To the Tooth

There’s an Italian term of art in cooking, al dente, which means food (usually pasta, but veggies and other things as well) that is slightly under-cooked so it is still firm. Directly translated it means “to the tooth”. There’s another meaning I take from al dente. It not only means “to the tooth,” but to me it also means “in the teeth”, like I just took a kick in the teeth.

Today I’m having an al dente day.

I’ve been recently working on a story in my spare time, and while I like the idea I realized a lot of what I wrote was bad. Well not bad, just boring. The irony is I took a big slug at the story the other day, throwing down well over 3000 words, so naturally I was excited about it.  That was until the next day when I realized much of the work I had done was under cooked. Al dente.

When you’re a creative type being honest with yourself about your work is probably the most demanding part of the gig. You not only have to ignore the rest of the shit going on in your life, and somehow find the energy to get off your ass and do the work, but then when your work is done you have to turn right around and be critical enough about your work to ensure a high standard.

Essentially there are two standards at play here:

  1. Is the work done?
  2. Is it any good?

The first standard is easy, and can be roughly translated as “am I happy”. This is what the creative person aims for internally. This is the first goal in their work, making themselves happy. And it is quite satisfying when you do the work. I always love it when I get a stretch of time to really dig into a story. It is relaxing and exhilarating, much in the same way that a good workout at the gym is relaxing and exhilarating. You get the excitement of the “burn”, you get the very real sense of accomplishing something. Its that feeling you get when doing a project around the house, or working on a hobby or craft. That feeling you get when you complete a project and then turn around to admire your work.

But the second standard, the one that asks, “is it any good?” is the more important. This is this question that separates the amateurs from the pros, the question that elevates a piece of art beyond one’s own horizon to that of the world’s. Of the two, this standard is also, not surprisingly, the more difficult.

When one is a creative type then they will spend a huge amount of their time learning and polishing their craft. Perfecting their ability to do their work, because, after all, doing the work is what its all about. Because of this it is easy and natural to learn from others, to study the great masters, to attempt to learn all that is possible within the craft. Painters learn to paint, writers learn to write, singers learn to sing, etc. But where does one go to learn how to be critical? How does a newbie learn to break down the flaws in their work and make it better? Where does the neophyte artist/writer/singer/etc. learn to develop an expert critical eye or ear?

These are the tough questions, the ones not easy to answer. To be creative means to ignore the other clamoring voices in the world, to lock yourself up in your own head, and to produce the work that only comes after years and years of practice. But to be a professional in your craft means your have to then turn around and listen to those very same voices you just ignored, and also, at the same time, hold your work up to them for comparison. This is a brutal thing to learn, and it is every bit as demanding as mastering the work itself. Only the rewards are not nearly as satisfying. It does not feel good to criticize one’s work. In fact, it feels like shit. Yet, it must be done.

So yeah, my story is both under-cooked, and being honest about it to myself feels like a kick in the teeth. Thus, al dente. What’s a guy to do?

Anyway, it looks like its time to do a bit more cooking. Which means its time to turn up the heat.

Anybody else suffer from learning the right amount of criticalness? What’s your story?