I’ve never been very good at coloring outside the lines.
I have my rebellious streak, to be sure, but when it comes to expressing myself creatively, whether through writing or music or something else entirely, I want everything to be just so. Austin Kleon’s whole philosophy of showing your work is great . . . for other people. Personally, it horrifies me. No thanks. I will give you my finished product, or I will give you nothing at all.
And guess what? That often means I give you nothing at all.
The potential landmines laying in wait for my various creative projects often feel too numerous to mention. There’s, of course, the fear of creating something that doesn’t live up to my own standards. The fear of not living up to the standards that other people have for me. The fear of making something that’s basically inoffensive but completely meaningless. The fear of making something that I think is good but that secretly has a huge, glaring flaw that I was blind to until it is pointed out by someone else. Given this gauntlet of potential humiliations, I have to either play to win or not play at all.
My astrological birth chart assures me that this tension in my personality is encoded in the stars—that it can be chalked up to a combination of my Sun sign (Aquarius) being in conjunction with both Mars and Mercury, as well as my Mercury (Pisces) being in opposition to Saturn. This means I’m incredibly competitive but I also have a keen fear of not being taken seriously or of being laughed at for the way that I communicate.
I have the saddest childhood memory of being probably about five years old and helping my maternal grandmother make desserts for our family’s Christmas Day dinner.
In addition to the dozens and dozens of cookies we’d baked, she had a teeny tiny pie dish that she let me fill with the remainder of the chocolate cream left over from the other full-sized pies. I was so proud of having made my own little pie! I wanted to show it off and present it with a due sense of ceremony to everyone, especially because my beloved aunt and uncle, whom I didn’t get to see all that often because they lived in Michigan, were in town.
My grandmother helped me gently take off the plastic wrap that had been covering it while it chilled, and I made a big show of carrying it into the living room after dinner for all to see and appreciate. Well, I fucking tripped and ruined the goddamn pie. Of course, I was horrifyingly embarrassed. I can seriously feel my heart seize up with sympathetic mortification for my young self even now. It was awful.
I ran into my grandmother’s bedroom and threw myself on the bed and sobbed. My uncle eventually came in to console me and assure me that everything was OK, but I can’t imagine I was too easily convinced that I wasn’t, in fact, a damn fool. I’m also not sure if they all actually did laugh when it happened, or if I’m only imagining that they did. (I mean, come on—falling down while holding a cream pie is a staple of silent film comedy for a reason.) Regardless, that combination of having worked hard on something, having been excited to share it with people I cared about, then accidentally screwing it up for all to see was a pretty formative experience of shame. No matter that it was purely an accident. It taught me to avoid the possibility of having any other accidents at all costs.
And what else is writing or playing or singing something subpar if not an accident of taste? An accident of deluded self-perception regarding my own skill or talent or importance? Of course, factoring all that in, it becomes a pretty short leap from “I’ve made something that might or might not be good” to “I’m considering making something—is the idea good enough to work on?” to “I’m not making anything at all!”
When I first started this blog back at the tail end of 2013, I overly ambitiously thought I could write three posts per week. I kept up that schedule for maybe two months, before eventually reducing it way down to one per month. And though I write here entirely of my own volition, and am beholden to no one, and actively think of myself as a person who writes, I start to get nervous and itchy as the end of the month draws near, knowing that I have to come up with something to post here. It’s ridiculous! It’s ostensibly a safe space, I’ve disallowed commenting, I’m lucky not to be trolled by nasty anonymous lurkers—I’m set up to win. So what’s the problem?
My poor, sweet, supportive boyfriend gets understandably frustrated for (and with!) me when I start thrashing around in a birdbath of my own self-doubt. I get angry at myself for not writing, angry at myself for not knowing what to write, angry at my own procrastination—and then expect him to be able to console me or find an easy solution for me and my self-created problems.
He is the most methodical writer and creator that I have perhaps ever known; he is the anti-procrastinator, a perfect example of the (very reasonable!) recommendation to write something every day, to be steadily productive rather than waiting for inspiration to strike, to let the effect of the practice be cumulative rather than banking on a burst of glorious inspiration. So, the thing he does best for me doesn’t happen in those moments of acute panic at all. It’s showing me, over the long haul, that there’s another way to make art. And I do strive to be more like that.
But, as I’m torturing myself to start writing something, anything—and torturing him with my whining and thrashing—it’s actually kind of impossible, in rational terms, to convey the degree to which my subconscious is still gripped by the fear that I’m going to drop the fucking pie.
But. The thing that my attempts at self-protection don’t account for is, of course, magic.
And by that, I really mean magic, not just the warm, fuzzy feelings that come when people say something nice about something I’ve done. In focusing exclusively on the potential for disaster, I’ve forgotten that it’s possible for work that begins, instinctively, humbly, inside my own little brain, to blossom outward in ways I never could have imagined.
Like, right now I’m putting the finishing touches on an amazing new zine project that I’ve been conceptualizing since at least the beginning of this year. It’s called Satan Is My Father: A Zine about Forgotten, Misremembered, and Nonexistent Bands.
I got a dream team of eight other writers and artists to contribute essays and drawings on this very loosely defined topic, and it’s by turns hilarious, ridiculous, and melancholy (all my favorite flavors). I’ll have it ready to share with the world by the end of next week.
As it turns out, two of the contributors, while they were reviewing the proof copy that I provided everyone by e-mail, discovered that they both had known, at different times and in different places, one of the musicians being written about. I don’t want to give away too many details here because it’s not really my story to tell. But, given the obscurity of this singer and the number of years gone by since her death, it’s a remarkable, remarkable coincidence. The revelation of this synchronicity has catalyzed an avalanche of very healing reminiscences and communication between these two writers as well as with other former members of her band.
I’ve been avoiding taking credit for any of this. I didn’t know this singer; I’m not the one who reached out to her former bandmates; I wasn’t part of that scene. Nevertheless, some kind of . . . shall we say . . . portal opened up through this thing that I was driven to put together, and the connections being made have already been mind-blowing.
Might these memories and coincidences have come to light eventually anyway? Sure, at some point, probably. But watching something this beautiful happen through the auspices of this initially goofy little idea that I came up with is nothing if not a healing for me. It gave me the confidence to at least ponder—what other magic hasn’t had a chance to flourish because I killed an idea before it had time show up in the world? What’s being held back in other, unseen places when I cop out and play small?
And anyway, what good is a pie if you make it all by yourself? At this point, I’d much rather call some friends, ask them to bring something to share, and enjoy a full meal together.
These quotes all proved helpful to me as I was writing this piece.
If I’m not telling it, it’s because I’m ashamed or feel guilty, and I don’t want to live in those places emotionally anymore. I spent a long time there. There’s some risk of overexposing myself but at the same time, telling my story is how I counteract the very real desire to hide everything about me. —Ashley Ford
I did things in my 30s that were ignored by the world, that could have been quickly labeled a failure. Here’s a classic example; in 1974 I did a movie called Phantom of the Paradise. Phantom of the Paradise, which was a huge flop in this country. There were only two cities in the world where it had any real success: Winnipeg, in Canada, and Paris, France. So, okay, let’s write it off as a failure. Maybe you could do that. But all of the sudden, I’m in Mexico, and a 16-year-old boy comes up to me at a concert with an album—a Phantom of the Paradise soundtrack—and asks me to sign it. I sign it. Evidently I was nice to him and we had a nice little conversation. I don’t remember the moment, I remember signing the album (I don’t know if I think I remember or if I actually remember). But this little 14 or 16, whatever old this guy was… Well I know who the guy is now because I’m writing a musical based on Pan’s Labyrinth; it’s Guillermo del Toro. The work that I’ve done with Daft Punk it’s totally related to them seeing Phantom of the Paradise 20 times and deciding they’re going to reach out to this 70-year-old songwriter to get involved in an album called Random Access Memories. So, what is the lesson in that? The lesson for me is being very careful about what you label a failure in your life. Be careful about throwing something in the round file as garbage because you may find that it’s the headwaters of a relationship that you can’t even imagine it’s coming in your future. —Paul Williams
[Acting in the film Young Adult] didn’t give me the confidence to say, “I can do it.” It gave me the confidence to say, “I can put the work in,” which, weirdly enough, a lot of people don’t. And for a long time, I didn’t really have the confidence to do that either, because I had come up out of that whole alternative scene, which was all about, “Don’t try it, man. Just go up and wing it.” I think a lot of that comes from insecurity. It’s that fashion of improv and amateurism that comes from the insecurity of saying to the audience, “Well, it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t go well, because I didn’t even try that hard to begin with.” It’s like, “Oh, that’s why you’re not [trying]. If you actually tried hard and it sucked, then you’ve got to blame yourself.” So that’s what makes it hard for some people to sit down and actually just do the fucking work, because doing the work means you’re making a commitment. I’m giving this my all. Now my all might not be good enough—and I’m just now seeing that with some movies I’ve done—sometimes your all is not good enough, but that’s a scary risk to take. That’s what Young Adult gave me the confidence to do, and working with someone like Charlize, who just gives her fucking all. —Patton Oswalt