This is a particularly tough time of year for many of us because it’s NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, if for some reason you don’t know that). You’re trying to make something good and actually write 50,000 words in a month. You’re behind deadline, and there’s no way that you’re going to get to fifty grand by the end of the month. Being in many ways a stereotypical “nerd” with my comical knowledge of Star Trek and my ability to list all the gods in the Deities and Demigods or all the times and ways that a Grey or Summers has died, for me, part of really enjoying a thing is delving as deep as I can into knowledge about the thing. By the same token, as someone who works in and loves the performing arts, I believe strongly in the power of an individual to create something that moves people, and so always want to create the best, most moving things possible. I don’t think that nerds are excluded from the second quality or that artists are excluded from the first. I do know that it creates a maddening obsession with well-informed perfectionism. Surely you know that feeling, too.
There’s a Cap/Bucky fanfic set in Deep Space 9 that you’ve been working on for months and months that you just can’t get quite right. You’ve been working on a piece of Supernatural/Spiderman fanart where Miles Morales sits in the back of the Impala trying to figure out how the Winchesters are still alive after all this time. It’s fantastic, but you can never quite draw hands the right way. Sometimes, these little perfectionist frustrations keep your work from ever seeing the light of day. That’s the same everywhere, big or small, nerdy or not. It’s hard to care deeply about some form of art or knowledge and try to contribute to it while accepting human mistakes.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever been so obsessed with finishing a project that it’s gotten in the way of the rest of your life and other people just don’t understand because to them it’s something that seems like just a hobby. Raise your hand if you’ve ever been so frustrated with something that wasn’t going right that it affected your relationships with other people. I can’t see you raising your hand, obviously, but I’m raising mine, too (typing one handed is hard, but you’re a nerd, too, so you know that). It’s okay, we’re all mad here.
I just want to tell you that it’s okay. Breathe. At the end of the day the really important thing is that you are putting art into the world, whatever kind of art that is. You are creating shared space for the like-minded and a learning opportunity for the differently-minded and that is, in itself, noble. In fact, it’s revolutionary. Henry Jenkins, Provost Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts at USC, famously said:
Fan fiction is a way of the culture repairing the damage done in a system where contemporary myths are owned by corporations instead of owned by the folk.
Every work on fanfiction is a tiny little rebellion against the fact that so many of the things we love are owned and controlled by huge media conglomerates which makes you a soldier in the culture wars. That’s a pretty big deal.
Even if that’s true, maybe you still hate maybe half the things you produce, at least at first. But there’s a reason for that, too: you have a great eye for these things. You know so much and feel so much about what you’re doing that you’re an excellent critic. I could go on, but Ira Glass said it best:
All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you…and if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions.
You need to know that you really are doing something important when you create art, whether it’s fanfiction, or webcomics, or the next Guernica. You’re contributing to a conversation, and changing the world. I say all this, instead of my usual quasi-postmodern treatise on what someone has gotten wrong this week, because I’m also going through this right now. I just finished directing a run of a play that drove me absolutely mad because nothing on stage looked the way it did in my head and it was freaking me out. I’m writing another play, and I don’t know how many pages I’ve written and then deleted. I’m slowly banging a my head-shaped groove into my desk. So, I called one of my mentors and they said “It’s okay if you hate it now. Just keep working, the only way out is through.” I’ve probably never needed that advice more in my life.
It’s so easy to blame yourself, or put yourself down when things aren’t going your way. It’s all your fault. How could it not be? You’re the one creating it after all. But you have to remember that every word you get wrong, every line drawing you fuck up is practice for all the things you will one day get so marvelously right. You just have to get there. Being a nerd, or a geek, is about loving something, working something to a point that others would consider unreasonable. I think a lot of us are nerds because we just simply don’t know any other way.
Anyway, I hope you keep writing until you’ve exhausted all the words in the English language. I hope you draw until your fingers are sore and then I hope you wake up tomorrow and do it again. If you’re an engineer, I hope you engineer until—I honestly don’t know how to end that sentence, but engineer your butt off. That’s how we become great.
So, if you’re going through something similar or just found your way out, here’s to you and your next fifty thousand words.