Shipping, Thrashing, and the Lizard

Seth Godin, a prominent blogger and thinker, hates the Lizard.

Specifically, the lizard part of each of our brains–the part near the core that fuels our fight and flight responses. Its job is to keep us alive by killing or fleeing from new things. As such, it makes a pretty lousy creative partner.

Godin writes of the Lizard, “It’s that little voice in the back of your head, the ‘but’ or the ‘what if’ that speaks up at the crucial moment and defeats the joy and insight you brought to the project in the first place.”

shipping disaster

This is what happens when you let the Lizard steer the boat.

In Godin’s view, the Lizard is responsible for much of the foolish thrashing we do in our creative projects.

We spend so much mental energy doubting ourselves, changing tracks, downplaying our ambitions, avoiding risks, and generally futzing about that nothing ever gets done or it gets done in the blandest and least offensive (and least interesting) way possible.

I know thrashing. I thrash. I have thrashed. I will undoubtedly thrash again.

So how do we fight this dire fate?

Approach #1: Mort a la Resistance!

Godin’s prescription to avoid thrashing is “shipping.” In his view, the most important thing is getting the project out the door.

Successful Shipping

This ship is shipping. Let’s ignore the pollution and the moral tangle of whether we really need to be shipping plastic doohickeys and useless whatnots around the world and applaud the good ship’s progress.

“Ship often. Ship lousy stuff, but ship. Ship constantly,” he writes in the same article linked above.

I almost halfway agree with this 100%.

I do think we have to get some projects out the door on the regular.

Got a blog to write? Ship it.

Need to post on social media? Ship it.

Want to launch a brand new, never before seen kind of online writing community, and it just so happens to be one month before the local writing conference where you can pitch it to some potential piloteers? Ship it!

Perfect is the enemy of the good.

Instead of making something the best thing it could ever possibly be, get it out the door so it can actually be.

But what about those longer, richer, deeper creative projects (i.e. novels) where you really do have a limited opportunity to put your best work forward? Any of us who have had the misfortune to read badly-edited, poorly-conceived self-published books, know that shipping something lousy doesn’t do anyone any good.

Approach #2: Vive la Resistance

Pardon me while I go a bit biblical (or The Byrds), but perhaps there is a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted, a time to break down and a time to build up.

A time to thrash and a time to ship.

This actually doesn’t depart from Godin’s advice. He urges you to get the thrashing out early, but he seems to do so with some disdain for the entire act of thrashing.

Creative Thrashing

Mayhaps the angels of creativity demand we wrestle them. Who are we to say no?

And yet–to be a bit more biblical–we all need our time to wrestle with angels. We need to free ourselves to be uncertain and unclear, to wish and to wash. To fit and to start. To struggle heroically with the impossible beauty and overwhelming force of raw imagination.

Yes, you will lose something when you transfer your vision to the page, but surely it’s worthwhile to nurture and cherish the ideal for a bit.

Also–it’s vital to note–the first ideas onto the page are not always (or ever?) the best. I know that I have to get out my cliches and crap before I can get to the gold.

Thrashing has its merits.

Brenda Ueland writes, “So you see, imagination needs moodling – long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering.”

I think the key is to give each phase its proper due and try not to confuse the two.

Give yourself the latitude for a long and happy thrash as you’re venturing into a project.

Plan with the idea that your only output at the outset needs to be a good, solid thrash.

Write character sketches, and snippets of dialogue, and little bits of key action. Get a feel for what you’re preparing to create. Get to know it. Build enthusiasm.

Dream over long afternoon walks in the wilderness.

Plot if you’re a plotter. Plod if you’re a pantser.

And then…when the deadline arrives to abandon thrashing…ship for all you’re worth. Drown out the lizard with the brass band of your unshakeable conviction. Be bold and resilient. Crush your fears and doubts. Create. And get it out the door.

6 thoughts on “Shipping, Thrashing, and the Lizard

  1. Wrestling with angels is exactly what I’ve been doing for the past two days. This post has come at a perfect time for me. Thank you for the reassurance that some writing days are good, some are great, and some are a wrestling match from start to finish. Now for a little “mooding”….

    • Good luck with your wrestling, Kathie! I do think that letting the wrestling be okay (and letting it have meaning and value) is a great way to give your creativity the necessary space to flourish. The key, perhaps, is just to push past those days when you’re in shipping mode and meet your goals come hell, high water, or particularly surly angels. 🙂

  2. Lately I’ve been allowing myself some time to write a few shorter pieces. It takes me away from my novel for a night or two, but then I can send something out while I’m still fine tuning the larger work.

  3. This could not have come at a better time for me, Aaron, as I’m standing on the dock getting ready to untie the ship. It’s scary to let it go out into the ocean on its own, but the time has come for ships to go a’shipping. My current ms has been thrashing about for long enough!

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