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What to do When Your Art Sucks

This is the third and final post in a 3-part series about Graham Wallas’s “Stages of Control” for the creative process.

The sad truth about Illumination is it sometimes leads to the birth of a half-formed monstrosity. That’s where Verification comes in.

Verification lends our work quality.

Two days after my pre-dawn scribbling, I looked at what I’d written the way a man might look at a snoring woman after an awful one-night stand.

But, since I said I’d post every Friday, and it was Wednesday, and I had no idea how long it would take to form the mess into something useful, I pressed on.

I went to bed discouraged.

The next morning, I sat down again at the computer.

When I got there, I started to see how I could employ crafts I’d learned (journalism, literary criticism, fiction plotting and blogging) to give the piece shape and logic.

A structure began to reveal itself.

This isn’t a single post, I realised, relieved. It’s a series. That’s why it’s so long-winded.

“In the daily stream of thought these four different stages constantly overlap each other as we explore different problems,” Wallas writes of Preparation, Incubation, Illumination and Verification.

What he doesn’t mention is that, in order to create art that doesn’t suck, we might have to repeat the process several times for a single project.

Not understanding the possibilities inherent in cycling through the stages multiple times, creatives often quit projects before they’re done, shelving them or submitting things that haven’t reached their potential.

I’ve got two first drafts of novels I was so terrified to revise that I lost them on purpose. I honestly have no idea where they went.

Don’t do that.

Instead, in the Verification stage, use the tools of your craft to diagnose your project’s ailments. Then, to cure them, go back to Preparation, and continue from there.

Craft in Art

My own personal definitions for the purposes of this post.

Don’t let shame at a work’s apparent ugliness cloud your ability to see the good parts. Keep those, and only repeat the process for the broken bits. It’s never as bad as you think.

Watch out for the temptation to start from scratch, which is what I did with my current novel, and the reason I’m on the sixth draft instead of, say, the third: I chucked the whole thing three times.

I’m not gonna do it again, though. Creating this series has reminded me how much a project can improve if we get into a rhythm of picking up the tools of craft and putting them aside.

Wallas is muddled when it comes to managing the relationship between Art and craft. He’s clear that during Preparation and Verification, we should keep the rules in mind.

He waffles when it comes to Intimation, though. He mentions a writer friend who ruined a novel by trying too hard to control the plot instead of letting the characters go where they wanted. As a solution, Wallas offers only this:

“It is indeed at the stage of Illumination with its fringe of Intimation that the thinker should most constantly realise that the rules of his art will be of little effect unless they are applied with artistic delicacy of apprehension.”

Thanks. I’ll keep that in mind: Note to self: employ artistic delicacy of apprehension.

I’ve found it more useful to think about the dance between Art and craft as a handing-off we allow in the transitions between stages.

My aunt, the writer Brenda Carre, helped me learn that.

Intimation is perhaps the most important transition, but each one poses its own challenges. Each requires a different kind of letting go and a different kind of openness. Each requires walking into a new unknown with its own terrors.

  • Entering Preparation means letting go of preconceptions so we can see a subject with new eyes, letting go of the fear it’s been done, and being open to the suggestions of our craft.
  • Entering Incubation means recognising when we’re full, either mentally or emotionally, letting go of the subject, letting go of the fear it’ll come to nothing, and being open to other interests.
  • Entering Illumination means letting go of craft-related rules, letting go of the fear our ideas will expose us to emotional violence, and being open to the aching of Intimation.
  • Entering Verification means letting go of the impulse to judge ourselves for our work’s imperfections, letting go of the conviction it’s already everything it could be, and being open to returning to step 1.

I cycled through the entire process three times before I even knew this was a 3-part series, but here it is now: finished.

Note: I’ll be releasing a book about the creative process sometime within the next couple months. It’ll go through all this stuff in a lot more detail, and it’ll have a ton of practical examples. It’ll also list specific actions you can take to increase your creative output right away. Subscribe if you’d like a heads-up when it’s ready.


Full disclosure: Since I’m not a graphic designer, I made this infographic by subbing out the text on a winemaking infographic from I figured the metaphor worked.

Featured Image: © Prometeus | – Ghost Photo


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