“The best is oftentimes the enemy of the good; and many a good book has remained unwritten… because there floated before the mind’s eye the ideal of a better or a best.” – R. C. Trench, 1861
In 1861, people had the luxury of contemplating ideas in elegant language like the quote above. Today, we consume sound bites and acronyms because there’s too much on our plate to linger. GEMO — Good Enough, Move On — is the contemporary interpretation of Trench’s wisdom.
Sometimes you need your best
If you’re opening someone’s body up with a scalpel, you have a moral and legal obligation to be the best surgeon you can be and do the best operation you’re capable of.
If you’re driving a race car at over 100 MPH on a crowded track, you owe it to yourself and your fellow drivers to focus your attention completely on being the best driver you can.
If a friend or family member is facing a life-altering trauma, you need to be fully present and compassionate to be the best witness you can be.
If you’re polishing and perfecting a manuscript or query to send to an agent, editor, or contest and grant judges, the writing must be the best work you can do.
But when you’re not operating on someone, racing the Indy 500, helping a loved one through a crisis, or putting the finishing touches on a manuscript, the best just gets in the way.
Sometimes you need GEMO
When you’re developing an idea, researching, drafting, revising, recruiting readers, and getting feedback, “good enough” makes it possible to keep showing up and moving on.
Paralyzed by perfection
If you refuse to accept good enough, you can’t move on. If you make writing a matter of “I’ll do my best or do nothing,” you’ll end up doing nothing most of the time because you simply can’t be your best all the time (or even most of the time). If you were your best all the time, by definition, that would just be your average.
You can’t let perfectionism get in the way. Well actually, you can – it’s just not effective or satisfying to let it get in your way. I truly wish I’d been more vulnerable, taken more risks, made more mistakes, and fallen on my face a lot more often earlier in my career. But with luck and persistence, I can do that now.
Fail better next time
Thank god first ideas don’t have to be brilliant; they only have to be good enough to give you a place to move on from.
Most first ideas are clichéd, awkward, and incomplete. If you’re looking for brilliance, first ideas and first drafts are downright pitiful failures.
You’re going to make mistakes – some minor, some major. Depending on which meme you look at, there are seven amateur, 10 fatal, 23 common, and 100 avoidable mistakes that are going to kill your first chapter, drive your editor crazy, or prove you’re a worthless wanna-be.
The fact that everyone makes mistakes probably won’t make your own mistakes easier to accept. In my book, Around the Writer’s Block, I refer to “gamma rays” when it should say “gamma waves.” I can laugh about it now, but I cringed the first time – okay, honestly the first fifteen times – I saw it.
With a little luck, persistence and a whole lot of hard work, you will still fail to achieve brilliance, but your next failure can be a little better than the last.
Moving through messy imperfection
Every draft is a messy approximation of what you wanted to write. You must revise and rewrite. And once you start revising, you have to guess when to stop because you could revise endlessly. At some point, you have to call it done, even though it never is.
With luck, persistence and hard work, you can transform a series of failures into something that satisfies you. The only alternative to making a series of failures that gradually approach what you set out to do is the ultimate failure: the failure to try at all.
The creative process is mysterious and frustrating at times because writing requires intuiting what the non-verbal, metaphorical, image-based part of your cortex wants to express. Ideas seem to appear out of nowhere because they appear when your conscious mind finally gets what the non-conscious mind has been shouting for days, metaphorically speaking of course.
You’re going to have false starts – ideas that don’t pan out, drafts that don’t go anywhere, snippets you never quite figure out what to do with, tantalizing images that appear when you can’t write them down only to disappear when you can, haunting you forever with what might have been.
There’s no certainty about when to call a false start and move on and when to keep experimenting and playing.
You’re going to have brilliant insights and mediocre clichéd ideas and some stinky brain farts. The trick is you won’t know what you’ve got at first. You have to risk showing your potentially stinky, clichéd ideas to others to find out. And even then, you can’t be sure because sometimes advisors with the best intentions make mistakes and give misdirected advice.
In my graduate program, one of my mentors who I deeply respected told me point-blank that a serious piece of fiction simply could not have a dog as the narrator. Good thing she didn’t tell Garth Stein that when he was first playing around with the idea that became The Art of Racing in the Rain. Even better, Garth Stein didn’t listen when people undoubtedly told him it was a SBD (silent, but deadly) fart of an idea.
You’re going flub up, make a mess, and embarrass yourself. In public. In print. On the Internet, where nothing bad ever really disappears, no matter how much you try to delete it. You’ll have nights when you’ll lie awake, torturing yourself with thoughts of “Oh my God! Why did I do that?”
The power of failure
In “The Power of Failure,” an essay in The Soul of Creativity, Eric Maisel warns us that if we don’t talk openly about failure, it will be devastating when we fail.
“If we do not understand that failure, mistakes, missteps, wrong turns, bad ideas, shoddy workmanship, half-baked theories, and other sad events are part of the process, if we romanticize the process and make believe that creativity comes with a happy face, then when we encounter our own rotten work we will be forced to conclude that we do not have what it takes. But we have what it takes. What it takes is learning and recovering from our mistakes.”
You have the power to fail in your writing. Seize that power. Make the most of your mistakes, decide which are good enough to move on with, and forsake the pursuit of the best.
How to know when you’re done writing your novel
How to fail as a writer
Revising your novel – make it a playground, not a torture chamber
Overcome your inner critic
Radical revision: four ways to blow up and rebuild your novel