When Ann Patchett has an idea for a book, she says it whirls around her like an “oversized butterfly whose wings were cut from the rose window in Notre Dame.”
She’s. So. Good. That’s exactly what it feels like when inspiration strikes. That moment when your idea is so beautiful, you have to sit with it just a little longer to admire it, before you rush to capture it with words.
Ann goes on to explain that – hold on – I’m going to let her tell it:
“This book I have not yet written…is a thing of indescribable beauty, unpredictable in its patterns, piercing in its color, so wild and loyal in its nature that my love for this book, and my faith in it as I track its lazy flight, is the single perfect joy in my life. It is the greatest novel in the history of literature, and I have thought it up, and all I have to do is put it down on paper and then everyone can see this beauty that I see.” (From page 25 of this book)
YES, ANN, TELL ME MORE ABOUT THIS ILLUSIVE INSPIRATION AND HOW YOU CATCH IT AND TURN IT INTO WORDS, PLEASE.
“I reach up and pluck the butterfly down from the air. I take it from the region of my head and I press it down against my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it.”
She kills it.
Please tell me you’re laughing as hard as I am while you read this.
“Imagine running over a butterfly with an SUV. Everything that was beautiful about this living thing – all the color, the light and movement – is gone.”
This is exactly how I feel every time I sit down and try to write.
It’s like the process itself destroys the thing you were trying to create. Occasionally, I can salvage that transcendent butterfly and turn it into a fluffy homeless dog that hasn’t showered in weeks. You *kinda* wanna pet it, but you’re also like, “Maybe I should just leave that one alone?”
It’s always the execution that botches things. Where the pen meets the paper or your product meets the market or your excellent argument meets your wife. Ideas are easy. We all have ideas, but turning that idea into a living breathing thing. Capturing the beauty that you see in your mind and bringing it to life – THAT is the hard part.
Some people call this a block. When you get stuck in the execution.
I think it’s more that we don’t want to kill the butterfly.
We want the beautiful idea to live forever and the only place it can do that is in our minds.
Which of course, isn’t true. The best way to really kill the butterfly is to never give birth to it at all.
Artist, Sol LeWitt wrote in a letter to Eva Hesse that in order to overcome this “block” and give birth to the beauty that you see, “You must practice being stupid. Try to do something bad. Try to do some bad work.”
(Sidebar: Benedict Cumberbatch gives a stunning performance of this letter and I’ve started watching it every morning. If you haven’t heard of LettersLive, go follow them immediately. You’re welcome.)
Reality will never measure up to your dream on the first try.
Which is why you must take many, many tries. Practice being stupid (not on purpose, of course, you’re doing your best). But the only way to resurrect your butterfly is to let it die first. Or, more accurately, allow it to evolve into what it wants to become.
Which means you sit down and brave the page and you write something terrible.
Or to quote Sol again, “Relax and let everything go to hell.”
On the first draft.
We can edit it later 😉
PS: For more on How To Write Well When You Don’t Feel Like Writing, come to my talk on October 8th at ClientCon. I’ll be discussing ways to overcome writer’s block and how to get words on the page even and especially on the days you absolutely cannot write.
It’s 6-weeks of daily talks run by my friend Liston – all online, completely free to join as long as you register here.