The other day I was watching this documentary about Michael Jackson with my now Husband, Josh. It was that super cool one about his transition from Mo-Town to the Off The Wall Album.
I am not an enormous Michael Jackson fan – in the sense that his music isn’t completely my jam – but I am a huge fan of how he tackled his work.
Michael Jackson was an incredibly, incredibly creative person.
There was this one piece of writing that they quoted, that Michael Jackson scripted himself on how he needed to develop as a creative person, and how the way that he had been wasn’t how he could always be. That he needed to be better, and move forward, dig deeper.
‘MJ will be my new name. No more Michael Jackson. I want a whole new character, a new look, I should be a totally different person … I should be a new incredible actor, singer, dancer that will shock the world. I will do no interviews. I will be magic. I will be a perfectionist. A researcher. A trainer. A master. I will be better than every great actor rolled in one. I must have the most incredible training system to dig and dig and dig until I find. I will study and look back on the whole world of entertainment and perfect it. Look back on the world of entertainment and take it from where the greats left off.’
I found this hugely challenging.
A lot of the time as a creative person there can be an emphasis on allowing things to unfold naturally. That you can’t force something as it may break the magic.
It may make it sterile, less amazing, less creative, that somehow if you hold onto something, or are too specific about improving it, that it becomes less of what it should be.
That as a creative, you cannot afford to be a perfectionist, so you give yourself permission to ‘go with the flow’ or ‘see how it goes.’
Michael Jackson never did that, at least not from what I could see. Even the more fluid things he did (like pronouncing a phrase more casual than how the record company wanted him to) he looked at in stark reality. Was it working? Was it not working? What was the final product going to be like and most importantly, was it good enough?
A lot of the time as a creative, we may feel tempted to give ourselves more grace than we ought to. We start a project, and allow it to be messy or sloppy, rather than bringing it out into the full light of day and approaching it with a straight tactfulness that people don’t often associate with creative work.
Like Michael noted in this quote above, he saw the need to study, inspect, look at what has been done, and proactively improve it. Challenging himself to be better, to be greater, to be a Master of his trade.
I feel encouraged by this today, because as Michael Jackson said in another quote and as I have heard a number of times before, success comes through persistence. The people who get what they want, live the dream, or become what they want to become aren’t those with luck or raw skill.
They are those who get up every day and do the same thing again and again.
No one really ever became great by accident, because it takes hard work and commitment to do anything genuinely worth while.
As a result of that, I challenge you today, as writers, or whatever you are to be this focused, this tactical, this concentrated on your craft.
When I edit my books I have this thing that I do – I was telling some students about it this week and their eyes nearly fell out of their heads.
Going through my books in the editing process I will often cross out HUGE pieces of writing, or sentences and in the margins write the letters ‘W.B’ This stands for Write Better.
Years ago now, I read this article where an author said the best piece of advice they ever received was that you must always challenge yourself to write better. So now when I edit, if I don’t like it and I don’t feel like it perfectly explains what I wanted it to say, I cross it out and write W.B.
The kids were like ‘WHAT!?’ Because I don’t think they quite understood how I could be so ruthless. That it was either ‘this is amazing’ or ‘this isn’t good enough.’ No in-between.
As creatives we shouldn’t use this as an excuse to be lax or indifferent, or allow ourselves too much freedom to ‘see how it goes.’
We must focus, and try and always W.B.