In the wake of every successful project—by which I mean anything seen through to completion and eventually released out into the world—there are dozens of failures, slowly amassing in the sea of my life like some sort of shameful garbage island of ruined possibilities. For the most part, I don’t like to look at it. I don’t like to think about it. But every once in a while, I force myself to go back. To look at my failures and try to learn some kind of lesson. Or even just see if there are any scraps, any glimmers of past ideas standing out among the ruins that could be pulled out, taken home, washed off and reborn as something new or better.
I take comfort in telling myself that most of those ideas clogging up my garbage island were never good enough to make it out into the world. But some were. Some just came at the wrong time. Either before I was ready creatively for the idea or while I had something else going on in my life, either professionally or personally. It’s the ones that I’ve let slip by for personal reasons, those that were lost because I was dealing with “life” stuff that hit me the hardest. It’s those projects that cause my guts to bunch up in my stomach because I can’t help asking, “What if I’d been stronger?” Or “What if I’d been less depressed?” As if that’s some sort of switch you can flip on and off.
But the worst of all are the projects where I’ve dragged others along with me. The promises I couldn’t fulfill. I understand rationally that for every successful project birthed into the world there are going to be dozens that go nowhere but when all I want is to lift up my friends, those failures compound. Now it’s not about just failing yourself but others as well. I’d run out of fingers before I counted the number of false starts I’ve had just in the past few years for projects with artists and writers I respect and admire, many of whom are my personal friends. The idea that I’ve failed them is a toxic, unhelpful thought that’s almost enough to make me shy away from pursuing that type of work again…almost.
But now we get to the point.
Or something like one, at least.
The entire idea of a dead project is something of a misnomer because it’s only a project while you’re working on it. Once it’s done it’s a piece or work or creation or whatever you want to call it, but before that it’s really just an idea. And ideas are not precious. They’re not valuable despite anything you might want to believe. They never have been. And that’s all that’s really left when a project falls apart, that’s the ghost that creators have a tendency to cling to, years after life has moved on. Let them go.
Dead ideas are like grinding through random battles in a JRPG. Get through enough of them and you level up and maybe release one project. Weirdly, my odds of releasing projects hasn’t significantly increased with experience which is beginning to make me feel like the monsters are just scaling with me, but I digress. What I think myself and ultimately any creator has to accept is that it’s likely an unavoidable part of the process. Your dead ideas will always outpace your successes.
But here comes the maturity part. The part that teaches the harshest lessons. You have to try to not leave people behind on your island. It’s not always easy. Some people won’t want to leave.
I’ve learned along the way to stop over-promising. As much as I’m a victim of my crippling insecurities, I’m a victim of my own hubris (ah, the duality of the creative class). I never go into a project without visions of my unbridled success swimming through my head as I’m lavished with rewards for my own genius. I think this is normal. But when working with others, it can be easy to get them swept up in your vision and detached from the harsh reality which is “this project will most likely never be finished.” That’s true of every project and I know that now, as a more mature creator but the temptation to over-promise is still there. After all, it’s also your job to get people onboard. And there’s no better way to do that then with lofty promises. I’ve learned the hard way that they’re rarely worth it. Talk about concrete things. Money for developmental work. Schedules. Don’t assume that everyone knows the project might not happen, be clear about the situations happening in the background. Such as, we still have to find a publisher. Or I have a few leads but there are contracts to be negotiated. All this helps but will never assuage the guilt completely. And they’re lessons I’ve learned only through experience and handling things the wrong way.
But in the end, when something falls apart, know when to call it. And be honest about that too. It’s okay to back-burner projects but don’t expect others to wait around for you, and know when it’s time to take it off the burner for good. Don’t leave others behind on your garbage idea island.
I guess that’s something of a point or a lesson. A meandering one at least.
I think we need to remember that everyone has an island of garbage ideas which follows them around through their whole career, growing constantly. That they’re okay to visit once in a while but we should be careful not to linger too long. That it’s okay to go trash-picking there sometimes but don’t fall into the trap of assuming those old ideas are, on the whole, valuable. And finally, try your best not to strand anybody there. That’s it.
Other than that, keep your head down on your work and try not to think about the smell.