I Know What The F@!$% I'm Doing

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2021-12-12 12:00:00 No comments

Some time back — on the order of years, rather than months — I decided I wasn't going to benefit much, if anything, from formal "help" in writing like workshops or what have you. I'd reached a point that to me felt self-sustaining — that whatever help I needed with my work, it was going to come from looking to other people's work and not other people's advice. I didn't want to read any more books about writing, or story structure, or characterization, or what have you, when I could turn to other people's work and see for myself how such things were embodied in this work or that one.

Maybe it's an arrogant feeling, but I strongly suspect the biggest steps one can take as a creator always feel like arrogance. Still, there's an interesting dilemma here: At what point can you say to yourself "I know what I'm doing" and not be arrogant or pigheaded, but simply correct? Is there in fact any way to know this for yourself?

I'll start with reflecting on my own experience. Even as I was saying "I don't think I need these kinds of guides anymore," I was asking myself: how do I know that? Some of it was just the simple feeling that those things no longer had anything new to teach me. But I was also conscious of how I might need to distrust that feeling, that it might just be dumb arrogance hooking its fingers into my nostrils and dragging me astray.

I think a big part of it for me was, again, the feeling that I was moving away from getting advice, and gravitating more towards finding examples. Many good books on writing are chock-full of examples — Macrorie's Telling Writing, for my money the best book I've ever read on the craft, stands out. But the examples I wanted needed to come in the form of entire books and not standalone excerpts. I wanted to let my natural interest in what I read guide me, rather than have my inclination to hone my work and my curiosities about other people's work run on parallel tracks.

Again, I suspect this is something most people do anyway: they read, they look at what other people do, and think "I should try something like that", or "that seems like a good approach". But in my case it developed specifically as a way to break away further from the treadmill of advice, to finally start taking my own risks.

People who teach programming often talk about "tutorial hell", where beginners feel stuck in perpetual beginner-ship. They download the software, read tutorials, watch videos, but nothing sticks, and they feel like they're just redoing the same basic things over and over with no progress. They never get to the point where they start doing their own thing. Some of that, I suspect, is because they have no real idea what "doing their own thing" would be, and so I don't think it's an accident many of the people stuck in this kind of death loop can't come up with their own projects. They simply don't know what's possible or to what end, because their entire notion of what this stuff is has come in the form of these cheesy little exercises instead of actual working software.

Still, I think another big part of it is psychological. At some point they have to get up the nerve to start making their own mistakes — to write things that break, and that they have to learn how to fix and improve. The same goes with creative work generally: at some point you have to strike out on your own for better or worse, and learn how to keep doing so.

"Don't tell me what to do" doesn't seem like the guiding principle here. "I need to make my own mistakes" is a little closer, but I hesitate to even call it that. Think of how easy it is to distort that principle, to make it solely about doing whatever you like and never learning from one's own mistakes. "I no longer feel at sea" might be as close as I can express it — there's a sense of having one's footing, of being able to walk unaided. Not necessarily leaping over all the buildings in a single bound. Confidence rather than arrogance.

The line between the two can be blurry on the inside, and I know this. Still, confidence seems qualitatively different — it's still got an underpinning of humility and outward-directed curiosity, a sense of knowing there's more to learn (even if how we learn it is not necessarily through a tutorial). But maybe there islittle arrogance in there. Just enough for someone to say "yes, I do know what the f@!$% I'm doing".

Tags: advice creativity