if you don’t know what you’re doing, do it faster

If you read your contract carefully, you’ll see that we ask for the show to be 90 minutes in length, for it to have this many commercial breaks, and for it to be done for this budget. But nowhere in the contract do we ask for it to be good.

This is from Marc Maron’s highly anticipated interview with SNL creator Lorne Michaels. In the early days, Lorne’s perfectionism got in the way. An NBC exec helped put Lorne’s role as producer in perspective:

If you are so neurotic and driven that you feel you have to make it good, well, that’s a good thing for us, but it isn’t what we asked for. What we asked for was for it to be 90 minutes in length and to cost X amount.

This changed Lorne’s perspective on his job as the creator of a television show. He suddenly saw air between his task and his mission. His task was to make this 90-minute live comedy show. His mission was something much bigger, but if he got lost in the mission he couldn’t properly perform his task.

Writing is a feat with no finish line. You can always keep working on something, often long past your publisher’s deadline (believe me, I’ve been on the receiving end of that many times). It is astoundingly easy to become blind to the diminishing returns of additional work.

Are you good enough to be a perfectionist yet?

The cliché runs that the inexperienced writer, the “wannabe,” deliberates and tweaks endlessly.

There’s truth to that, but if you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re not “tweaking,” you’re just moving things around without a clear sense of where they should go and hoping for a miracle.

Experienced creators deliberate endlessly because they know what to deliberate about. They think through their options, review previously successful strategies, and generally head closer to their vision. Very different from the novice’s spaghetti-wall-repeat approach.

What experience gives creators is the ability to discern subtle improvements that add up to greatness. We may recognize a masterpiece when we see one—whether or not it’s to our taste, we might be able to identify the mastery on display—but to both comprehend and articulate why one work is a masterpiece and another is simply well-made takes expert discernment. And discernment is earned by long hours and many, many mistakes; don’t let anybody tell you different.

Once you can tell the difference between good and better, making stuff starts to take forever.

In a hurry the other day, I got a haircut at a different place. The guy came over with such assurance and poise, I immediately relaxed. The guy was clearly a pro.

“A little off the top.”

“A little off the top.”

When people hesitate, we rate them amateurs. When they act with confidence, they’re legit.

It makes sense: when you feel like an impostor, you’re certain you look like one. Ergo, if someone looks knowledgable, they are.

The opposite is more often the case. Watch a terrific photographer work, someone who has worked professionally at a very high level for years. Often, they will agonize over a shot. They will deliberate with themselves about every aspect. They will take forever. It’s maddening, but the results speak for themselves.

Meanwhile, you can fiddle with those F-stops till everyone’s gone home and your results will look the same as always.

“Wait a second,” you say. “So-and-so has created a vast body of work and is undoubtedly a genius.” Well, that’s the uncomfortable truth: prolific geniuses work that hard all the time. It’s hard for normal people like me to believe when we see how much raw time people operating at that level devote to their work. It reminds me of Teller explaining a famous magic trick:

My partner, Penn, and I once produced 500 live cockroaches from a top hat on the desk of talk-show host David Letterman. To prepare this took weeks. We hired an entomologist who provided slow-moving, camera-friendly cockroaches (the kind from under your stove don’t hang around for close-ups) and taught us to pick the bugs up without screaming like preadolescent girls. Then we built a secret compartment out of foam-core (one of the few materials cockroaches can’t cling to) and worked out a devious routine for sneaking the compartment into the hat. More trouble than the trick was worth? To you, probably. But not to magicians.

Not to writers either.

First novels and last novels can each take ten years to write, but those ten years are spent in entirely different ways.

I’m not suggesting that you start agonizing over every comma in your work. When you’re starting out, the Edward Scissorhands approach is best. Get in there, do the work, don’t worry too much about the result because you won’t be able to tell the difference between the good stuff and the better stuff yet.

Without discernment born of long hours at the keyboard and plenty of audience feedback, fussing over your work isn’t going to do anything but sap your momentum and leave you vulnerable to procrastination and burnout.

That said, after years of practice and putting your work in front of other people, I bet you’ll notice yourself slowing down despite yourself.

When that happens, don’t beat yourself up. That’s mastery creeping up on you. You’re starting to notice the possibilities. The details begin to matter because you’re sharp enough to spot them.

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