At the Hutchmoot conference last month, John Cal told a story about making pancakes. The first pancake, he observed, is usually a mess. It rarely cooks evenly, and when you go to flip it, it bunches up and loses its pleasing circular shape. It must have something to do with the griddle getting up to a uniform temperature; somehow, perhaps, that first bad pancake helps the griddle even itself out. The second pancake is a little better. By the third pancake, you’re startign to hit your stride. That third pancake is circular and fluffy and golden brown.
We tend to want to make the third pancake first, John said. It seems a shame to waste the batter and the time and the effort on those first two imperfect pancakes. But you can’t make the third pancake first. You can only make it third. The first two pancakes are part of the process.
Diana Glyer, on whom you can always rely to say something smart about writing, expanded on John Cal’s idea. When you’re doing creative work, Diana said, the idea you’re looking for may be the fiftieth to present itself to your imagination. Like the first two pancakes, the first forty-nine ideas are part of the process, not a waste of time. And if you aren’t hospitable and welcoming and respectful of those less-good ideas, you can’t get to the fiftieth idea you were looking for all along.
As Diana wrote in an email exchange,
I believe with all my heart that if you shut down the first (and second and…) idea that presents itself to your imagination, none of the other ideas that are (metaphorically) waiting in line behind that one are going to show up. If you treat the first (and second and third and forty-ninth…) idea with curiosity and interest, ideas will keep showing up.
It’s an inefficient process. I’m afraid you’re just going to have to get used to inefficiency. Genuine hospitality is alway inefficient. Inefficiency is one of the main ways you show guests that they’re welcome. You don’t get them in and out as quickly as possible. (That is to say, you don’t ask, “Can I get that plate out of your way?”) You go to more trouble than you have to. You ask your guests questions; you listen more than you talk. And if things go well, your guests begin to talk to one another, and you learn things you didn’t know to ask.
It’s hard to be hospitable toward your own ideas, most of which aren’t as brilliant a you were hoping they would be. It’s painful to sit in that place of uncertainty where you’ve started something but it’s not good yet, and you aren’t sure how (or if) it’s going to get good. One way to kill the pain is to give up completely. Another way is to settle for mediocrity—to declare a work finished rather than wrestle around with it until if finally gives up its secrets. But consider what might happen if, instead of shutting down those not-great-yet ideas, you sat with them and said, “Welcome! I’m so glad you could make it. Tell me about yourself…”
John Cleese (of Monty Python fame) wrote a little book called Creativity: A Short and Cheerful Guide. Much of the book is devoted to the idea of getting comfortable with the uncertainty and inefficiency of the creative process. “Creative people are much better at tolerating the vague sense of worry that we all get when we leave something unresolved,” he writes. I find that especially helpful and true. He continues,
When we’re trying to be creative, there’s a lack of clarity during most of the process. Our rational, analytical mind, of course, loves clarity—it worships it. But at the start of the creative process, things cannot be clear.
Of course, your rational, analytical mind has to get involved eventually. But Cleese suggests that you hold it off for as long as you possibly can.
I know it goes against the spirit of the age. But maybe, instead of being efficient, you could try being hospitable. Keep the party going until your best ideas show up—because they usually show up late.