Stop Making It Pretty

Sometimes we need to let things be ugly to stay functional and get results.

Stop Making It Pretty

A change I decided to make this year is to diversify my writing. Writing on cinema is where I am most confident: I love good cinema, and I enjoy taking part in the "discourse" (blistering rants) about bad cinema, too. I also have some background in the subject — I studied it, and though I prefer to throw out film theory and write from a subjective and experiential point-of-view, it gives me a solid base to draw from when I need to. So writing about movies is a relative comfort zone.

Time is limited and energy is finite, though, and I feel the need to work from different perspectives, in different forms, in order to feel I am functioning properly and being as a writer.

So for every movie review, my plan is to publish an essay or opinion piece, and a piece of short fiction or flash fiction, before publishing the next thing movie-related (which I plan to be a review of The Tragedy of Macbeth). I might be selective in where I publish what to, but they will all go somewhere. Possibly some will be printed out and hand delivered to neighbours. Old-school audience building.

With essays like this one, I mean them to be explorations of thought. Sketches, scribblings, snippets taken from facets of life and popular culture, and personal experience.

Which is to say, I don't mean this kind of writing to read as Verified life advice, self-improvement dogma, or such. It is not meant to sound like it comes from someone speaking from a place of (whatever kind of) authority.

It is documentation for my brain, journalistic musings, often fleshed out while I am writing, processing the words that found themselves onto the page, and editing, expressed as clearly as my foggy brain allows. And I might change my mind a week later after chewing over their ideological contents. I do that.

And that will suffice for the pre-amble. Onto the essay.


A thought I have been finding value in lately is about “making things pretty.”

At times, when our mental space is cramped, and the edges of our social feathers are distinctly frayed, or we simply feel like an ugly mess of inexplicable chaos and turmoil inside, a change of mindset is required to stay functional.

These are times we must embrace the ugly in the name of getting shit done. To forget about making things pretty, and focus on making it through.

There might be no energy available to make things “palatable,” or do them the nice way, and also do them. And only one of those things makes any sense to cut.

This ties in with a distinction between “energy” and “effort” I have found myself thinking about lately. Effort can be applied unconditionally, but energy varies wildly. We can’t always rely on being able to generate energy. The ability to apply effort can be relied on.

The point is to allow yourself to cut to the core and focus completely on the action and substance of things, driven by effort, ignoring form and appearance. A thought that may strike some as obvious. For others, to whom politeness and the value of appearances have become ingrained, this approach might seem foreign or uncivilised. Or, we might experience resistance to the notion generated more through the force of habit than disagreeing with the sentiment itself (Hey! That's me).

The problem is that all the niceties we come to associate with daily tasks, work, communication, socialisation, and so on, end up bound tightly to the thing itself. They are really two things.

During stressful times, or in depression, having these things bound together is not always going to work. They need to be separated, or trying to make things "pretty" — where "pretty" can just mean doing things within the parameters of what most people accept as "normal" — will block the shit out of you getting enough done to function.

So prune the branches of pretty, and harness the energy of the plant into protecting the survival of its core. And, yes: all human behaviour is actually a form of plant life. The metaphor works perfectly well.

With this concept in mind, I have recently been trying to get comfortable with my own ugly quirks, inabilities, and emotions. Forming a habit of applying simple and direct effort to work with them and through them. This bleeds into the concept of self love. I have found it useful.

To stop making things pretty, we need to stop feeling bad when they are not. If we feel bad when things can’t be done the pretty way, it creates resistance that will build and create more inertia. Instead, that resistance should be destroyed with healthy doses of "fuck it.” Not "fuck it" in the sense of doing things sloppy, or not doing them at all. “Fuck it” in the sense of getting on with it, regardless.

In the gloriously odd and wonderfully disturbing universe of Twin Peaks, Dr. Lawrence Jacoby implores his viewers to “shovel their way out of the shit.” It is his fictional shovels that are gold (only $29.99, get yours now), not the people who dig with them. The digging is ugly. The digger is mired in shit. The shovel, and the will to pick it up and apply the effort required, is beautiful — with a guaranteed two coats of paint.

Dr. Jacoby is something of a (fantastically) ridiculous character from the minds of David Lynch and Mark Frost, but underneath the surface of Lynchean absurdity is a damn solid message. It captures the essence of not making things pretty, but getting on with work in all of its ugliness. Getting your hands dirty and powering through, free from other concerns.

Thoughts of allowing things to be ugly were pushed to the front of my mind while attempting to make essential tasks and levels of productivity more depression proof. I've found it helpful in getting through lows (though obviously, it is not any kind of mental health solution in itself), but I think it also has the potential to strengthen genuine and authentic habits of expression, which have value at all times.

Shone through the lens of buddhist philosophy, which I find kindred though I am not buddhist in a formal or religious sense, allowing things to be ugly means eliminating desirious attachment to your appearance, words, and actions being perceived as attractive (whether physically or socially).

Detaching from this concern has a liberating quality that can create room to breathe, and motivate. It can free up energy to keep things moving when you need them to.

I tend to be cautious of philosophical thoughts being taken the wrong way, so I’ll add a further disclaimer: embracing the ugly and forgetting about making things pretty doesn’t mean embracing cruelty, abuse, or giving yourself a pass to lash out abusively with the negative emotions that can come into play during tough times.

There is a cultural trend of social sadism going around (which I have on my list to write about) that I find shitty and misguided, and I am loath to encourage any form of this kind of rotten-hearted “abuse people to make you feel strong” mentality. I am not referring to the ugliness of hurting others.

To stop making things pretty means establishing comfort in a kind of emotional neutrality, when your brain is screaming that it does not want to shift into other gears. It means allowing yourself to act unapologetically as an unemotional agent of action. And it means embracing doing things in an ugly way when that's what allows you to do them, focusing on the action separated from aesthetic considerations.

Apply maximum effort and work with whatever energies you find. It is okay to become an emotional robot for a while, as needs must. Robots are cool.

Being a human can at times feel like being a horrible, physical mess of bio matter. A clumsy or awkward, off-kilter disaster zone of skin and bones in motion, with nothing to glue it all together but a fiery lake of raw emotions, painful memories, and present stress. The reasons are infinitely varied, but the core of the experience has commonality.

The story is a sad one, told many times
The story of my life in trying times
Just add water, stir in lime
— R.E.M., How The West Was Won And Where It Got Us

If we find peace with the asymmetrical oddness and emotional ugliness of being human, we can look square ahead and apply effort in an effective way.

If you are not used to doing this, you will likely be surprised by how many people detect forthright behaviour that is driven by a desire to get results, and are good with it. And if they are not? Fuck it. Not your primary concern.

Ugly? Yep, but it is honest and fuelled by effort. Those qualities are not “pretty,” but they have their own beauty. A practical beauty. More valuable.

Keep things moving and focus on getting through the tasks at hand. In icy waters, keep swimming. It doesn’t need to be the butterfly stroke, and no-one is judging your form.

Get to the shore, robot.


James Lanternman writes movie reviews, short fiction, essays, and moonlit thoughts. Reach him at [email protected], or follow on Twitter.