Done and done.

The first draft of anything is shit—Ernest Hemmingway

Of all the millions of decisions that go in to producing something creative (software products and rock records being the two I know best), the most difficult for me is deciding when to release that thing to the world. Pace Hemmingway, I find that the second and third drafts of anything are also shit.

When I look at something I’m making, sometimes all I see are the agonizing compromises, the flawed execution, the missed opportunities, the directions I haven’t explored yet. During lunch with a friend the other day, I was telling him about all the projects that I’m working on, and he noted that for each one, I had a reason for why it wasn’t ready to be seen. While the specifics varied, there were essentially three reasons:

  • The idea isn’t right yet—The creative process is messy, and it can take a while for the wayward seed of a good idea to find its place to grow. I was looking back at something I designed recently that felt (at the time) like it came together in a quick burst of activity. But then I looked back over my notebooks and research, and I realized that I’d been banging on various facets of the problem for the past 18 months. I just hadn’t found the right way to express those ideas.
  • I’m working it to death—I’m letting my inner critic—and my imagined external critics—demand endless revisions. I’m afraid that all of the flaws in the work will stand as an indictment of my limitations as its creator. And the thing is, they do. I have to force myself to see that the work has virtues as well—virtues that nobody will ever see if I don’t release it.
  • It doesn’t feel complete—I have a vision of a coherent whole, and what I have just isn’t there. I either need to pare it down to a more fundamental core (and release that) or expand the work to encompass what I’m envisioning. The risk is that I’ll pare it down too far to be interesting or I’ll keep it so large that I’ll never finish it. It’s a narrow strait between these two rocks, and it’s easy to crash on either one. Usually, I steer towards the latter.

In which our hero attempts to derive wisdom from the ancients

To put the dilemma in a different way, it’s really about Guided by Voices versus The La’s.

If GBV’s Robert Pollard has an inner critic, he must be nearly mute. Famously—or notoriously—prolific, Pollard releases a new record every few months, and each has at least brief flashes of brilliance. But it’s hard for me to make the case that even my favorite GBV records are genuinely great. Take Alien Lanes, a record that has Game of Pricks (one of my favorite rock songs of all time) followed immediately by The Ugly Vision (an obvious throwaway). It’s like a bad relationship.

On the other hand, you have The La’s, who released—against their wishes—one record, which they reportedly hated. They worked on it for years with a stream of producers, and their frustrated record company eventually paid producer Steve Lillywhite to get the record into releasable shape so that they could begin to recoup their (by this point) considerable investment.

But here’s the thing: the record is brilliant. Of the twelve songs on the record, eleven are good enough to be singles, and the twelfth isn’t even bad. While the lead single There She Goes achieved near ubiquity after a very popular (and to my ear saccharine) cover by Sixpence None the Richer, the whole record is stacked with amazing songs. Probably my favorite is Failure which manages to capture both the brilliance and the tragic flaws of the band in two minutes and 54 seconds.

The trite conclusion to all of this is that we should strive to be somewhere in the middle, nothing to excess, etc., but that that feels too neat to me. The two approaches produce completely different kinds of work, and I love them both.

Like a lot of GBV fans, I’ve made playlists that strip out all their failed experiments. In the end though, I always discard the playlists and just go back to listening to the albums. The playlists feel flat, like a mixed drink without the bitters. The surrounding failures give the transcendent songs a sense of depth, a sense of artistic risk. That’s something essential to the work; it’s conspicuous in its absence.

So in the end, I pretty much just listen to the records as they released them, and I marvel how that one decision—is it ready to release?—had such a profound effect.