It's Always Better When It Doesn't Exist

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2017-08-20 17:00:00 No comments

I've met a depressing number of people — enthusiastic creators of one kind or another, some young, some not — who share a common attribute. They are "working on" something.

They have not finished something. They have not released it and moved on to work on the next thing. They are just … working on this one thing, always and forever — prodding at it, toying with it, trying it out one way or another, but never completing it. Sometimes they never even actually start on it; they just talk about working on it.

I feel bad for them, because not all people in such a bind do so because they are artistic failures. Some are at the mercy of chaotic and mismanaged lives. It is cruel and unfair to suggest that just because this person who worked two jobs and pulled down maybe four hours of sleep a night was able to finish his novel, that therefore anyone else who works two jobs and pulls down maybe four hours of sleep a night, and can't finish his novel, is a lazy ass. Don't ever ask me to go there. (Don't ask me to help drive you there, either.)

What saddens me, I guess, is when people who don't have a genuine obstacle — hectic schedule, bouts of depression, what have you — get into this cycle where they are hung up perpetually on the imagining of something but can never bring themselves to the doing of it. They compile vocabularies of invented languages for the thing; they draw maps; they spin out possibilities and scenarios; but the thing itself, whatever it is meant to be, remains unrealized.

Sometimes I imagine such people are simply in the wrong line of work. They seem less interested in storytelling than in worldbuilding. Maybe they're best off taking that work and offering it as an open-ended, free-to-license setting for something. But again, the downside of worldbuilding as a formal vocation is that it is perhaps too open-ended; there's little agreement, save for your own assertion, as to when the work is done and maybe you should move to something else. The problem seems more about the mental habit of never fully choosing to start, and never finding a way to finish, than it does the actual work in question.

I've entertained various theories about why some folks get jacknifed over such roadblocks, but one I come back to often is that it's fear of failure. Something forever reified is something forever perfect, so they never have to take responsibility for the thing once it's actually brought into existence. But the point of these things is to bring them into existence, even if the realized thing in question seems all the worse for it. You can't actually improve something that was never created to begin with.

One thing I have always admired about John Cage was his emphasis on shifting the attention of the audience and the artist away from a finished artifact — a recording of a performance, for instance — and towards the process around the act of creation. To him, the process was the most important thing, not the end result. If this seemed extreme, it was because it was intended as an antidote to the idea of the unsurpassable, supreme creative end result, the Romantic view of the Gesamstkunstwerk. Even people who have no formal exposure to this idea manifest it in some form, which tells me it's a deeply rooted cultural myth. Some of them, I think, get hung up on the idea of ever meeting such a goal, and they think it's a choice between that or limbo.

I know I have written about this idea before, from time to time, but it keeps coming back, and I find my response to it shifts slightly over time. People should be encouraged to finish things, but not out of some sense the finished product must be unsurpassable. They should finish things, the better to surpass them all the more readily.

Tags: John Cage creativity creators