Not Good Enough?

November 10, 2013

by Deborah Atherton



Most people I know in the midst of a creative (or in fact almost any kind of) project pause at some moment, whether they have just started or are almost done, to tell themselves, “It’s not good enough.” Sometimes they keep this to themselves, and sometimes they immediately post it on Facebook. (I’ve noticed a lot of posts this month especially, since we’re in the midst of NaNoWriMo.)

Of course, sometimes it’s true—you’ve tried your hardest, and it really isn’t good enough. You started too soon or too late, or with an incomplete vision, and the essential idea, the thing that inspired you, has somehow been lost. But more often, it’s not about your novel or sketch or film or song or poem at all; it’s about the impossible and elusive standard we set ourselves—the standard we can never, ever meet, but one that somehow that guy we once encountered in college or at a party or on Twitter has not only met and surpassed—and has subsequently been rewarded with a bestseller or an Oscar nomination or at least an invitation to a much cooler party.

We won’t go too much into the many evils of social comparison—how we make ourselves unhappy by comparing our lives to those of our friends, neighbors, and colleagues—we all do it, and we all suffer for it. But the question is, how do we know, when we take that moment to examine and ask ourselves—is it good enough—whether we are using our own actual best judgment, or asking ourselves from the depths of our fear of never ever making something good enough—or even as good as what we’ve done before?

Our best bet, I think, is to take ourselves out of the moment, and examine what exactly sparked it. Was it really the way we captured the light, or worded a phrase—or was it that review of our acquaintance’s work that just popped up in our newsfeed or, even more shattering, a casual comment from a passing friend or relative? Are we actually having a dialog with our work or with our own sense—or someone else’s sense—of exactly where we ought to be in our lives right now?

Because really, the only voice in the room should be yours—unless of course your work is talking to you, and we always want to listen to what our work has to say. If your work is begging to be re-booted and re-vamped, then go to it. But if it’s really that everyone else seems to be getting deals and awards and reviews—kick them all out. Because how can they know? Only you had the idea, and only you can see it through.

Photo courtesy of daverugby33 at Flickr via Creative Commons license


Before You Toss It in the Trash

September 25, 2013

As creative people, maybe the hardest choices we ever have to make revolve around “when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em.” And we aren’t always going to make the right choice. Sometime the impulse to just smash or burn or shred or delete whatever we are working on overwhelms us and into the trash it goes. And with that gesture, the greatest idea we ever had or ever will have might go right up in flames or down the chute.  We’ll never know.


Of course, once in a while someone else saves us from our insanity, as Stephen King’s wife Tabitha famously did when she fished “Carrie” out of the wastebasket. But mostly, we have to count on ourselves in these moments of frustration. 

I’ve lost a number of things to disorganization and dislocation through the years—the file I know I saved in My Documents only to find it just isn’t there; the copy of the manuscript that isn’t in the box that I stuck it in circa 1993. But I’ve probably lost more to misjudgment.  “Well this is awful, I won’t ever want to look at it again,” I tell myself in a cleaning frenzy, only to wake up three years later and think—that wasn’t such a bad idea, if I just turned it around and started in a different place—but it’s gone, and not to be simply recreated.

What to do?  We certainly can’t save everything (well maybe those of us who work exclusively on computers can take a stab at it—but although we might be able to save it, finding it and being able to read it in new software ten years later is another issue.) But perhaps we can learn to distrust our rage and frenzies a little.  If something is making us that angry, there might be something to it—perhaps it is our own frustration in not getting the Big Idea out right that is enraging us, not the badness of the Big Idea.  If we don’t have someone as helpful and talented in her own right as Tabitha King around to save us from ourselves, we may want to just take a moment and walk away before we throw the whole thing away.  And it might help to remind ourselves that just because we can’t work through it today doesn’t mean we might not be able to do it tomorrow—or next year, or in three years, or in 2033.

Chicken Soup

January 9, 2011

Posted by Deborah Atherton

We talk a lot about creative blocks, the internal forces that keep us from realizing our ideas and visions. But sometimes life offers external blocks that keep us from doing what we want to do most.  Sometimes we confuse one with the other.

Several writers and artists have recently mentioned to me that a bad bout of flu had kept them from doing anything but watch mindless TV for over a week.  We are very intent sometimes on our schedules, our daily practice, the amount of words we get on a page or number of hours we have practiced on our instrument, and it’s hard to accept that external forces may prevent us from reaching our goals.

But life has a way of handing us obstacles on a fairly regular basis, and they may vary in severity from the loss of a job or a serious illness to a bad cold or visiting relatives.  And I think sometimes we are so used to trying to catch ourselves in slacking off (and let’s face it, we creative types do have an enormous gift for slacking off) that when real things happen, even when they come with temperatures of 103 or slings or severe lack of paychecks, we dismiss the reality of the obstacle, whatever its severity, and just start reproaching ourselves for not accomplishing things.

Sometimes it’s okay not to make your five hundred words a day or not to sit down at your easel or drafting table (especially if the smell of paint is making you sick.) Once in a while, yes, there will be a deadline that can’t be missed, a curtain that is going up or a book that is coming out and you will have to make a heroic effort, whatever the obstacles, and just resolve to pay for it later. But you don’t have to be heroic every day of your life (or no more heroic than every person is when they commit to pursuing their creative dreams.) Heroism is exhausting, and depleting, and not required from us all on a regular basis.

So pick up an undemanding book or the remote control, and get through your personal flu season (or whatever the obstacle may be) as comfortably as you can.  You’ll be back on the front lines soon enough, and one of these days, some heroism may well be required. But in the meantime, maybe just acknowledge that some days the blocks aren’t of your making, and the best thing you can do for yourself is go and find a nice bowl of chicken soup.

Much gratitude to Claudia Carlson for her thoughts on this issue. Check out her blog The Elephant House to follow an artist/poet/fiction writer/book designer on her adventures in and out of New York City!