Design Process — What’s the Worst that Would Happen If…?

A friend recently posted on Facebook, “Usually I’m a pretty good cook… today was not one of those days. Man did I mess breakfast up. Oh well, the dogs liked it.”

I said, “If you ask yourself ‘what’s the worst that would happen if…’ and the answer is that the dogs will get to eat it, you might as well try it!”

There’s a lot of stuff I don’t try in my quilting. Sometimes I actually don’t have interest in a technique or style. Sometimes I do but feel a little (or a lot) intimidated. While I definitely have favorite styles and colors, I want to push my creativity by being open to failure. I want to, but honestly sometimes I have trouble doing so.

There are many sports metaphors about risk and winning – Wayne Gretzky’s famous quote is “You’ll always miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” However, we don’t always apply the same thinking to our art. In reading about creativity, I understand that we don’t take risks because we fear failure. Really, failure or success is determined by setting some standard to reach, and then measuring whether or not we reached it. The worst part is, we set our own standards in quilting, and usually we set them too high. We hesitate to try new things because we fear we won’t do them as well as our heroes, or as well as the best thing we ourselves ever did, or because we are worried about other’s opinions.

Another facet of “failure” for me is I am a finisher. If I try something, I want the results to be “good enough” to finish the project. (Others might have an odd fear of success with the same result — those who don’t finish projects may not wish the obligation that comes with a successful experiment!)

Could we measure success as having been bold enough to try something new, and having learned something from it? Then every project we undertake could be a success. And every experiment would be its own finish, with or without a completed project.

Another friend, an actor, talked to me recently about stage fright. A particularly bad commercial shoot several years ago led to lingering anxiety about how each “next shoot” would go. But the stage fright makes him angry and he refuses to succumb to it, becoming stronger all the time in overcoming it. He says, “Perhaps we are too ‘full of ourselves’ and think that we should be ‘perfect’…and when we are not, we just can’t handle the thought….”

Stage fright, writer’s block, quilting fear, all part of the same structure. There is fear to try, to be judged a failure, if only by ourselves.

In Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird, she talks about the process of creation. As a writer, she’s well aware of the desire to create perfection each time we begin a new project.

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.

Or more bluntly from her, “In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.”

Shitty first drafts, practice blocks, even finished quilts we assess as failures, are the predecessors of better work. Go ahead and write that shitty first draft. Only when we begin something can we learn from it, improve on it, and be done with it, one way or another.

Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of bestselling Eat, Pray, Love, gave a TED talk about the elusive nature of creative genius. Genius, inspiration, the “muse,” when they show up at all, sometimes they show up at inopportune times. Whether or not genius shows up, she says, keep at it, keep showing up. Do your job, whether or not genius does.

At the end of the talk she reiterates, “Don’t be afraid, don’t be daunted. Just do your job.

Sometimes it feels like we’re doing our job with little guidance, no clear path.

Anne Lamott again:

“E.L. Doctorow said once said that ‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard.”

It’s okay to not know where you’re going, or how it will turn out. Don’t let fear stop you. Don’t be afraid. If the worst that would happen is the dogs eat the breakfast, the first draft is shitty, or the block goes into a pile of orphans, try it anyway.

What’s the worst that would happen?

15 thoughts on “Design Process — What’s the Worst that Would Happen If…?

  1. Jean

    Thanks for the encouraging words. It was good to read this befor I started my medallion project. I’m coming back here to say this after ripping out my first border. After a couple of adjustments it will go back on. It seems I’ve not learned enough in the ‘aiming for accuracy project’ yet, my HSTs are a smidge too small. Ha!

    1. Melanie in IA Post author

      They seem to be my WORST spot for accuracy! Smidge too small, smidge too large… Yesterday I was working on a border that ended up about 1/2″ too big. I trimmed both ends 1/8″ each and eased the rest. Not my preference, but it worked!

      One thing I try to keep in mind: busier fabric hides a lot of small errors! 😉

      Keep at it but most of all have fun!

      1. Jean

        Funny that you mentioned easing. I did a great job of easing those little triangles onto the center, problem was I couldn’t get the center to lay flat. I knew I would never be happy with a bubble in the center. Can you imagine the nightmare of trying to quilt that bubble down? Saving myself the aggravation later and ripped them all off. My center is a single piece of fabric and I think I can just trim it down. If not I’ll be making 4 more hst and adding a coping strip.

    1. Melanie in IA Post author



      And perfect never comes, regardless. Improvement, yes. Perfect, no. Fortunately I am only a pretty-goodist, not a perfectionist. So I am not disappointed by that.

  2. cjhaab

    Nice commentary on creativity and what it might take to open up the floodgates (or even turn on the faucet.)

    The analogy (I LOVE analogies, as evidenced above) of driving at night resonates, as well as the cooking for the dogs! In a recent discussion with members of my Modern Quilt Guild, I stated, “I find myself making quilts like I cook: a closet full of ingredients, choose a main player, pull out a few things that go with it, start chopping, mixing and seasoning, and see what deliciousness emerges. That the final result is not much like the original idea is much of the fun.” Throw away (or store) the cookbooks for awhile and see how it goes.

    Another sports analogy may be found in the advice given to a nervous runner entering his/her first race, or a trying a new distance. It’s “trust your training”. If you have put in the work (practice, study, thinking, preparation, gathering of the right materials and tools), surely that’s already a measure of success and satisfying, and should also propel you to the finish line! Good day!

    1. Melanie in IA Post author

      Funny, *I* also love analogies! And I also see myself as the person who cooks from ingredients on hand, rather than seeing a recipe and then shopping for ingredients. The running analogy is good, too.

      I’m working on borders for a printed panel, an odd tree with weird little squirrels at the base. Tried something new. I REALLY like it. Now readying to try a new top border to take it farther. Don’t know quite where it’s all going, but it will be fun getting there.

  3. Brother Mark

    Brilliant…I believe we create the best ghosts and demons with which to terrify ourselves. The thought of this makes me think that authors of the best horror novels must have the ability to scare the hell out of themselves…yet, they write….

    1. Melanie in IA Post author

      This spring I read the book by Stephen King, “On Writing.” About half the book is about his evolution as a writer. He said that one of his primary tools is to use situations… to ask “what if…” What if an outcast girl who knows nothing about her puberty starts her first period in the shower at high school? And thus Carrie was born. What if we pretend there’s nothing to be afraid of? What if we go ahead and do it anyway? Usually nothing bad will happen, at least and especially in our creative pursuits.

      So we are here, we are still breathing, and we are unafraid. We go on, we try, sometimes we fall. And though we may be bruised, though we may need help, we stand and we go on.

  4. pamelajeannestudio

    I have a fear of another unfinished project. I have a lot of ideas but don’t try them because I’m afraid I’d never finish. So I don’t even start. When did quilting become more about the finished project rather than the process? I guess I figure that if I don’t finish something, I will have nothing to show anyone. What’s the point? So I never even begin to explore my many creative ideas. Quilting should be more about the fun of just doing it for yourself. I need to get back to that.

    1. Melanie in IA Post author

      How can we do that? I think I’m FINALLY at the point of taking time for that, after almost 10 years of quilting, learning as I go. But ALWAYS learning on projects that were finished and usually given away. Rarely have I just played. Now is my time.

      NOW is YOUR time, too. Can you? Can we together?


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