Sunday, May 7, 2017

Paralyzing Perfection

I have always struggled with this weird inability to focus on a single thing long enough to see it finished. It isn't a crippling problem, though. I can finish things. But the things I finish and show to the world are few compared to the many things I dream about or even pour my work into. My old folders (both physical and digital) are filled with partial ideas, even finished comic book pages that never saw their endings (or even their middles). When I was in my 20s I did a comic book series called Anomalic, which I published in the small press arena of the 90s and traded with many awesome creators. I finished five or six issues of Anomalic over the course of about two years. It was an epic fantasy story based on my early D&D campaign ideas and the many characters I created but never really played.

But even though I cranked out a handful of issues the story was simply going nowhere. It was supposed to begin with the meeting of a lost girl and a man with no memory. Then it would unfold into a huge story about a world wide war and - you guessed it - a dark lord villain. But I meandered. I indulged in exploring the setting and lingering on scenes so that by the last issue the two main characters had barely made their way back to the city where the story proper was to begin. I think at that point I just didn't have the spirit to soldier on. And it was because I have this insane idea about perfection.

When I was in 8th grade I had a teacher who was very cool. She was kind of hip. In fact, I'm pretty sure she was a legit hippie of some kind. I don't know. But she was sarcastic and funny and scathing in her humor and attitude toward students... especially the ones displaying a lack of depth or understanding. She once told me that the Greeks had this idea about perfection. She said they believed that the idea was always perfect and each step in the process of converting an idea into a thing reduced its perfection. She even put numbers to it, probably in an effort to get my young mind to grasp the concept. She said the idea of a statue is 100% perfect but the statue itself probably cant' be more than 80% perfect, if that.

I understood. Each time you translate something from one form into another it loses a bit of its original self. Or it gets changed. Like the old analogy of a person calling on the phone to tell a rumor and the rumor being repeated by a dozen people until it makes it way back to the original source. By then the rumor might not be recognizable. Of course, the teacher was referring to ideas such as Plato's forms and probably the cave of shadows, but I didn't know any of that stuff and she didn't elaborate.

Yet the idea drilled into my head and stayed there forever. It was at this time that I discovered D&D and RPGs. I was drawn like a thirsty dog to a bowl of beer. And I believe the thing reason RPGs resonated so completely with me is that they represent potential. They are perfect. When you concoct an adventure to run, that adventure feels perfect. It isn't until you actually run it that the adventure loses that sense of perfection. It gets translated from a potential thing into a real thing. It becomes defined, and in becoming defined it loses most of its potential elements and gains new actualities that are imperfect. It's still a beautiful thing, of course. Or at least it can be.

So I suspect a big part of my frequent inability to finish things is because of this notion of ruining the perfection of an idea. I dislike choosing. Back in the days of video rental, I could spend more than an hour browsing the racks for a movie. I genuinely felt pains at having to pick something. The "but what if" question loomed large. What if that other movie is better? I'll miss out. What if this movie really sucks? I'll waste my time.

And its the same with projects. I have this idea about a sort of quasi-space fantasy realm composed of many worlds. It's really just a fantasy realm, albeit with empty space (or weird space ichors) separating individual cities and forests. So instead of traveling by foot between two points you would travel by boat or ship or magic. Anyway, the idea turns me off at some point because infinite worlds are unappealing. If they are infinite, it seems like a cheap trick. Like you are saying "my setting has everything". But at the same time, a finite and defined realm feels limiting and small. So I bounce between the two concepts, never quite happy with any of it.

Over the years my good friend Cyd and I have discussed these ideas over and over and we have this sort of artistic battle cry: FINISH IT. This bumper stick philosophy comes from the mouth of Neil Gaiman who told Cyd (at a comic con) that the best advice he could offer an aspiring writer is to "finish it, cringe later".

That advice feels like a silver bullet. To reduce indecision, you get in elbows deep and do the work while the work is dominating your mind. Another way of saying it is to "strike while the iron is hot". Do the thing while the thing is alive. Put pen to paper while the idea is still bursting forth. Don't wait too long. Don't wring your hands and worry that it isn't quite right. It'll never be quite right. If you want to do things, finishing them so that others can see, then you have to DO THE THINGS.

Maybe some of you are gifted with great patience and endurance and can work on the project for years at a stretch without losing it. To you I say huzzah. But I'm not like that. If I don't get in there and knock it out fast, it will likely never get knocked out.

I'm pretty sure it was Pablo Picaso who said that to finish a work is to kill it. I hope to slay a lot more ideas before I'm dead.

A page from Zoa Space Fantasy, a comic I never quite finished.


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  2. Very true. I appreciate nay good ideas on dealing with this issue. I have 10 different projects in different stages on completion, but it seems the farther I go the easier it is to start something else.
    The one thing that helped me is getting some professionals on board to do the art, lay out, etc. Not because I can't do that (well, I can't), but because their involvement forces me to follow through.

    1. Honestly this is a struggle for a lot of creators. It's the reason so many creators never actually finish anything at all. It's much much easier to NOT finish it. What helps me is that I have a persistent need to work on stuff. Sometimes I feel like a fish flopping around on the bank but sometimes I plop back in the water and swim. I don't know the secret. But I do know that it is better to finish things than to NOT finish them. I think, at least for me, one of the keys is to work hard while an idea is fresh. Keep it realistic, don't bite off too much at a time.

  3. Perfectly articulated! :)

    Seriously, thank you for writing this--I absolutely needed to read it right at this moment.

    1. Glad it makes sense. Now go forth and FINISH IT!

  4. You said it perfectly. The only things I ever finish are very short, despite having hundreds of pages of unfinished longer material. The further in I go, the harder it gets to continue until it finally catches up and everything "wrong" just swallows me whole.

    But hey, I think everyone is like that to some extent, except the rare few heroes who simply don't give a crap.

  5. There is so much truth about cringing after the fact. After I'm done, when folks are saying "wow that's nice" I'm thinking "this is crap, this is filth, and that bit there, barf!"