Madeleine Robins

May 23, 2011

Distraction and The Sistine Chapel Effect

Filed under: Craft,Writing — madeleinerobins @ 12:58 AM

Sometimes, when the writing is being uncooperative, you need to do something else. It’s a nice thing when someone asks you to do that something else, so you can pretend that this isn’t a tactic to outrun your inability to figure out what comes next. This is where the cake making comes in. I don’t wake up and decide “hey, I’m going to make a Green Man cake!” or “gee, wouldn’t it be fun to make a Wedgewood Regency cake,” but if someone says (as someone did) “My birthday is coming up and I really want a Regency-themed cake, go wild!” well,  what am I to do?

The cake on the left was made for the band room for Words & Music2, a benefit concert, and was my attempt to replicate the art from the gorgeous poster.  It may be the most photographed cake I’ve ever made–people in the bands, the staff photographers, everyone was taking shots of the cake.  Fortunately the cake also had the most desirable trait of cakes: It tasted good.  So everyone was happy.

Except, just a little bit, me. Because I had this image in my head of what it was going to look like, and it fell short. This is what I call the Sistine Chapel Effect: when my older daughter was small she would draw something and I would admire it, not only because I was her mother and that was part of my job, but also because her eye for color and line was pleasing, and the finished work was admire-able. But Older Daughter, otherwise known as Sarcasm Girl, would crumple it up because in her head she was sketching the Sistine Chapel, but what she produced was somewhat less evolved.  Later, she had something of the same problem with homework: the essay she was writing in her head was sooo much better than the one she produced on the page.  We have had many conversations about this, boiling down to: Perfect is the Enemy of Good.

You want to do your best work, not just because you want your work to be admirable but because doing your best work feels good.  But “best work” is a constantly evolving goal.  If you’re constantly worrying that your best work isn’t measuring up to The Best Work Ever, you’re not going to progress, no matter whether it’s cake-decorating, writing, or science.*

So my Green Man cake doesn’t match up to the celestial perfection I was hoping for.  But it’s a far better cake than any I made three years ago when I started learning cake decoration.  Onward and upward.

* In this regard I refer you to the ever fabulous xkcd.com and the comments of Zombie Marie Curie.

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7 Comments »

  1. Walkimg away and giving your conscious mind a break is ever helpful. The unconscious brain, however, seems to never take a vacation and, when you return to the wordsmithing anvil, it brings you up to date.

    Comment by Bud Sparhawk — May 23, 2011 @ 7:39 AM | Reply

  2. Well, you know how *I* felt about it (says the Event Coordinator for Words & Music 2, and the public face of the Kinkaid Foundation). And it had to make you feel good to see Richard Thompson scarfing down a piece of the Sistine Chapel, surely?

    Comment by Deborah Grabien — May 23, 2011 @ 6:38 PM | Reply

    • Did he? I will cherish the image of Richard Thompson walking around with the same frosting-green tongue the rest of us had…

      Comment by madeleinerobins — May 23, 2011 @ 6:40 PM | Reply

  3. I wonder how this is going to play out with the ability that ebooks give authors to continually revise after publication? I think we’ll have to keep in mind what the poet Paul Valery said: “A poem is not so much finished as abandoned.”

    Comment by Dave Trowbridge — May 24, 2011 @ 9:33 AM | Reply

    • I’ve been preparing my backlist for e-book publication on Book View Café, and while I’ve been pleasantly surprised that my first five books aren’t terrible, I have to admit that sometimes I want to fix things. There have been a few places where I have, indeed, taken out or revised a sentence that has been annoying me for thirty years, or (in one case) fixed a gender-confusing typo that was always going to be corrected in the non-existant reprint edition. I tend to think of my old works as “historical documents,” to borrow a phrase from Galaxy Quest. And yet, the urge to meddle just a leetle is almost overwhelming.

      Comment by madeleinerobins — May 24, 2011 @ 9:42 AM | Reply

      • Well, as you know, Sherwood and I are taking the opportunity to extensively revise Exordium as we publish it on BVC, and enjoying how much richer it’s getting. But then, the first book in particular needed a lot of work. And, of course, the moment it went live, all the typos and mistakes stuck their heads up and said “Neener, neener!”

        Comment by Dave Trowbridge — May 24, 2011 @ 10:24 AM

  4. Alas, the “neener, neeners” will always be with us. I swear, you smite one down and another pops up somewhere else, just because it can.

    Comment by madeleinerobins — May 24, 2011 @ 5:09 PM | Reply


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