Permission to Start

I’ve been thinking lately about Lynda Barry’s “The Two Questions.” It’s a short autobiographical comic about creativity, originally published in McSweeney’s Issue #13. She writes about her desire to create and the struggles she constantly goes through, in particular with the two questions her inner censor is constantly asking: “Is this good?” and “Does this suck?” You can see a copy of the comic here.

I was struggling for the last few weeks to get started on a new project, particularly since I had completed all commissions, so the next thing I was going to write would be, officially, for myself. My art, not my job. Yes, I did think of it on those terms. And on those terms, it became increasingly difficult to start. Give me a deadline and an outline of what is needed and I can write 30 band charts in a snap; ask me to write whatever inspires me, and I might be staring at a blank page for days.

That’s particularly demoralizing when the alarm goes off at 4:30 and you think you might have nothing to show for it at 6:30. Why am I even doing this?

Which is what brought me back to Lynda. Those are the questions we always ask ourselves when we create, aren’t they? So how does she get past these questions? She doesn’t think her way out. It’s when she says “I don’t know” that she can get past the “demons” asking these questions.

So I started an arrangement, not caring what it will sound like. Just put it down on paper (or screen) and worry about quality another day. It truly was like a switch turned on, allowing me to write. Anne Lamott in “Bird by Bird” call it a “sh***y first draft.” Michael Chabon has written about just getting the words down on paper (and Chabon, a great writer and Pulitzer prize winner, has actually thrown away an entire BOOK and started over.) For me, Lynda’s “I don’t know” served as the inspiration to stop thinking and start doing.

So I’m pleased to say that I’m about 80% through my an arrangement. It’s too fragile yet to say more, and I literally have no idea if it’ll be worth singing at the conclusion. But I’m writing it.

One more thing. Lynda seems to be tracing a particular creative block in her comic, but after she has her “I don’t know” breakthrough, she admits that she “has no memory of having solved this problem before,” and has “no idea she’ll have to solve it again and again.” Yeah, that sounds about right.

 “To be able to stand not knowing long enough to let something alive take shape! Without the two questions so much is possible.”

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