One recent Saturday afternoon, the band I’ve been playing in for the past few months was lurching our way through a new song. None of us had really grasped the song’s contours yet, and we sounded bad. Embarrassingly bad. As I began to doubt whether we’d ever been any good in the first place, a comforting thought popped suddenly into my mind: This song is a progressive JPEG.
Remember progressive JPEGs? You see them less often now in the age of widespread broadband, but they’re still useful in low-bandwidth environments: The idea is that they load in several “passes,” first as a highly pixelated version (just so something is represented on a slow-loading page) and then as a slightly sharper intermediate one, until finally the full-resolution image comes into focus.
This metaphor has quickly become a helpful way for me to think about the things I make, whether they’re songs, magazine layouts, letterforms… or pieces of writing like the one you’re reading now. (Be glad you aren’t reading the first draft.) If I recognize something I’m working on as an ugly early “pass,” I try to relax a little, trusting that more pixels are in there somewhere.
In college, I had a creative writing professor who preached the concept of the Shitty First Draft, in which this idea is taken a step further: You don’t merely accept that your first attempt might be shitty; its shittiness is actually an integral part of the process. If you try to make every sentence perfect on the first try, you’re probably missing the forest for the trees, and making the job far more difficult. First, make it exist, the concept says. Then start to make it good.
I’m finding this idea useful, too, for fighting against procrastination. If I explicitly think of my task as to make the first, bad version of the thing, well, that doesn’t seem so daunting. Making a bad thing is easy! And once it’s done, all you need to do is make the next, less-bad version, and so on. You watch the details get clearer with each pass, until suddenly the good version emerges.
As with most things, there’s surely some variance in “creative bandwidth,” some of us requiring a couple more passes to reach our destination than others. But with a little patience, we all probably have more resolution waiting for us than we think.