Getting it wrong before getting it right
One of the things that frustrates me most about writing—or creating anything, really—is the way that you—I—never get it right the first time. Not-getting-it-right is built into the process: whatever I’m working on is continuously wrong, or gradually-and-marginally-less-wrong, until finally, near the very end, it’s right (enough), and therefore Done! NEXT!
I like being right. I hate being wrong. Creating means spending a lot of time hanging out in the not-right zone. Bleah!
It’s one of the main reasons I get immobilized. You can say all you want, “Go ahead, just write a terrible first draft” (and believe me, I always write lousy first drafts, and second and third ones too), but I find this aspect of creativity nearly intolerable. I hate committing to a choice—a word, a sentence, an organizing principle—knowing I will just have to change it later.
Yet this is how ideas get refined. I revisit them, rework them, see how they relate to each other, begin to see what’s more or less important, find new relationships, decide what’s a tangent and what’s core, eliminate the excess. Did I mention that I hate that this is how the process works? It’s excruciating to me.
After coming across the work of psychologist Carol Dweck, I’m beginning to understand my reaction a little better. Dweck has done research into the difference between performance goals (“I did great! I’m smart and talented! Reward me!”) and learning goals (“I persisted and eventually got there! Yay!”) As the proverbial A-student, I grew up (happily) performance-focused, rewarded for consistently Getting It Right. This works fine until you hit a setback. Performance-focused A-student types never learn to manage the frustration of Getting It Wrong. Their (my) approach is: “There is a Right Way, and the goal is to get to the Right Way sooner. Wrongness is unacceptable and a big waste of time!” The kid who’s rewarded for persistence rather than performance thinks, “Oh, I love a problem! If I keep working at it, I’ll figure it out.”
“I love a problem”? This attitude is completely alien to me. In my mind, “I don’t know how” leads automatically to “Therefore, I cannot.” My progress is continually throttled by the emotional conviction that “No answer YET” equals “There IS no answer.”
And really, almost all of life is about Not Yet. The moments of “Got it!” are brief and fleeting. So it would be useful to learn tolerance and appreciation for Not Yet.
A scientist I’m acquainted with heard my description of creativity-as-successive-iterations-of-not-rightness and told me, “That’s how science works: Asking successively better questions. It’s a cumulative process.” I like the word “cumulative.” It suggests not that things are wrong-wrong-wrong-until-Bing! they’re OK, but rather that I’m building on my work so that it keeps getting better.
Tolerating not-rightness is a learned behavior, and I don’t know (yet) how to learn it. I have some ideas, though. And I’m persisting.