Are You Willing to Kill the Butterfly?
To move forward on creative projects, push past that perfect vision in your head
Posted Jan 22, 2019
It always begins the same way for the novelist Ann Patchett: An idea for a new book begins to form in her head and it is “a thing of indescribable beauty.” She feels certain it will be the greatest book she, or anyone else, has ever written. All she need do “is put it down on paper and then everyone can see this beauty that I see.” And so, when finally she can no longer put off doing so, “I reach up and pluck the butterfly from the air. I take it from the region in my head and I press it down against my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it.”
She doesn’t want to kill it, Patchett writes, but the only way to bring to life an actual novel is to first capture that vision fluttering in her mind and pin it down on the page. When she does that, “everything that was beautiful about this living thing—all the color, the light and movement—is gone.”
Patchett’s marvelous description of the painful early stages of her writing process, which appears in her book This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, should resonate with just about anyone who has tried to create something that began as a beautiful, seemingly perfect idea. The actual, tangible creation rarely measures up to the vision. The disparity can be especially great in the first stages of trying to give form to an idea, when efforts to produce something may be clumsy and misguided. It can be dispiriting—so much so that Patchett believes it’s the reason why many people never are able to write the “great novel” that is in their heads. “Only a few of us are going to be able to break our own hearts by trading in the living beauty of the imagination for the stark disappointment of words,” she writes.
So, the beautiful question that must be asked upon beginning work on an idea is: How might I live with this discrepancy between imagination and reality? Or, to paraphrase Patchett, If I can’t create the thing I dream of, can I at least create the thing I’m capable of making?
Patchett believes we can do so if we’re willing to forgive ourselves for our own inadequacies. The initial stages of creating can be so humbling and frustrating that it can cause the creator to give up immediately or to stall indefinitely.
How butterfly-hopping keeps creative people from fully developing an idea
There may be a temptation to jump to another idea—a fresh butterfly, still untouched and perfect. Scott Belsky, head of the creative consultancy Behance and author of Making Ideas Happen: Overcoming the Obstacles Between Vision and Reality, says that kind of butterfly-hopping keeps creative people from fully developing an idea. “A surplus of ideas is as dangerous as a drought,” according to Belsky. “The tendency to jump from idea to idea spreads your energy horizontally instead of vertically.”
In order to stop hopping, Belsky says, you must chart a clear course of action for each of your ideas—one that forces you to stay focused and keep taking next steps. Creative people tend to have a built-in resistance to organizational processes; we’d rather be dreaming up the next idea, which is why so many ideas never get past the dreaming stage to the “doing” stage. But Belsky maintains that every idea you’re serious about should be treated as a formal work project. And to keep that project moving forward, constantly think about—and write down—the next “Action Steps” to be taken.
Staying with ideas takes discipline. There will be times when you get “stuck” and have trouble moving forward with an idea and times when you just feel sick of it. At these difficult stages of idea development, it’s tempting to revert back to the more fun stage of idea generation. But as Belsky points out, anyone can come up with ideas. The question to ask yourself is, Do I have what it takes to make the idea actually happen?
IF YOU’RE HAVING TROUBLE GETTING STARTED ON A CREATIVE PROJECT, ASK THESE 6 QUESTIONS
- Am I chasing butterflies? Meaning you keep thinking of new ideas instead of moving forward with an existing project. To develop an idea, you must pick one butterfly and pin it down.
- Who will hold me accountable? Share your idea with someone–and schedule a series of small deliverables.
- Am I rearranging the bookshelves? This refers to the act of “preparing to create.” It may involve setting up a workspace, taking lessons, or doing research—each of which is fine until the point it becomes a stall tactic.
- How can I lower the bar? Instead of trying to begin with greatness, be willing to start off with something merely okay or even bad.
- What if I begin anywhere? If you’re stuck trying to think of a beginning, start in the middle, at the end, or somewhere in between.
- Can I make a prototype? Find some way to give rudimentary form to your idea (outline rough sketch, collage, beta website).
“I reach up and pluck the butterfly from the air” . . . Ann Patchett’s quotes about “killing the butterfly” are from her essay “The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life,” which appears in the book This is the Story of a Happy Marriage (New York: Harper, 2013).
Making Ideas Happen: Overcoming the Obstacles Between Vision and Reality by Scott Belsky (New York: PenguinRandomHouse, 2012).