Imperfect thoughts on doneness
Jun 2, 2011
Imperfect thoughts on doneness
Hawking radiation and customer reference videos: a hypothesis
This is the fifth title I’ve come up with and none of them are very good
by Charlotte Moore, Writer and Indifferent Masochist
“A man may work from sun to sun, but woman’s work is never done.” —Folk saying
“Turkeys are ‘done’; artists are ‘finished.’” —My third grade art teacher
“Done is good.” —My dad
So first what happened was I wrote a couple of tweets.
The revision process is strange. You write something you think is “done.” Then you get revisions, work them in, and it’s… done-er.
So how can both be right? Basically, revisions are like the physics inside a black hole. By all rights, impossible, yet accepted as reality.
Then Centerline’s VP of Strategy and Creative, John Lane (@johnvlane for my fellow Twitter enthusiasts), sent me an IM regarding the aforementioned tweets. It’s a little tl;dr, but bear with us for a minute (or jump to after the quote).
John L.: is it essentially mental semantics?
John L.: once you think something is “done” does it make it harder to assume it could be better?
John L.:in other words… is anything ever really done?
Charlotte: My dad always used to tell me that “done is good,” which means at some point, you have to reach a stopping point or you’ll drive yourself insane
Charlotte: But of course, anything can always be improved
John L.: stopping point, yes.
Charlotte: So basically, “done is good” = “done is relative”
John L.: “as good as it’s going to be”
Charlotte: Pretty much. I can’t think of very many writers or artists who are ever really satisfied with their work — but of course there’s such a thing as overwork, and that’s just as dangerous as unfinished
John L.: absolutely.
Charlotte: So at some point I have to finish a script or an edit just to get something sent. In that sense, it’s “done,” but revisions make it a different animal, a different kind of “done”
John L.: done doesn’t exist. letting go before it’s done feels wrong.
Charlotte: Right. But we’re not always the best judge of what constitutes doneness — if we were, there’d never be a need for revisions
Charlotte: Which is why revisions tend not to bug me too much, as a concept, though of course mileage varies
John L.: so it’s not the idea of revisions (a given) it’s the amount?
Charlotte: Sometimes. Like– I think that’s the thing that bugs me the most about working with a lot of our most demanding clients — they keep tweaking and tweaking and tweaking, trying to make it “perfect,” and it’s just… done is relative, perfect is impossible
Charlotte: Approaching “perfect” is just asymptotic
Charlotte: Eventually you just have to say “it’s not perfect, but it IS finished”
John L.: yup. back to the mental portion, right? because perfection as just as subjective as done.
Charlotte: Yes. Exactly.
Charlotte: Which brings us back to the crazy relativism of black hole physics
Charlotte: My metaphor stands. ;>
John L.: then well done!
Ha ha! “Well done!” Get it? Because it’s like—we were talking about being done, right, so it’s like a pun, see, and…
Between that discussion, several concurrent responses on the twitters, and an ongoing dialogue with a friend about how, when, or if creative people can ever be satisfied with anything, ever, period, I realized that the very concept of “done” is integral to the creative philosophy. Mindset. Weltanschauung. Whatever. And it’s not because we’re all super well-acquainted with the warm satisfaction of a project reaching its potential, oh no – it’s more because we spend most of our careers chasing “done” and just… never… quite… get there, aaagggh, the pain, the pain!
And you know what THAT means: revisions. Lots and lots of revisions.
You can tell a lot about someone by how receptive they are to revisions, which are an absolute necessity in art – writing, visual art, performance art, music, etc. First drafts are rarely done. Often, neither are second drafts. If you’ve nailed it by the third draft, you’re doing pretty well. People who can accept that without whining tend to be more successful – personally, professionally, creatively – than the other kind.
That’s why the need for rework is something that creative agencies factor into project estimates. It’s not some kind of insurance plan against shitty writers and artists. It’s simply a truism that no one gets it right the first time. New information, second opinions (and third opinions, and fourth opinions, and good lord, does EVERYONE get to have an opinion?), and other external factors have as much control over a finished product as its creator. When you create something for yourself, you’re the only one you have to answer to (that’s a post for another day). But when you create something as part of a team – and on behalf of someone else – then it gets to be a little more complicated.
Nota bene: it’s really, really, REALLY important to distinguish between “done” and “perfect.” Perfect is something you strive for, maybe, but it’s not something you ever achieve – which is why I suggested to the boss that perfection is asymptotic. You can always SEE that line, but alas: you’ll never reach it. This is the single most infuriating truth to any creative worth his or her salt. Interestingly, it’s also the most motivating. We’re kind of masochistic that way.
So it seems to me that creative people get divided into two categories: the idealists and the nihilists.
The idealists believe that, while the line may not be reachable, you can always get closer and closer to it. For them, the maddening, tiring, visceral, perversely fun part of creativity comes from stretching their fingers out as far as possible to just maybe – MAYBE – brush perfection. They are never satisfied, but they hold out hope that someday they will be.
The nihilists believe that there is simply no damn point in trying to reach the stupid line. You will kill yourself trying to achieve a perfect product. Yet for a creative nihilist, accepting the impossibility of perfection frees them to try all kinds of stuff without worrying too much about their own shortcomings. Well, hell, it was never going to be perfect. But that doesn’t mean I failed.
I’ll let you guess which category I fall into.
Neither approach is wrong. In fact, when we’re talking about making stuff, “wrong” and “right” are kind of irrelevant. Everyone has to find a method they can live with. Done is good, but done is relative. You can revise just about anything to within an inch of its life and still never be “done.” But if that seems discouraging (and it only is if you’re an idealist), then think of it this way: creative projects are like people. Our flaws are part and parcel of our identities. In accepting our fallibility and limitations, we are – in a weirdly contradictory way – fulfilling our potential. I am exactly as effed up as I was meant to be. That makes me, me. I like that. I can live with that.
Work really isn’t all that different. I believe in the value of measured expectations and small victories, and of accepting the inevitability of change. What we craft may not be perfect, but more often than not, it will be right. To me, that feels as good or better than “done.”
Which is what this blog entry is. Now all I have to do is send it to John for revisions.