In defense of floundering {aka, Art Happens}

I’ve been on a schedule since I was born. I’ve been check-marked and chore-charted and to-do-listed and deadlined every single day of my life. This is not all bad. I arrive on time. I hit deadlines before the deadline. I run a tight ship. I’m fit. I’m ready for the apocalypse.

But here’s the thing: you can’t force art.

Art doesn’t happen on schedule.

I’ve learned this the hard way. I can produce, yes. But it won’t be art. If I just churn out a book it will read like a stressed-out, check-marked, to-do list.

Being raised fundamentalist gave me good self-discipline. It also gave me self-abnegation. Which is to say, when the self-discipline doesn’t work anymore, you just try harder. You set more rules. You double your pace.

Art, however, refuses to cooperate with trying harder. Writing a book isn’t just about churning out pages. I can churn, baby. I can churn. But to what end? Sure, I can perform under stress. I’ve been doing that my whole life.

I can’t force inspiration. I can’t force revival. The best ideas I’ve had came almost by accident. There is no formula. I hate that and I love it.

I rarely give myself permission to flounder. I rarely give myself permission to fail.

I’ve been reading through my highschool journals this past week and they are the simply wonderful. Why? Because I was failing all over the place and, for the first time in my life, I was writing it all down without hiding it inside.

Since then, I haven’t let myself be that freely fallen. 

I learn far more from floundering and failing and experimenting and hurting and than I do by following nice little check-lists that keep me out of trouble.

The key to learning, I’ve discovered, is to write it down afterwards. As I write down what I’ve done, I engage in self-reflection and self-awareness. I step outside myself and look at what I’m doing.

The times that got me into the most trouble were NOT when I broke the rules but when I started following an ideal too closely.

I’ve also discovered that my true source of happiness was never found by seeking happiness. It was found by embracing pain.

The odd side-effect of writing this book is that by intentionally embracing my childhood pain, I emerge from writing about it with a sudden, new appreciation for my real life.

I can enter the deepest, darkest places because I know I have a safe place to land when I’m done. Suffering makes me happy.

By allowing myself to flounder a bit through this book-writing process and by simultaneously embracing pain (including hard, morning workouts) I’m finding a true sense of freedom, looseness and creativity.

When I’m feeling blocked, stressed or exhausted, I have to let myself wander, dither, flounder and nap. I might need to do this for a few days. My best ideas come to me in dreams, in the shower, while running, while cooking, sometimes while mopping the floor.

The point is, these ideas wouldn’t come to me if I was strapped to my desk staring at a blank screen.

I need to flail, flounder and fail.

That’s when the words start to flow.

That’s when the art happens.

  • Hännah

    “The times that got me into the most trouble were NOT when I broke the rules but when I started following an ideal too closely.” Amen, amen.

  • amanda

    when I get like that, I put on a song and spin and twirl until I fall on my booty… I don’t know why, but it helps a lot!!!

  • Lucie

    This was particularly interesting for me as I just completed my first stint at National Novel Writing Month last month. I signed up for it because I was pretty sure that if my first real novel was ever going to happen, I would need the discipline of something like NaNoWriMo. So I forced myself to show up, and things happened (somewhat to my surprise), but I felt more than once that I had no emotional connection to my characters and was afraid that a reader wouldn’t, either. I think the key for me (and other writers, most likely) is to find a level of balance between “churning” and “wandering.” Discipline is necessary (i.e., “just showing up” for me) but so is…not cramming, necessarily. Good luck to us both (grin).

  • Tara S

    I love it.

  • Heather Kopp

    True true. Flounder away, friend.

  • Sarah Mae

    I love this.

  • Anonymous

    This sounds like good words for life, not just art. Oh! Maybe life is art!

  • Aprille

    this is a beautiful post for any writer to read. thanks.

  • Jenny

    I’m not an artist by any means, but I love making homemade gifts for people — from cross stitch to homemade cards and lots of stuff in between.

    The only problem with this is that I refuse to just make something. It has to be the perfect thing. I must have inspiration. I never just sit down a month or two before hand and say, “Oh that looks nice. I’ll make that for Granny’s birthday.” Nope. My muse must knock me over the head with inspiration and then I’ll start with gusto.

    It would be nice to have longer than a few weeks for some projects, so this next year, I plan on starting my thinking 6 months ahead of time.