[A note to readers: I haven't been writing much here at Net Cotton Content. I'm sorry. Not sorry to you. Sorry to me. I want to write more. Recently, I told one of my mentors, Matt Slaybaugh, that I had been enjoying the stories of Sholem Aleichem. Matt said, "If you have time to read, why aren't you writing?" So. Now this.]
Where do you go with your half-baked ideas?
When plans are still ugly and unruly? Long before your next step is polished; when your path is still unformed?
In the recent years, I have had to learn how to share my unfinished work. Because, early on, I was taught not to share unfinished work…
My mother taught me early.
Artie, we are worried. Your work is sloppy. You are capable of much better work. Your father and I — we are afraid that, if your work is sloppy, you won't ever be self-sufficient. Even though you are only five years old. Your father and I love you very much, but…
Most crushing news came with that preamble: "Your father and I love you very much, but…."
Your father and I love you very much, but let me tell you something that, if you internalize it, things will go well for you: "Anything worth doing is worth doing well."
She was right, of course. The people who didn't do things well didn't get to graduate from high school, go to fancy college, go to fancy business school, live in comfortable house. The people who didn't do things well end up living a life where they are outside when they want to be inside and inside when they want to be outside.
That's the definition of "being rich."
You get to be inside when you want to be inside. You get to be outside when you want to be outside.
Beat the rush.
Eighth grade grammar class taught me to catch my errors before submitting my work. "Proofread your work, gentlemen," exhorted the legendary Master, David Trowbridge at The Columbus Academy. "Find your errors. Beat the rush. Embarrass yourself early."
A bounty — a milkshake — was offered to any student who could find an error in the Master's work. The reward was so rare. But it was rich. It was the taste of an Ideal, that one's product could be truly finished.
Reinforcement: college taught me to make sure my work was finished before sliding it under the office door. Edit. Re-edit. Proofread. Proofread again. Back when an apple was a tart McIntosh, entire essays would be re-typed. And again. (If you want to see what I think of typewriters, watch Woody Allen: A Documentary, which is also a primer on work ethic, creativity, and engagement in life.)
Errors were private.
Rough drafts were private affairs. They represented a solitary journey, pacing around the college library in the night. It was only when — in the light of the next morning — a finished paper would be promenaded to the professor.
But there is a special brilliance in the mess of making work.
All great work starts with a single error.
A few years ago, when I was teaching at the Columbus College of Art & Design, an art student showed me a drawing. It was beautiful, a creation of talent and care. I asked, "Where on this did you start? What was the first mark?"
The artist paused. "The first mark isn't there. It was erased. In the end, that first mark was a mistake."
Matt Slaybaugh, you taught me this. How the first idea, the creative impetus, so often does not survive to the final draft. (How did you say this, Matt? You said it perfectly, searingly in your The Absurdity of Writing Poetry.) I heard "how it is sometimes the very idea, the very notion, the first urgent message you set out to share with the audience — it is that which ends up on the floor, cut from the final work."
[Matt wrote me after seeing this post: "Here's what I said, some of which is a mangled version of a line from Annie Dillard's book The Writing Life: And usually, the part that you have to jettison is not only the best part, your most profound work, it is also, oddly the very piece that was to have been the point. It is the original key thought, the moment on which the rest was to hang, and from which you yourself drew courage to continue. And you tell yourself, the path is not the work."]
So where is your test kitchen?
My peer groups are — in the words of Conrad Prusak, a legendary Vistage chair — test kitchens for the half-baked. The members sometimes bring their finished goods to the table, but they get the most vivid feedback when they bring their ideas and plans that are still half-baked, still-ugly, not-ready-for-release.
Where do you share your work-in-progress? Where is your test kitchen?