Why Lame Ideas and Bad Work Are a Smart Creative Decision

On what makes "mullock" a necessary part of creativity.

This post was selected for inclusion in our Future of Art and Work series in December 2016. The series, sponsored by Microsoft Surface, selects some of our best posts exploring the topics of how art and work will look in the 21st century. This post was originally published in June, 2016.

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Right before the Tony Awards, 60 Minutes featured an interview with Hamilton-creator—and soon-to-be high king of entertainment—Lin-Manuel Miranda. Interviewer Charlie Rose asked him about the creative process, to which he responded with an apt metaphor. Being creative, he said, is like the running of a faucet. You have to keep it flowing, pushing out the rusty and un-potable water, before the work itself can run clear and safe enough to be brought into the world.

Louis CK, in an interview with New York magazine this month, echoed the sentiment. “Even great writers usually write shit,” he said. “Being a great writer means writing shitty stuff and not giving up. It doesn’t mean you just sit down and it comes out beautiful.”

There’s a word I like to use for this reality of the creative process: Mullock. Mullock, with its gruff pronunciation that sounds as if it’s ripped right from the verses of Beowulf, is fitting of the diction of an old, Anglo, bog-bound people who were used to grunting and working with the earth. It connotes resolve and perseverance. Shoveling through the mullock is unpleasant, muddy, and sometimes humiliating. But ask any creative—the payoff for the labor is incomparable.

The word itself belongs to the trade of mining. When you extract metal from ore, you get the shiny and valuable stuff, and, on the other hand, you get useless crap. The unpleasant, unprofitable stuff is what miners and engineers call mullock, and it’s as essential to the job as a good pair of boots. In most cases, the ratio of good-to-bad isn’t too kind (in copper mining, a good piece of ore is 35 percent copper), yet whether with pen or pickaxe, we all dig and grunt anyway.

Whether you want to call it mullock, or rusty water, or shit—the creation of low-quality material is essential to the creation of anything of value. You don’t get the latter without accepting the former. Yet being comfortable with this fact can take decades. There’s nothing pleasant about the feeling that the work you’ve made, in this moment, is below par, no matter what some article on the internet might have you believe.

Given the long lineage of human creativity, you’re far from the first person to feel troubled by an unpromising start. As Ernest Hemingway warned us, “The first draft of anything is shit.” We create something, we look at it, and realize it falls below our expectations. At a certain point, it’s easy to get discouraged, to want to take a break or call it a day. But it’s a feeling familiar to anyone who has ever seriously made something. Ira Glass of NPR has talked about the early disappointments that are essential to a creative growth:

All of us who do creative work … We get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there’s a gap, that for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good … It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good. But your taste — the thing that got you into the game — your taste is still killer, and your taste is good enough that you can tell what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you.

Creative people begin as attentive observers. They see what they appreciate, know what they like about it, and are finally shocked to discover how difficult it is to make work on the level they admire. They see they’ve made a little mullock, with scarcely a gold nugget in sight. Yet if everyone quit from the dread of those early years of juvenilia and practice, there would be no creative people around at all.

It’s normal to have trouble looking the mullock in the eye. To work past these reservations, it pays to examine how our own internal voice hinders us. Danny Gregory, a former advertising executive and author of Shut Your Monkey: How to Control Your Inner Critic and Get More Done, offers some useful advice on the matter.

Gregory writes about the voice in your head that doubts and delays, which he animates as “the monkey.” Overall, it fears change and unbalance, and it does everything in its power to keep you from creativity, boldness, and nearly every action that compels you to grow beyond yourself.

Gregory proposes a few useful tips to shut the monkey. One even has a basis in neuroscience for a little extra umph. Cognitive researchers have found the brain to adapt to mental tasks by creating new neural pathways. Gregory notes that these newer pathways make the mind more capable of performing similar tasks in the future. Like a muscle, the brain gets “stronger” at the tasks it performs more frequently. This means creativity, even if it’s not very good, is very much worth our time. By working, Gregory says,

You create new brain cells that are programmed to make you better at the new things you are doing … The more you think, the better you get at it.

It doesn’t matter if those ideas are good any more than it matters if you are chopping firewood or hefting kettlebells. All that counts is that you keep working, keep pumping out more ideas. Even lame creativity creates the creative mind.

“Lame creativity”; another term for mullock.

We sympathize that firing on all cannons and wantonly creating is no easy path to take. Here are some tips to start generating mullock with purpose and responsibility.

Brainstorm (starting with yourself). While many experts have decried that group-based brainstorming is ineffective, there is nothing quite so good as conducting your own private barrage of creativity. All you need is your brain and something to record its jottings. Whether that’s a pen, keyboard, sketch pad, or otherwise is totally up to you.

Virginia Woolf is said to have written one of the best diaries of all time, in part because it resembled a personal brainstorm. She said of the project that “If I stopped and took thought, it would never be written at all.” But thank goodness is was written, for there’s a lot to learn from Woolf’s example. Diary writing is a great way to get out what is most pressing on your mind, to clear space for more creative and extended invention (all eventually find that even if we try to ignore the mind’s major concerns, the brain will nudge us with them in our dreams). Making a diary is a readily available act of creativity, calling on both parts of the creative process: invention and execution. Plus, in writing about yourself, you don’t have the chance to excuse yourself for lacking inspiration.

Don’t analyze … yet. In Shut Your Monkey, David Gregory advises not to judge your creation too soon — on the grounds that you’re simply not capable of doing so. “It’s impossible to judge an idea when it first pops out,” he says. It’s better that you create now and sit on it, worrying about whether the idea is ready for any sort of  application later. “Like a fine wine or a newborn lion cub,” ideas “need breathing time to show their true nature,” Gregory writes. When you’re in the midst of things, mullock can look like gold, and gold can look like mullock. So the prudent creative move is to keep on going.

Discard the bad. Eventually, you figure out whether your work is worth either a.) your remembrance or b.) releasing to the world. If it’s not worth either, let it go. I’m a big fan of burning and deleting what you make. Keeping around all those bad ideas eventually feels like an encumbrance, whether it’s in a journal or a computer file. Take what you need from it (nearly every idea will have something to teach you or to use later) and let it go. Life is about flow, and mullock is a waste product. While good health depends on producing waste, it is toxic and foolish to hang on to anything longer than needed.

Let go of perfectionism. Perfectionism and embracing mullock go hand-in-hand, although perfection itself is a vast and extensive subject. When it comes to making mistakes and waste in the creative process, it’s dangerous to hold impossible standards. The inner-critic will always find flaws and raise the bar, only making you feel terrible for missing the arbitrary cut. Instead, be forgiving of your work’s demerits, and strive to learn from your blunders.

Steal. When being entirely original is tough (read also: impossible), it can help to steal. In the same way it can be frustrating not to be as good as your inspirations, it can be a relief to purloin from them. Shakespeare stole or co-opted nearly all of his plots from earlier writers, and it arguably gave him the freedom to work on elements like character and language that have made him the best playwright (if not writer) of all time. Lin-Manuel Miranda borrowed his plot points from history. Whether you’re lifting stories or product designs, steal and alter them in the tiniest amount you can — even if it seems close to plagiarism at the time. Small is the nature of all beginnings, and the first step of creativity is creation; even if it turns out to be mullock.