Originally published April 17, 2013
The pictures began to teach me. By generalizing a personal dilemma, they resolved it.
— Gerhard Richter
I’ve been working in the studio for five days, now, though not consecutively. I spent the first two days of MLK weekend laying down guitar and vocal tracks for as many things as possible without other instrumentation, and brought in my pianist Luke and my drummer Devin to put down their parts on a few tracks.
It’s an interesting feeling to know that you have essentially unlimited time and opportunity to get exactly what you want. My only issue thus far has been that I haven’t been certain of what I want. I’m getting closer and closer with every listen but there are still so many possibilities that I feel I’ve barely begun to scratch the surface of what this project could be. The other downside, as I see it, is the notion of “perfect” versus the notion of “good enough.”
Perfection is not a possibility. The older I get and the more music I hear tell me that perfection cannot be achieved. There will always be something that you find, given enough focus and enough listenings, that isn’t quite right. Or, if it’s just a poorly made/produced/engineered/mastered track, there are a lot of things that are not even close. And, while I’ve always been my own worst critic when it comes to my performance, I’m much more confident in my songwriting. As a result, it’s been at times miserable listening to the unmixed recordings sent from the studio each day: I’m fourteen again, hearing exactly how I want the song to sound, utterly frustrated by my inability to make it manifest.
The goal at first, then, becomes to let go of the idea of perfection; to take it off the table as a possibility and to work towards something attainable. That’s where “good enough” comes in.
“Good enough” is the single most insidious notion that our western mentality has ever created, excepting perhaps the notion of perfection. Something amazing happens in the exact moment at which something with infinite potential begins to be realized. As kinetic energy increases, potential energy decreases — along with the energy lost along the way to outside forces of resistance — taking the possibilities from infinite to finite, narrow, specific. I say it is amazing because without the loss of that infinite potential, nothing could be created. The trade is more than fair, in my opinion. The danger, however, lies in the creator’s response to the loss of countless possibilities, and in her ability to see the value in the finite potential that remains.
“Good enough” is insidious because it removes the creator’s ability to see that value. The idea of diminishing returns comes into play: “I don’t think I’ll get another take better than that one today.” The idea creeps in, and “today” becomes “ever.” If it’s good enough today, it can be good enough forever. “Good enough” becomes a new standard, a replacement for perfection that doesn’t give up, though it does give in. And, once you accept “good enough” in one area, it prevents you from seeing potential in other areas.
I fell prey to the trap without realizing it. The work I was doing was actually very good, in my opinion: my guitar work was good, and my voice wasn’t where I wanted it to be but I knew that it would be; the other instrumentation was exactly what I wanted. There were still violins and cello and voices to add. It was going to be good enough, so I stopped thinking about ways to improve upon my plan. After five days in the studio, I was right on track, and the project was still missing something but I thought the rest of my plan would finish it out. What I had was good enough. I was content to move forward with the plan I’d made. I was content to create and produce work that somewhere inside of me I knew wasn’t going to be my best as a songwriter or as a recording artist.
After all, “Be the best you can be” doesn’t really mean anything. Good and bad are entirely subjective.
I was fortunate enough to have musician friends willing to work on the album as a favor to me, and even more fortunate to have the opportunity to invite some of them over to listen to what I’ve got so far and to offer feedback. This happened three times over the course of two weeks, with various persons or groups of people.
Each time, after a few positive responses, we would come to the constructive criticism portion of the evening. I consider myself the kind of person who can take criticism without bringing too much ego into any situation, and consider issues and possible solutions carefully and logically. The ideas brought forward regarding improvements and what did and didn’t work were terrific. What surprised me was how open my eyes suddenly became to all of the possibilities I hadn’t even considered. The veil was lifted and I realized that in my attempt to keep my ideas specific and attainable, I had blocked out worlds of other potentialities that were still very much present. For the first time in months, I was excited about the project again because anything was possible.
The idea of perfection — as a lack of any and all flaws — is total bullshit. The idea of “good enough” — as a valuation of what is created in relation to the effort needed to improve upon it — is also total bullshit. What I now find in this project is a desire to improve upon my improvements, until there is nothing more for me to do. And I trust that I will know when there is nothing left to do. I’ll know when it’s finished. Rather than completing specific tasks and telling myself I’m finished, I’ll keep working until the work tells me it’s finished.
It will still be flawed, and it will still be perfect.