Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Magic is Messy

I'm helping out friends with a writing project. And I'm not completely sure what they're expecting, so while I believe I'm producing something terrific, there's a knot in my stomach at the prospect they'll take one look and cry "What the hell is this?"

So I texted one of them, and asked him to test-read a page. Then I reminded him again. And again. Nothing.

Meanwhile, I kept writing, with an increasing concern that I might be walking off a cliff. I could be headed in the completely wrong direction. It's really hard to tell! The dread mounts.

If he'd simply written back to tell me it's great, or to tell me it sucks, I would have instantly sprung into focus, knowing what to do. Without that, I feel like Schrodinger's Cat, writing something both great and useless simultaneously, the verdict sealed until someone opens the damned box and takes a look.

I saw the guy last night, and after polite apologies for not getting back to me, he revealed what had happened. He was so confident that I'd turn in something great that he didn't figure he needed to chime in. Since I'm so good at this, I could just go do my thing.

At least, that was the view from his perspective.

From my perspective, I'm floundering in a pool of self-doubt. I know the stupidity I'm capable of. I know that sitting down to write entails weaving puke and turds and snot into output that might pass scrutiny. I'm not falsely modest. I'm fully aware that, at my best, I can pull off small magic tricks. That means some people think of me as a magician. That's nice, but they don't understand what that entails, or how ramshackle it all really is. It's the usual appearance-versus-reality thing.

Real magicians are nothing like stage magicians. We aren't suave figures attired in cleanly pressed tuxes, with seamlessly confident control of circumstances and effortlessly socko results every single time. That's not how any of this works. Real magicians dwell among the puke and turds and snot. That's where we live. It's a dirty job no one else will do.

Our process is one of desperation, strain, and grim determination amid nauseating insecurity. We are constantly burdened with the memory of outcomes where we'd forgotten to clean off every last booger and someone noticed, breaking the spell and leaving only a sense of blinking bafflement at how this small, pathetic, whimpering oaf wound up in their midst when they'd expected an urbane, polished prestidigitator.

Remember that nervous, fleshy guy behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz, flailing feebly with his flimsy levers to create a limited array of just-barely-convincing effects? Yup. That's us. That's as good as it gets right there. Welcome to my life from my perspective.
"Aw, c'mon, we both know you'll nail this project, Jim!"

"But you can't know that! You don't understand how stupid I can be! You have no idea!"

"Yeah! Ha! 'Stupid'! That's you! Look, just keep writing, it'll be awesome!"

"No! Awesomeness does not flow out of me like pancakes! It's work and pain, and nothing's ever assured. It's always possible I'm a million miles from anything good! That's never not a strong possibility!"
Here's the thing: magic is messy. Repeat it to yourself a million times, so expectations are properly readjusted after years of seeing cheesy, toothy fricking David Copperfield on TV: Magic is messy.

Further reading:
The Perfection Requirement
Explaining Steve Jobs
Cave of Forgotten Dreams

How will this very posting play? Am I whining? By omitting a ton of supporting detail - to make this read more smoothly - have I produced something that will be boiled down to some empty cliché of artistic snittiness and neurosis? Is any of this even remotely interesting? Have I devolved into a self-indulgent blogger? The part about me sometimes being a magician, does that read like gloating? Or, on the contrary, is my self-portrayal so lowly that I've revolted everyone? Is the Slog bogged down in navel-gazing and snide complaints about how wrong people are? Is this turning into a downer when it could just as easily offer a positive message? Is anyone even reading any of this? And is it okay if not? I disliked writing for multitudes - needing to withstand the merciless snark and willful misapprehension - so here, left in peace, I ought to be happy, yet I catch myself fretting about smallness, and about whether I'm disappointing the few who do come around. Is it clear what I'm doing with this footer right now? Does it read like a beleaguered call for help, when I'm simply revealing the sort of inner narrative every truly creative person confronts? David Copperfield never concerns himself with this stuff! David Copperfield never whines!

If any of you are reading this in horror, wondering why I'd torment myself when it's all reading fine and I'm someone whose writing you admire (I frankly have no idea if there are any such people wondering any such thing) and shocked by the harshness of my concerns - then allow me to yet again point out that magic is messy.

It's not a matter of ego insecurity. I don't need strokes. There's no personal self-doubt here, because it's not about me, it's about the material. Is it good? I don't know! No creative person knows!

Actually, that's not true. Sometimes (not always) I do know when it's good. But I never know when it's bad, and that fact can only fail to terrify me if I were to keep up a steady diet of lead paint chips.

1 comment:

Display Name said...

I'm reading your slog Jim. So happy you are posting. Always a pleasure never a snooze

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