Just hold that happy thought, Peter!
—Tinker Bell, Hook
I’d always imagined a pupa as something straight out of the original Transformers cartoon, the caterpillar sealing itself up in its chrysalis only to BI-BUH-BO-BOO-BUH into a beautiful butterfly. Turns out, no. The caterpillar actually digests itself, squirting enzymes throughout its own body to dissolve all its tissues. This goop is then assembled into a new insect. Thus the caterpillar doesn’t transform; it transcends. Only through this sacrifice can the butterfly take shape.
I’ve come to learn that I need order in my life in order to function. Absolutely require it, in fact. Yet to write anything worthwhile, I must pass through one or more stages of disorder—of goop—with my ideas jumbling together and coming apart and turning inside-out in extraordinarily uncomfortable ways. I think this is why messy thinkers are so creative and prolific. They’re comfortable working with goop. Not me. I hate it. But when I refuse to acknowledge the necessity of the goop stage, I become inescapably blocked.
I say this as much to myself as I do to you: There is no creative work without a goop stage. Likewise, no creative career. You, too, must become goop in order to fly, not just once but over and over again throughout your working life.
Or you could just stop creating altogether. I still think about law school now and then. I really don’t like goop and I don’t think I ever will.
I raise this in regard to last week’s essay on having the courage to plan your entire writing career out like an opera singer.
More than a decade ago, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was published and became an international phenomenon. To date, nearly 100 million copies of the book and its sequels have been sold worldwide. Dragon Tattoo wasn’t to my taste, but I still found myself admiring the author, Swedish journalist Stieg Larsson. The guy had vision.
Larsson embarked on writing his Millennium “trilogy” (he actually had a ten-book series in mind) with absolute confidence in its eventual success. His professional experience had been entirely rooted in journalism—he’d written some short stories as a teenager—but he told friends he was certain the books he was writing would not only find an audience but make him rich to boot. Were it not for his sudden, if not shocking, heart attack at fifty—according to Wikipedia, “his diet largely consisted of cigarettes, processed food and copious amounts of coffee”—Larsson would have far exceeded his ambitious goals.
Though he may not have used the Swedish version of the term, Larsson had decided to write potboilers. In “the old-fashioned days,” as my daughter likes to call the past, authors were sometimes forced to lower themselves to writing books with commercial potential. This kind of book was called a potboiler because it was intended to “boil one’s pot,” i.e. pay the author’s daily living expenses so they could write “real” books, i.e. the artsy kind most people don’t want to read.
Isn’t that funny? Can you imagine knowing how to sit down and write a book guaranteed to make a lot of money and doing so only under duress? Today, nobody knows how to do that!
Here’s the thing about Larsson: He’d nearly completed the third book before he found a willing publisher for the first one. That’s confidence. That is exactly the kind of long-term thinking I advocated in last week’s essay. Larsson could have stopped working on the series after finishing The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, investing all his energy into finding a publisher or simply waiting for approval to come to him, as so many would-be authors tend to do. Instead, he kept working, kept executing on his plan. More goop. He knew, or allowed himself to feel, that success was inevitable. As a result, he felt no need to spare himself any effort. He had no fear of that universally dreaded fate: working on a project that doesn’t end up succeeding in the end. (Isn’t that the real terror lurking in every blocked writer? “Wasted effort”?)
In retrospect, of course, Larsson’s second and third book would never have been written had he waited, but even if he’d had many years ahead of him, putting his project on hold because of any external circumstance would likely have sapped the precious motive energy at the heart of it, the kernel driving the books in his own mind.
Ideas just don’t age well, people. When have you ever looked back at a scribbled note from more than a few months ago and thought, “Hey, I can use this. Glad I held onto it.” More often than not, it’s “I can’t believe I thought that way back in May. How embarrassing. I’ll have to eat this paper to hide the evidence.” Use it or lose it.
Meanwhile, creative seeds grow to all sizes. One idea is just a pyrite nugget; another is a vein of gold so deep it threads the roots of the earth. Antiheroine Lisbeth Salander runs deep enough that another Swedish journalist, David Lagercrantz, is continuing the series himself with the permission of Larsson’s estate.
Think of how many ideas of similar potential never achieved their true scope because their creators didn’t have a signed contract from the Universe promising them life everlasting to complete their work under perfect conditions and blockbuster success at the end of the road. Think of how many great works only exist because their creators held onto their confidence in the face of universal rejection or, worse, apathy.
Personally, I never feel all that certain I’m even going to finish what I start. The idea of beginning a project with full confidence in its eventual success feels crazy to me. And yet, we have two children.
Unlike, say, science or economics, writing seems to benefit from a kind of absolute self-confidence that simply has to be decided, worn like a mantle. Yes, I will finish this. Yes, it will turn out as well as I imagine, no matter how gruesome it appears along the way. Come what may, I’m going through the goop.
Your work will suck until it doesn’t. Always. To quote multiple characters in Mission: Impossible—Fallout, “That’s the job.” There’s nothing pretty going on inside a chrysalis, either. You don’t judge the butterfly by its goop. All you can ever really do is decide to have full confidence in your ability to wrest order from chaos. As Tinker Bell tells Peter Pan, the trick is to hold onto that happy thought. Otherwise, you’re going to eat dirt.