Going From Stupid to Cool

TodaysArt 2005 - Nederlands Dans Theater

Maurice via Compfight

In February of last year, I attended a weekend west coast swing dance intensive with dancer, choreographer, teacher extraordinaire, Robert Royston. The weekend was ultra light on footwork and dance patterns and high on technique; the physics of movement, partner dynamics and connection, how to spin from a low to high center of gravity, musicality, and a multitude of other technical issues. The techniques were subtle, but new and awkward for most of us, including the most advanced dancers.

On the last day of the intensive, as we were wrapping up, Robert said something to us that has stuck with me ever since:

You have to go through stupid to get to cool.

In other words, feeling stupid, floundering around in your own ineptitude is inevitable. And necessary.

But if we stick with it, if we continually practice, we get to cool.

But first we have to go through stupid.

Most of us hate this stage. It’s uncomfortable. Humbling. Emotionally painful. No fun at all.

It’s also where too many of us give up.

Because if we’re that bad, it must mean we’re not talented.

But talent is developed.

It’s useless without the effort and practice it takes to shape that raw talent into skill.

Feeling stupid, failing miserably, is an essential stage of artistic development.

So, how about we re-frame our take on failure?

That failed story or novel is not a failure at all.

Those places where you’re getting stuck, utterly confused and frustrated are part and parcel of your training.

Those roadblocks are necessary.

And instructive.

Hitting a wall in your writing is the best thing that can happen.

Because it means you’re on the brink of a breakthrough.

Mistakes illuminate gaps in our knowledge.

Making mistakes means you’re pushing your boundaries. You’re building new neural connections in your brain. That re-wiring demands that you reach, fail, and feel stupid over and over again.

Hemingway famously said, The first draft of anything is shit.”

I’ll go further and say that the first few, maybe several drafts aren’t much better. No matter who writes it.

What separates great writers from good writers is their approach to their early bad drafts. Great artists don’t see mistakes as failures, but valuable information they can use to navigate getting better at their craft.

In his book, The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills, Daniel Coyle describes Tina Fey’s pre-SNL comic performances in The Second City in Chicago as “not that funny.” She knew at the time that she pretty bad. But she also thought of those early performances as an experiment. Here’s where she honed her skills, flopped, took risks.

The Bronte Sisters, three of whom became world-class novelists, built their talents as children by writing thousands of pages of stories in homemade books. Those early stories aren’t very good. Daniel Coyle says, that’s the point. “They developed skill by performing thousands of intensive reaches and reps in an endlessly challenging, variable engaging space.”

The end result? Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.

Pretty cool.

The trick is to capture failure, to target mistakes and transform them into skill.

Practice Deliberately

It’s not about practicing hard, but practicing deeper.

Get clear on feedback you get from peers and mentors.

This is fun, but demanding work. You need to keep asking, what worked? What didn’t? And most important, why?

Let go of perfectionism.

Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat Pray Love fame recently said, “Perfectionism is just fear in really good shoes.”

Don’t fret too much about presenting a masterpiece to your writing group or mentor. Your work is flawed, and thank god for the flaws. Because they prompt you to explore, stay curious, exploratory.

Cultivate a beginner’s mind.

During the dance intensive, after every workshop, we’d have a 10 minute break. Most of us sat down, ate a snack, drank water, chatted, checked our smart phones. But guess who continued to practice and hone those basic moves? Yep, the advanced dancers.

Every time you sit down to write something new you will feel stupid all over again. You will grapple with the same quandaries. Which point of view to tell the story from. What’s the central question the story revolves around. How to make your characters interesting and complex.

Stay open. Curious. Wondrous.  Always reaching.

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