The thing about looking at a finished, beautiful piece of art (or reading a published story, or watching a play, or listening to a song on the radio) is that it’s finished. And beautiful. And most of the time, we don’t see how it got that way. Artists of all ilks talk about the creative process, and while sometimes it sounds a little messy, it also always sounds (when someone else is engaged in it) cool, energized, inspired, adventurous.
Recently I was talking to a friend about the problems I’d had bringing a particular creative project to fruition. She was surprised I’d had so much trouble. I asked her why, and she said, “I don’t know. I guess I always assume that it’s easier for everyone else than it is for me.”
I started to point out the silliness of that, but then I realized I do it too. I even know better, and yet I still assume that everyone else’s creative process is more orderly, more inspired, more magical, heady, joyous, divine, graceful, intuitive than mine; it’s not like that’s a high bar to surpass. While I do occasionally dip into those rarefied realms, most often the word that best describes how all my stuff gets done is doggedness.
That’s it. No angels, no breathtaking vision, no absolute certainty that I’m on the right path, just dogged determination to finish.
Since I suspect my friend and I aren’t the only ones assuming the absolute shiny best of everyone else’s creative process, I decided to doodle mine for you. I’m thinking, if nothing else, it’ll make you feel better about yours.
- The big, sparkly, insistent idea arrives out of nowhere, takes me by the lapels, shakes me awake, and demands I get to work.
- I clear away all the lesser items on my to-do list, and get to work
- I work (and work, and work).
- And then there’s a moment – just before the moment of suckitude – when I first start to notice that the image in my head and the image on the paper aren’t matching up.
- Before you know it, it’s full-on suckitude. I can see that what I’m making is a mess, not art, and I wonder why I thought this was a good idea in the first place. Or maybe I know it’s a good idea still, but I wonder what ever made me think I could pull it off. Then I think of all the people who could do this better than I can. The list is long. It includes everyone I’ve ever met.
- At this point, I have to walk away. If I don’t, I’ll end the process right there: tear up my work (or hit the delete key if I’m writing) and throw it away. I’ve done it before. On the good days, though, when the process is working, I don’t do that. Instead, I walk my dog, or yoga myself silly, or do laundry, or plant things, or hike, or meet up with someone I love. I don’t usually bake extravagant 7-layer cakes, but you never know. It could happen. The main thing is, sometimes the walking-away process takes a long time.
- Eventually, though, I come back. I look at the big, ugly mess of an idea and I think maybe I can see it, the little bit of shiny peeking out from all the yuck… if I squint, and tilt my head just so…
- I get back to work, having passed through the moment of creative suckitude for the gazillionth time (and I use the word “moment” loosely here, it can take hours, days, weeks), and I work until I finish. It’s best, of course, when I love what I create, but even when I don’t, the finishing is its own kind of awesome because I know, even if no one else does, how many gremlins had to be slain in the process.
It’s not always pretty, but I like what Stephen Pressfield says about artists and the act of creation:
We’re in till the finish. We will sink our junkyard-dog teeth into Resistance’s ass and not let go, no matter how hard he kicks. Is there a spiritual element to creativity? Hell yes.
Is there a place for straight up, unromantic doggedness in the magic that is the creative process?