, as a beginner, or even with some experience, we creatives (and I use that word loosely to describe anyone who is making something for the consumption of others) tend to compare our early and flawed work to the best work of the greats. And we aren’t entirely to blame. How often do the greats show us their early and flawed work? In The Artists’ Way, Julia Cameron recounts that she had arranged (to the shocked horror of some less brave souls) for some established film-makers to showcase their first films to her students, in order to show them the path from ordinary to exceptional. In Kevin Ashton’s How To Fly A Horse, he recounts the myth of Mozart — a letter that apparently proved Mozart’s genius — entire compositions just came to him in a dream. In actuality, Mozart struggled and pored over his work, spending sleepless nights and countless days perfecting each arrangement.

And yet the myth of the genius artist, the scam that some people are able to sit down and effortlessly, or with very little agony or inefficiency, create works of extraordinary depth, is compelling and pervasive. One of my favorite Yeats’ poems, Adam’s Curse, reiterates this myth:

A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.

This myth does us a great disservice. We believe that our little ideas or thoughts aren’t good enough — they aren’t big enough or sketched out enough. We believe that if a piece is very rough to start with, there is no way that it can end up being as polished as that of the work of our idols, the work we admire. We forget that every diamond started out as a rough, ugly stone, almost indistinguishable to cheap cut glass, except to an expert’s eye. We think that until we can produce professional, polished work, we should just not try. We forget that only by making those amateurish short films, writing those hackneyed blog posts and creating those clunky apps can we get good enough to do better, to be better.

If only we knew that even the greats start with a rough sketch, a back of the napkin calculation, an outline that is abandoned and turned inside out and barely recognizable once the finished product is out there. This is a plea then for all creators — please show us your torn-up half-baked ideas, and initial sketches, and cliché-ridden copy so that we too can be inspired to follow with our own half-baked, on the way to slightly average, yet brimming with potential projects. Please, don’t hide your brushstrokes.

Geetanjali Mukherjee is a writer who thinks a lot about how to actually write more and spend less time agonizing about it — and is still thinking about it…Follow me on Twitter, Facebook or Google+ for more of my rambling thoughts on creativity. Or just check out my published books here.