Good But Not Right

One of the greatest challenges of a creative life, I think, is learning to handle the stuff that’s good, but not right.

What I mean by that is the material that works, that has potential or that would be interesting to develop — but isn’t right for this particular project.

It happens a lot, especially in the early stages when you’re still figuring out exactly what this project is. Every idea is worth considering, but not every idea will make the cut.

Ideas are a bit like kids: any good parent will tell you that even the most unruly child benefits from a few boundaries, and our ideas are no different.

They come from us, they’re shaped by us, but they’re not us.

Our job is to develop their good qualities and help pare back the rest.

The trick is putting parameters on your ideas, so that your imagination can rove in the right direction, rather than taking you backwards or into territory where you don’t belong.

This is why it’s so key to get clear on what you’re trying to create, and why.

Imagine if Vincent van Gogh had sat down to paint his famous starry sky, but also thought he’d better include the rain that fell earlier that afternoon. It might still be a good painting, but there would be too much going on and it would lose its iconic impact.

Or what if F. Scott Fitzgerald had included a chapter in The Great Gatsby about the long-suffering servants, who would never once get to enjoy the luxury and glamour of life on West Egg? It might have been a more accurate story, but a much less cohesive one.

What if Queen’s Somebody to Love was Somebody to Love and Do Laundry With? Probably an important caveat, but not exactly the cry from the heart that the song ended up being.

So much of what makes great art is clarity. A simple message. Something unique and unmissable.

Of course, rules can be broken — Queen got away with Bohemian Rhapsody, after all — but generally, every project needs a unifying thread, and so you have to strip away everything that’s not that.

In books with clients, I call this the golden thread. It’s also called the premise, or the thesis, or the North Star.

In a business book, this is usually quite easy to find. There’s some specific thing to teach or share, and all the material can be filtered by a simple yes/no assessment of whether it fits the book’s purpose.

But defining the purpose of a memoir, or a novel, or a poem is much more difficult.

It’s much more personal, much more expansive, and so it takes a lot more rigour to find that golden thread.

Lara Lillibridge, an author I interviewed recently, said that she had to write her memoir before she could write her fiction.

Stuff that wanted to be told from her personal life kept showing up in her fiction drafts, where it didn’t belong: conflicts with particular types of characters, motivations and story arcs that didn’t move the plot in the right direction.

She didn’t throw all that material away; she just moved it to a different project. Instead of trying to wedge every idea into a single piece of work, she stepped back and realised:

This stuff is good, but it’s not right.

I had this same realisation this morning. When I first started dreaming about this book, I thought my marriage and divorce would be central themes, or at least critical turning points in the story.

But as I get clearer on the premise of the book, and am starting to see its structure take shape, I realise that those events, while important, are not central.

They’re illustrative, and can support a greater point. But they’re not THE point.

Instead, the premise of the book, I think, is about what it takes to write a great story with your life: the clarity, the persistence, the self-regard.

Allowing yourself to change, and try again, and dream, even when you’ve had to strip away the things you thought defined you. And, always, the words that keep us company and show us the way.