Excellence is an art won by training and habituation: we do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have these because we have acted rightly; ‘these virtues are formed in man by his doing the actions’; we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit: ‘the good of man is a working of the soul in the way of excellence in a complete life… for as it is not one swallow or one fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy’.
That’s a quote from Will Durant’s 1926 book The Story of Philosophy, when he writes about Aristotle. And I’m John Fanning and this is the Create with John Fanning podcast.
How’s it goin out there. Hope all is well with you.
This is Episode 10 of my series of episodes on Imagination and creativity, based around my book Create.
Last time I talked about genius, talent and originality but today I want to talk about perfection, another Wall away from Imagination and creativity.
First, there’s the idea that everything comes out perfectly.
Well, I’ve never written a chapter I didn’t have to change. Maybe that’s just me, and every writer I’ve ever known. Maybe there’s a writer out there who’s written a whole chapter without changing a comma. I doubt it.
Also, do you think Frank Gehry’s buildings always go up the way he first designs them? Did George Lucas use his first cut of “Star Wars”? How many times did Elon Musk have to test his Tesla cars before they went on the road? And even then, was that the end of it? Was every Shakespeare play finished when it was finished, perfect? Look at the iPhone. Every year there’s a new one.
Second, there’s the idea that every great work is perfect.
Well, what about all the times Shakespeare performed his plays in the provinces before showing them to the king and queen and court? Do you think he didn’t change a line here, a scene or character there, when the audience in the pit started booing or shouting at the actors on the stage, or flinging rotten fruit or eggs at them? Of course he did.
Another example: Leonardo Da Vinci. Would Da Vinci have called his Saint Anne perfect? He worked on it until his death, that is, over twenty years, consistently changing it.
Back to Shakespeare. When he was creating he had to bear in mind two audiences: the gallery seats, an educated audience who appreciated character development and subtlety, and those in the pit who wanted to see sex, action, fun. Do you think it a coincidence that after nearly every soliloquy, every quiet scene, there’ll be a scene that’s comic, or violent, a sword fight, a murder? Do you think Shakespeare didn’t change a line when one of his friends, the people he acted with, owned a theater with, suggested it? They were giving him advice as creators (actors) as well as creative business people.
Every time he picked up his quill, Shakespeare knew, in the coming months, by the time it was seen by the king and queen, his words, his scenes, maybe even whole acts, would change, countless times. That’s why he was such a great creator. He surrounded himself with great creators, learned his drama craft for ten years before he even started writing, then changed his work as often as he thought it would make his creation better, knowing it was never perfect, only ready when it was ready.
A famous contemporary example: the often told story of Jack Kerouac and his novel “On the Road”. The story goes that he wrote the novel in three weeks. It’s used as a quintessential example of a beat generation creator just spontaneously banging something out in no time, perfect.
Well, it wasn’t, and he didn’t. Yes, he typed one version of it out in three weeks, but he had worked hard on his craft before that. He had reworked “On the Road”, in his head, in his journals for years, and then on the typewriter. Then in the fifties he reworked it again, for about seven years. So, the three weeks of a perfect manuscript really took him about ten years.
Perfection is the enemy of creation. Creation is not immediate, it comes in bits and pieces. In the south of France they have a wonderful expression: “Petit a petit l’oiseau fait son nid.” Bit by bit the bird makes its nest. A nest takes time, effort, and patience.
Nothing comes out perfect, especially at the beginning. You have to go looking for the bits like a bird, and assemble them, piecemeal, into a nest. It’s a messy, rough process. It looks rough and weird at first, but by the end the nest works, practically and aesthetically. This is the joy of creating, when you connect unrelated things in an inspired way. To use Wordsworth, you become surprised by joy, because you experience the connections that make us stop, pause, then think: Wow, that’s a creative way of looking at it.
If immediate perfection comes, it’s from years of practice, years of gathering, from creating other creations, to arrive at the creation that “came out of nowhere”, finished. Picasso was once asked how he could charge so much money for a drawing he did in a few minutes. He responded that it hadn’t taken him a few minutes, that it had taken him 80 years to draw it.
Your focus has to be on growing, mastering your craft, mastering what you create. Theory gets you nowhere. Create. Repeat the messy process to find out the work you want to really get into. You don’t, won’t know, what that is until you’re in it, doing it, lost in it, like Shakespeare. And don’t think you’re only going to have one go at it either. Imagination leads to more imagination. Creativity leads to more creativity. As Maya Angelou once said:
Like electricity, creativity makes no judgment. I can use it productively or destructively. The important thing is to use it. You can’t use up creativity. The more you use it, the more you have.
Hemingway never knew whether he was writing a novel or not. He’d start writing a short story and when it got longer it became a short novel, like “The Old Man and the Sea”. When it got longer again it became a novel. He kept working, kept creating. He didn’t try to create the perfect novel. He wrote. He created. Then he moved onto the next one.
Perfection kills creation. If you think what you’ve created is awful, so what. Nobody ever has to see it, read it, know about it. Let it be awful. If you don’t create, you have nothing. You can’t change a program with no code. You can’t change an un-carved block. You can’t change an empty page.
In the future, you can. You can make your creation better. If you create nothing because you want immediate perfection, then ironically you have nothing to perfect.
Change leads to discovery. You find out what you’re creating by doing, by making mistakes, and a lot of the time, you don’t even realize you’ve progressed.
Five years ago, we were in the truck going down to Carcassonne for groceries, from our retreat in the mountains of southern France. I asked the young Sydney memoirist in the front seat a question.
“How’s your essay collection edit going?”
Her answer was immediate.
“Shit. I’m just so full of self-doubt about the whole damn thing now.”
“Are they all bad?”
“No. One is really strong. Two are pretty good, but the others are really shit.”
“Sounds like you’ve made great progress then.”
“Well, last week, when we were coming down you said all of them were shit.”
She stopped looking out the window to stare at me. “Shit, I’d forgotten that.”
The Wall of self-sabotage is the friend of perfection and fear, your natural enemies, negative structures we build inside our own heads. It can shelter you, make you feel safe and comfortable, happy to do nothing. It’s a fantastic wall. And there is not one creator on the planet that has ever escaped self-doubt.
And self doubt usually leads to self-sabotage. We all do it. So many false starts appear because of self-sabotage. It’s just the way it is. But you can’t give up. Self-doubt, limiting belief systems, fatigue, the shadow side, misery, are natural. Everyone gets stuck. The responses are countless. Everyone fails at some stage, but if you can’t accept failure you’ll never come up with a new creation.
The thing is to find solutions. Walls can be circumnavigated, moved through, with love for the work. And a lot of the time we don’t even realize we’ve progressed from where we were, like that Sydney memoirist.
Also, don’t compare your unfinished creation to someone else’s finished masterpiece, or any of your previous finished works. Months, a lot of the time, years of hard work have gone into those masterpieces and creations. Never mind all the changes afterwards, like Kerouac.
Yes, it’s hard not to compare, but it’s only because we can’t sit down and watch Da Vinci paint and repaint and repaint his masterpiece until he’s dead. We can’t see all the pieces of paper Shakespeare threw away as he rewrote scenes, again and again.
So, be gentle with yourself. Nothing is ever completely figured out at the beginning. Everything changes. It’s a process. Instead of pursuing perfection go after excellence instead. Like the Aristotlean thinking I quoted at the beginning. Excellence is an art won by training and habituation… these virtues are formed in man by his doing the actions; we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit. So try to get better at what you love creating.
By doing, again and again and again, the gifts of talent, originality and genius come naturally, organically in the next act of the Imagination.
So thanks for listening. I started with a quote from a Greek philosopher by way of an American one, but as usual I’m going to end the episode with an Irish proverb. This one literally means:
There is no wise man without fault.
Ní bhíonn saoi gan locht.
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Slán libh agus go n-éirí an bóthar libh.