I teach writing to art students, who, like me, are concerned with something I nebulously call The Artistic Process (how we make art). In class every semester, we watch Project Runway, the show where fashion designers compete for the chance to win a bunch of dough, a design contract, and other juicy industry contacts. I show them the first-ever episode, “Innovation,” when the designers are asked to make a fancy dress for a night out on the town—out of materials they find at the supermarket.
After we watch, I ask the students to decide who had the best artistic process. This semester, they chose a designer named Daniel, who was confident and focused and above all, stayed the course. He chose materials that were easy to work with: a garbage bag, some tinfoil, and some butcher paper. He had a clear vision, they said, and he always stuck to it, no matter what. That, they said, was good process.
But when I asked them to decide who had the best final design, they chose everyone but Daniel. They chose the guy who’d made the dress out of corn husks, who adapted gracefully when the husks all shriveled up overnight. They chose the woman who made a dress that looked like netting, with a flouncy skirt–she’d planned to tuck crayfish into the nets but decided at the last minute that it would be too stinky. A few of them even chose the guy who’d had a blunt moment of inspiration, wrapped his model up in a shower curtain and sent her down the runway.
So, I asked them, how is it possible that the guy who had the best process ended up with the worst design? Dumb luck, or—was his process not so great after all? After a while, we agreed that maybe the best process is not about (blindly) staying true to your vision, but about being adaptable, being fluid, being open to suggestion—and above all, knowing when it’s time to start over.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot.
Over the weekend, at a party, I ended up deep in conversation with my friend Greg. The details don’t matter, but suffice it to say that Greg is both a fantastic writer and a psychology student, and he’s one to dig—he gets you to think about things, like, say, your book, deeply. And after he left I spent the rest of the weekend with the nagging sensation that I needed to change something. One voice said, “No! It’s done; stop tinkering. Stay the course.” The other said, “Maybe you should take a risk and try something different.” So I sent my cover letter to Greg, and he and I talked about it yesterday. He had a whole new idea for me, and somehow, in the conversation, I ended up feeling like I understood my book better than I had in years. I understood why this book ever felt worth writing. I understood why it could be a good book. And above all, I understood that I could breathe new life into this whole querying process if I totally rewrote the pitch.
So I took a deep breath and did it.
Now, I’ve always found other people’s suggestions helpful; I’m someone who thrives on advice. But I also get deeply attached to things, and I’m terrible at change, so when I decide to do something different it comes with a predictable feeling of horrible dread and fear, followed, ultimately, by relief; but it’s relief tempered with regret (e.g. “Why did I send out the cover letter with the old pitch to all the GOOD agents? What if they’re all taken by the time I polish up a new letter?”). This sensation isn’t just reserved for writing. I notice when I decide to shift something about my parenting style I go through a period of anxiety that whatever I was doing before was terrible and I’ve probably screwed up L. for life. But that’s no reason to keep blindly sticking to the same course, right? Taking risks is hard, but I’m realizing that probably the best way to do your best work is to know when it’s time to try something different.
So, part four: course correct. Change it up. Take a risk. Be responsive. Write a new pitch.
Oh, in case you’re wondering? Daniel and his butcher-paper-and-garbage-bag dress lost. He was eliminated in that first episode. The delightful Corn-husk man won.