“My job is to do, not to judge.” — Dani Shapiro

Sometimes, as writers or as makers, we become obsessed with the outcome. The work itself as object, as product — not as process. We judge, criticize, and refuse to do the work when we see the outcome as one great failure.

Push publish anyways, I urge my studentsJust keep making, and keep publishing. 

Sometimes the fear of making something terrible corrodes the willingness to sit down and put pen to paper—our minds, taking credit for failure before work has been done. 

When our minds get in the way.

In architecture school, it took me a year and a half before both my teachers and I stopped looking horrified at my creative output. I knew I wanted to draw something, but the ideas never translated into images in the way that I wanted—my hands felt like clumsy stumps at the hands of Illustrator wands, and each time I stood in front of a presentation with fat, thick, rounded-edge neon green lines as attempts at drawing diagrams, I cringed physically while explaining what I was trying to do.

It took me nearly two years in school to think a drawing of mine wasn’t half-bad. After three years of drawing both digitally and by hand, I finally came up with a few drawings that I felt half-pleased with. And after many, many more years of playing with pens and photoshop, I find that while I’m not always in love with the creative output, I’m much more comfortable with the creative process: I enjoy the act of sitting down and making things, even if the first dozen—or three dozen—iterations are all tossed into the waste bin.

When people shake their heads and tell me, “Oh no, I can’t draw,” I frown. I tell them it’s actually possible to learn—I know this from experience—but it takes quite a few years of drawing terrible drawing after terrible drawing to find a mastery over your line work.

Most people are too afraid of making terrible drawings to commit to the process.

That’s the mind at work—telling us, judging us, berating us over the output—when the only thing that matters is getting your ass into the chair and making a mess.

Today, when I teach writing, I focus on creating positive space for students to explore their ideas. Our workshop participants write three times a week, and the first two weeks are filled with the messiness of new ideas put to paper. Just write, I tell them. Instead of creating perfection, we write just to write.

Learning to write isn’t about beautiful sentences pouring off your mental fingertips; it’s about creating a habit and a relationship to the process. And amazingly, at the end of week three or four, students write in and they tell me, “This just got so much easier! It’s like writing here with you made all of my other writing projects easier as well!” Yes. Making begets making.

The act of making is about the act of making, not the outcome.

Charcoal sketches from graduate school: the shape of space through a forest. 

If I let my thoughts rule my world, I wouldn’t publish a single piece on this blog, and I would never make it to the writing table. My mind not only judges the past work I’ve done, but it tells me I’ll never be able to create, finish, or make anything worthwhile.

Some days I wake up, thick in the middle of criticizing my own work, and I think that the efforts I’ve put forward are abysmal at best. Working through this is a twisted form of self-suffering — but each time I make it through the fire of my mind, it gets easier to come back again the next time. My mind is a dangerous place of judgment, and worse, pre-judgment.

If I listened to everything my mind said, I’d never do a thing.

My solace, the wisdom I hold on to in spite of the rage of my fickle mental mind, is that publishing is the only way through. The way to carving out a space and a voice is through making, not dreaming.

The magic is in the making, in the creation itself.

Making is the art; art is the byproduct of process.

“We cannot achieve greatness unless we lose all interest in begin great,” Thomas Merten wrote, and as I discovered while reading Dani Shapiro’s essays in her book, Still Writing.

She says, “how I feel about my own work is none of my business. […] Satisfaction should not be—cannot be—the goal.”

Focusing on outcomes lends itself to a miserable existence: to never quite be satisfied with the products of your work, and then, to give up. Instead, in spite of this rumbling uneasiness, creators continually chase the act of creation, of making, and explore the pursuit of expressing yourself.

The purpose of creativity is to make. The byproduct of creativity is an output.

You are a maker; makers make.

But what happens when we get entangled in the dance of judgment?

When I find myself hiding, examining and re-examining my own work, cringing at the misplaced letters and ill-fitting words and the ugly writing of my last decade, I want to stop making entirely. What’s the point? It feels as though my efforts are only an exercising in proving my fear of inadequacies correct.

But Shapiro reminds me: “There is tremendous creative freedom to be found in letting go of our opinions of our work.”

Instead, our job is to make: to open the channel, to create. And while the products of out making may be dissatisfying to us, there is a blessing in realizing that we are not here to judge our work.

“My job is to do, not to judge.” — Dani Shapiro

As we talked about recently at Alive in Berlin, the feelings of unrest are challenging at best — but there is a peacefulness, an inner aliveness, found inside of the process of making—no matter the discomfort. Shapiro describes it as a blessed unrest:

“It is a great piece of luck, a privilege, to spend each day leaping, stumbling, leaping again. As is true of so much of life, it isn’t what I thought it would be when I was first starting out. The price is high: the tension, isolation and lack of certitude can sometimes wear me down. But then there is the aliveness. The queer, divine dissatisfaction. The blessed unrest.”

When I start judging myself and my work, I make nothing.

Instead, I walk back in each day, take off the cloak of criticism, and do my best to keep making.


Want to improve your writing and get those voices out of your head and onto paper? Our six-week summer writing workshop begins June 30th. Stop thinking, start writing: your voice needs to be heard. Registration closes Wednesday, June 25th. 

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