Permission to Make
By all accounts, Paros is a Greek island paradise. White houses with blue roofs, the shade of wild bougainvillea on cobblestone alleyways, crystal clear waters washing over white sand beaches. But after wandering the port town’s sleepy streets shooting six or seven rolls of film at a time in my hand-me-down Canon manual, I spent the majority of my three months on the idyllic isle adjusting and readjusting my eyes to the red light of a photography darkroom.
After developing the film and slicing and sorting the negatives into perfect rows in laminated plastic, I hunted through every contact sheet for a frame or two worth printing. For the exhibition project that would end my paradisiacal stay, I took 18 usable shots from 154 frames. Maybe more.
All of this to say that 136 frames — 136 breathtaking moments captured on the magical island I had come to love — never made it out of the darkroom.
I don’t remember anything about the negatives I never printed. The frames that made the cut resulted in an installation that was, to my memory, sensual and communicative. Hidden away behind a tent of satin curtains lurked my collection of double exposure prints, overlaying portrait nudes with a series of motorcycle stills. And that was it.
It was a complete photographic exhibition that was then assessed and evaluated based only on what hung on the wall. The program was technically for college credit — although I never transferred those hours — so my art was judged and critiqued. In the end, I was proud of what I had created. I still have the eighteen prints, and still dream of framing them to hang on the wall of some future home.
No one ever saw the 136 rejected pictures, wasting away on contact sheets hung from the drying line in the darkroom down the road from the art show.
Why do writers take every single word to every single page so very seriously? I get the sense that this is a particularly acute pain for new writers. Entire publications devoted to the craft of writing fill their pages with the insights and advice of career creators who have broken through this paralyzing attachment to perfection.
For the rest of us, I do not believe that this problem arises due to lack of talent. In these cases, the paralysis doesn’t come from a lack of inspiration or a dearth of ideas. Instead, we are so busy being so very precious about every word we write, that the fear of any less than perfect letter making it to the page stops us from writing anything at all.
I first heard the word precious used this way by Australians — it wasn’t a good thing. In this slangy context, precious indicated an overreaction. It denoted exceedingly delicate behavior in regards to an issue unworthy of such intense attention. He’s so precious about his hair. It was a description of someone clinging to minutia unnecessarily, and to his own detriment.
I notice how precious I am — in this strictly mocking Australian sense of the word — about my writing. It’s all very meaningful and important. Every word, idea, essay, article weighs heavy as an invitation to be judged, probably because I take each one as an invitation to judge myself. This one isn’t good enough, that one is terrible, what ever made you think this was a good idea? Down the rabbit hole.
This self-deprecating process, writing dripping with judgment, makes it prohibitively difficult to make anything at all. If everything I write, regardless of whether or not it ever sees the light of day beyond my desk, puts me on the chopping block, writing at all becomes a terrifying prospect.
Reflect on the nonsense that has showed up on my desk when I have permitted myself a period of creativity without real-time evaluation, it occurs to me that is what a creative life looks like — a creative person makes and makes and makes, and then mines for the gold. How do quarries work? The mountains are already packed and layered with every precious metal inlaid in stone formed over the course of centuries of contributions.
The stone is there, the gold is there, and mining sorts through physical matter to separate one element from the other. Good from bad, valuable from commonplace. Noticeable from not. Of course, what gold does come from the mountainside is not evaluated based on the stone that surrounded it. The test shots and studio hours and abandoned negatives are not what make the reputation of a great photographer.
All we get to see is the one shot — one of how many hundreds — that the creator considered to be gold. The rest are left behind on the cutting room floor, corners curling on the darkroom drying line.
The word ‘permission’ is ringing in my mind. Clearly the incessant judgment we experience in these early stages of a writing life is self-inflicted. I have denied myself the freedom to make, so the piles of creative output from which I would theoretically be able to mine for what’s good never had the chance to accumulate.
What would it be like to work with the freedom — the permission — to make freely, and from what is made, select what is presented? What if I treated my writing more like my photography, leaving scraps on the cutting room floor and thinking nothing of them, other than the merits of good practice and the praises of a long creative process of making?
My sense, as a writer at the very beginning of what I hope will be a long and productive creative life, is that this approach may very well be precisely what sets apart the successful from the starting out. First, you’ve got to write something. Then, keep writing. This sentiment has earned enough adages to convince anyone of the message: You can’t edit a blank page. Start somewhere. Shitty First Drafts — bless you, Annie Lammot.
And what we have to believe, as writers beginning somewhere, anywhere, is that granting ourselves permission to make will open the creative floodgates. That the freedom to get words down onto the page without judging and evaluating and assessing each one like it has some weight on our worth or value or potential as creators will result in a few good frames.
Then we must hope that as we make and make and make — which could be more eloquently expressed as honing one’s craft or developing one’s skills or gaining experience — and mine for gold from the many words we’ve written, the ratio will begin to shift from lots of what gets left abandoned on the drying line to a little more of what makes it to the gallery wall.
If the ratio doesn’t shift, or if it doesn’t shift at once, we will at least have learned how to mine for gold. Maybe we’ll be a little less precious, and a little more pleased.