If a Job’s Worth Doing, It’s Worth Doing Wrong

When I was a kid and then a preteen, my father and stepmother had the habit of telling me and my siblings that “if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.” In our case, “right” often meant “perfect,” at least in terms of what my parents deemed an acceptable job.

Of course, I understand that they didn’t expect absolute perfection from my child self, but it didn’t feel like that at the time. At the time, it felt like they were constantly hanging over my shoulder, pointing at any spot left on the window I had just cleaned, telling me over and over that “if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.”

Well, I’m in my twenties now, and that feeling of self-doubt and hyper-criticism still bounces around in my head when I try to write a first draft. I’m constantly picking apart the sentence I just wrote, telling myself that I hadn’t done my job right. I picture myself living in a cramped studio apartment while I work a draining office job for the rest of my life, never seeing my work published, never knowing if what I’m doing is worth doing at all. The self-doubt doubles with every scenario.

But then, after taking a deep breath and closing my eyes, I gently lead my mind back to the sphere of logic I try to inhabit daily. I tell myself that all first drafts are shit, that the real job I’ll be doing is the rewriting of whatever I’m working on, that when I go back over the things giving me grief now that it will be like retaking a test with the answer sheet next to the exam paper. I tell myself that, to get to the level of quality that I want for my work, that I first have to let myself mess up. I have to be raw and playful and absurd and just plain crap if I want to ferret out the core of the project.

Then, I can start the real job.

The editing, the reshaping of what I’ve dropped on the page, the careful dissection of each scene and sentence. By investigating what I’ve let myself reveal, I can present what I really want to say, complete with the precision and dedication to finding the right words for what’s in my head.

That is the job worth doing right, but that’s a job that doesn’t inspire that same feeling of being observed and judged as my daily chores did. This is a job that I do to my own expectations, to my own expectation of what is “right.”

Focus on the Process, Not the Product

I recently listened to the audiobook version of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, and I heard a line that made me sit up a little straighter. When I heard the line, I had been in the shower after a long day, letting the hot water relax my muscles and my mind. I had been doing what I often find myself doing, visualizing my life once I graduate college and move to Boston, where I will strengthen my writing career and becoming a famous, influential writer and have a wonderful life far from the South and required college courses.

It’s one of my favorite fantasies.

Well, anyway, I was soaking in the shower, my phone resting on the folded towel by the lip of the shower, when I heard Cameron, who had been narrating a passage discussing the creative practice, say, “You will discover the joy of practicing your creativity. The process, not the product, will become your focus.”

Usually, when I have an audiobook playing while I’m in the shower, I’m only partly listening; the motivational lessons and lyrical language serve more as a way to soothe my mind while the hot water does the same for my body. I work two jobs and go to school full-time. There’s a lot in me that needs soothing.

But this time, I perked up, and that line looped through my head even while Cameron continued her narration. I had been doing just the opposite of what she suggested: I had been focusing on what my writing would look like when I was done with it. I had been dreaming of the rewards, while my writing life had started shrinking in my day-to-day life.

Sure, I wrote a few pages of my thoughts in the morning, and I developed ideas for future pieces and ways to edit drafts. But I had neglected the process of serious creation. The writing I did create was never anything that had the intention or even the chance of reaching other people.

So, since hearing that line, I have tried to focus more on the process and less on the end result. I’ll never get to that result if I don’t engage with the process anyway. Now, I am working on a new short story, and I keep reminding myself to find joy in the act of putting words together, of creating surprising and interesting images, of telling stories that illuminate the different ways we, as humans, live in this world.

Doing this work is a privilege, something that I should take seriously, but it is also something that needs to be a source of joy and pleasure in my life, even it if sometimes makes me want to jump out of my second-floor dorm window.

I’m much less interested in the product of that particular process.