I’m a perfectionist.
While this trait gets a pretty bad rap, I think it can actually be a strong one once you learn how to make it work for you rather than against you. Once you tame it, so to speak. Perfectionism is only bad when you let it immobilize you. If you use it to strive for the best but know when it’s time to step away, then you’re onto something.
But knowing this and putting it into practice are two very different beasts.
One of the hardest experiences to cope with is when a project you put your heart and soul into ends up falling short of your expectations. Sometimes, we know it’s not what we wanted as soon as we finish it (or even while we’re working on it). Other times, we like the end result, but it just doesn’t strike the audience the same way.
Either way, the experience sucks.
It’s easy to chalk these projects up as failures and ─ even worse ─ let ourselves start questioning whether we’re really cut out for creating these things, whether it’s writing a book, directing a movie, producing a song, or any other kind of artistic endeavor.
But doing that is a complete betrayal to not only ourselves, but to the creative process. The key is to embrace these so-called “failed” projects because they’re a part of our journey that is just as important as the successful ones.
They do help you ─ what they don’t do is define you.
Here’s proof in the form of two brilliant, successful writers/directors:
The Wachowskis: A Case Study
If you’re into film, you’ve probably heard of the Wachowski siblings before. While their first directorial debut was actually a film called Bound (which I’ve yet to see), they made a name for themselves with a little film called The Matrix back in 1999, which they wrote and directed.
Personally, I think The Matrix is one of the most brilliant, original, and beautifully constructed films ever created. Every time I watch it, I’m in awe over its nuanced storytelling and visual inventiveness. I feel like I’m on a ride each time even though I know exactly what’s going to happen. That, to me, is the sign of truly great storytelling.
I don’t feel the same about the other two subsequent films in the trilogy, unfortunately. When they came out, I – like many others – thought the Wachowskis might be a one-hit wonder. The other two films are very bizarre, often disjointed. Their vision became very messy. Their next projects were V for Vendetta (another film I failed to connect with), Speed Racer (which was nominated for “Worst Prequel, Remake, Rip-Off or Sequel” for the 29th Golden Raspberry Awards), and Cloud Atlas (which I haven’t seen but that garnered mixed reviews).
Then, we have Jupiter Ascending, their first completely original film since The Matrix written and directed by them. Of all the films I’ve seen in my lifetime (and I’ve seen many), this was in the top 5 worst I’ve ever sat through. It was comically bad. It would take another thousand-word post for me to explain all the ways in which I didn’t like it, but this review from RogerEbert.com sums it all up pretty well. To summarize: the story is ridiculous, the acting laughable, and the female lead as pitiful as they come.
I walked out sorely disappointed since original films ─ especially of the sci-fi variety ─ are a rare, endangered breed in Hollywood.
So, what does all of this add up to? Well, from a glance, it would appear that the Wachowskis were just lucky with The Matrix. They had a great idea, executed it well, and then struggled to copy that same success with any other projects. It must mean they’re not truly great storytellers, right?
I admit, I wondered that (quite wrongly) myself ─ until I watched Sense8.
That Time I Fell In Love with a Netflix Series
You know those moments when you come across a book, a movie, a television show, some form of a story, and you wander into it with no expectations ─ just picking it up because you need something to waste some time on, no big deal…
And then, without warning, you find yourself swept up in a world before you even realize it, experiencing deep emotions, developing relationships with its characters, your mind expanding in ways you hadn’t anticipated.
To put it simply: you’re on a fucking adventure.
That’s how I felt watching the first season of Sense8. (I’m anxious awaiting season 2, which isn’t due until January. It’s been torture.)
And Sense8 is the entirely original, psychological sci-fi series from ─ wait for it ─ the Wachowskis.
This show captures all the edginess and surprise and creativity that I loved about The Matrix with its own unique flair. This one is actually more raw, because it focuses on the characters (and damn it if I don’t love character-driven stories) and their personal journeys, which are simply propelled by this incredible thing happening to them. They are all so fleshed out, so different, so real.
What I love most of all is how much Sense8 manages to make me feel. My heart aches with these characters, it fills with joy when theirs do. I feel like I’m on the journey with them.
It is a truly, unbelievably beautiful experience.
This show deserves a post of its own, and I may even write one soon, but if you haven’t started watching it yet, I highly recommend it. Seriously, get to binging. You’ll thank me later.
A Lesson (Among Many) I Learned from the Wachowskis
So, what does this mean from a creative standpoint? What does it mean when Wachowskis follow up what’s arguably the worst project of their career with (what’s also arguably) the best project of their career?
Here’s what it made me realize:
Your work doesn’t always have to be (and likely won’t always be) gold.
An ill-received story doesn’t mean you aren’t good enough or even brilliant at what you do. It just means that sometimes, you won’t be completely on your game. Ideas you fall in love with won’t always manifest as wonderfully in real life as they did in your mind.
Problems can happen in the execution; either you realize they weren’t as good as you thought they were or you aren’t able to foster them to their true potential. Sometimes, you may even love how it came out, but your taste may happen to differ from your audience’s on that particular project.
And you know what? All of this is okay. You still have a right to keep creating. You still have the right to keep putting your creations out into the world, regardless of how they’re received or how happy you are with the final product.
Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t put every ounce of effort into every book you write or film you direct or song you produce. Absolutely, you should pour every bit of your creative power into the project in front of you. And then, let it live. Let it go out into the world and find its way. You did your job. If it’s not a huge success, that’s okay. If it didn’t come out exactly as you wanted it to, then learn from what you didn’t like about it and apply that growth to your next project.
“Good” Is Subjective and Fickle
Elizabeth Gilbert said something that cuts right to the heart of this lesson with a thought-provoking quote:
Does this mean you shouldn’t strive to tell great stories in the best possible way? Of course not. It simply means that even if your best effort falls short, you are still meant to be a writer.
Write as much as you can, as often as you can.
Hold tight to your freedom of creativity. Don’t let the projects that disappoint you keep you from acting on your purpose and your passion.
Love them all, even the ugly ones, for they will each give you a beautiful experience with your creativity and teach you something you will keep with you forever.
Who knows, your next project could very well be your best ever. It certainly was for the Wachowskis.