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Stop Making It Pretty

On allowing things to be ugly in order to stay functional and keep things moving.

By James LanternmanPublished 2 years ago 6 min read

One 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 at university.

Time is limited and energy is finite, though, and when it comes to writing I feel the need to work using several mind muscles, and to express myself in different forms, to feel that I am functioning properly and being as a writer.

So for every movie review, I plan to publish an essay or opinion piece, and one Imperial Microgram of fiction, before publishing the next thing movie-related (which should be a review of The Tragedy of Macbeth). I might be selective in the platforms I publish to, but they will all go somewhere.

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

Which is to say, I don't mean them to read as Verified life advice, self-improvement dogma, or such. They are not meant to sound like they come from someone speaking from a place of (whatever kind of) authority. They are musings, often partially taking shape while I am writing them, and expressed as clearly as my foggy brain allows them to be.

And that will do for a 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 emotional 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 nicely, and also do them. And only one of those things makes sense to cut.

This ties in with a distinction between “energy” and “effort” that I have been 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 give yourself permission 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 blindingly obvious, to the point of not needing to be stated. For others, to whom politeness and the value of appearances have become ingrained, this approach might seem foreign or distasteful. Or, we might experience resistance that is 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 going to work. They need to be separated, or trying to make things "pretty" — where "pretty" can just mean making things be within the parameters of appearance or behaviour most people will 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, thank you.

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 self-love. I have found it useful.

And to stop making things pretty, we need to stop feeling bad when they are not. If we feel bad when things seem ugly, it will create resistance that will build and create 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 things at all, but in the sense of getting on with it.

In the 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 painted 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 superficial Lynchean absurdity is a damn solid message. It captures the essence of what I mean by not making things pretty.

Ideas of allowing things to be ugly came to the front of my mind while trying to make essential tasks and levels of productivity depression proof. I've found it helpful in getting through lows, but I think it also has the potential to strengthen genuine and authentic habits of expression in me, which have value at all times.

Shone through the lens of buddhism (a philosophy I find kindred, but don't practise in a religious or formal sense), allowing things to be ugly is about eliminating mental attachment to your appearance, words, and actions being perceived as physically or socially attractive.

The liberating quality of this detachment can provide motivation and room to breathe. Energy to keep things moving, focus on results, and take the rough with the smooth.

I am often 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) which I find shitty and misguided, and I am loath to write things that could encourage it.

To stop making things pretty means to me establishing comfort in emotional neutrality when your brain is screaming that it does not want to shift into other gears. It means allowing yourself to act as a neutral 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 of doing separated from aesthetic concerns.

Apply maximum effort and work with whatever energies you find. It is okay to become an emotional robot for a while. 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.

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.


About the Creator

James Lanternman

Short fiction, poetry, moonlit thoughts.

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