The above picture is best explained through this email exchange with my brother:
Me: Can you ask Elliott to draw me a picture of a frog man? What a man would look like if he was crossed with a frog? I'm adding a writing section to my website and want some kickass cover art to pimp my novella. No rush.
Zach: Alright, sounds like an interesting project for him.
Zach: (a moment later) And Amanda says to tell you it will undoubtedly end up having spikes, maybe some fire. Hope that's ok with you.
Zach: (a further moment later) I can ask him to leave those out, though.
Me: No, that sounds amazing.
Elliott, my 7-year-old nephew, must have been quite taken with his task, because I received the artist's rendering this morning, and frankly, it's a masterpiece (as you can see). Though it's surprisingly devoid of spikes and/or fire. My brother contends that he wanted to approach the commission as a serious artist.
The great fantasy author, Neil Gaiman, says of writing:
I've been writing on and off as long as I can remember, however my track record for finishing a larger project can only be described as dismal. My writing is like my running--I'm much better at sprinting than distance. It didn't help that for years as a theatre artist I was constantly reading and critiquing scripts. The inner critic was strong with me.
As a result, all of my big writing attempts went like this:
I get a really cool idea for a (play/book).
I start writing it.
Then the voices pipe up:
This stuff is decent, potentially even good.
You just may have something here.
Other writers are better than you.
They've already said this better than you.
What does this add to humanity's profound struggle?
Where's the meaning?
Nowhere, it's utter crap.
Throw it on the rubbish pile!
Banish it to the Plains of Unfinished Drivel! (this is generally said in chorus and with vigor)
Thus continued the vicious cycle, until the Plains of Unfinished Drivel resembled an overrun digital printing shop.
I really tried my best. I even had an idea for a fantasy trilogy a few years ago that I was hell-bent on making my first success story. I did a ton of research, and even tried to outline a bit. I got farther then I had ever gone before. But the voices still rolled in, and eventually I shelved it.
Then, something funny happened. I was in Mexico on vacation and doing my normal people-watching (trust me, there is all kinds of craziness to be seen on this beach). As a particularly interesting gentleman strolled by, I was struck by the spark of an idea. Over the next few days, the idea grew and filled itself in. By the time I got back, I had some pretty clear direction. But this time, I approached it differently.
I basically said screw the voices. I stopped fixating on the greater implications of my work, or the idea that it had to be profound. I was just going to write something funny, that I would like to read, then trust that if I was real, others would enjoy it too.
I started with the intention of writing a 7,500-word short story. What emerged after four drafts and multiple beta reads was a 30,000-word urban sci-fi (comedy!) novella about a washed-up actor who accidentally runs afoul of mobsters genetically modified with amphibian DNA (hence the cover art concept). To adopt the runner's scale, I didn't come close to completing a marathon, but I sure nailed a 5k.
Finishing my first big writing project was an amazing feeling. In my regular life, I'm all about getting stuff done, so it drove me crazy to leave projects unfinished. How ironic that by giving up control of what the product needed to be, it took on a life of its own and ended up so much better than I could have imagined.
I'm sure that you can think of many projects you set aside because the results weren't quite perfect, or you told yourself that you weren't good enough. The same nephew who drew my wonderful cover art abandoned work on his first gingerbread house this past Christmas because his walls fell in (I blame the materials, not the construction). These reactions are only natural. As human beings, we are wired to be self-critical. Psychologists have found that the brain reacts more strongly to stimuli it deems negative. It's called Negativity Bias. I relate it to the ringing I have in my right ear (tinnitus, not fun). Even though both ears hear the same sounds, one has a negative feedback loop. I can't stop hearing it, I can only drown it out or do my best to ignore it. What this means is that we have to actively turn up the volume on positive self-talk in order to counteract the negativity.
We also have to stop being so hard on ourselves. My nephew had no control over a pack of frosting's ability to make his graham crackers stay upright, yet when they collapsed, his enthusiasm went with them. The only thing I could do was reinforce all the awesome progress he had already made, and help him put his walls back together.
Like the ringing in my ear, I know my inner critic will never go away, yet I refuse to let it keep me from tackling new projects. And while the journey of writing will undoubtedly have spikes (maybe some fire), I am confident that if I commit to getting better and following through, I may have something to show for myself someday.
But only if I don't take myself too seriously.