Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.
— W.H. Murray (often misattributed to Goethe)
A common saying in twelve-step groups is “Don’t compare your insides to someone else’s outsides.” Similarly, don’t compare your creative work-in-progress to someone else’s completed work. A thousand invisible decisions lie behind any completed project, including the repeated decision, moment by moment, to keep moving forward.
Unlike the healing process, I see the creative process as a journey, exploring an unknown landscape obscured by fog. The created work rarely matches the initial vision, since an essential part of creativity is the commitment to walk into the unknown.
Maybe you think you’re not creative because you never learned how to draw, or your childhood efforts met with harsh criticism. Maybe trauma has forced you to focus on survival, and creativity seems like a distant luxury. Maybe it does not feel safe to commit to a process you cannot fully control.
When creating something new, like walking into dense fog, you can only see far enough to make one decision at a time. Each decision requires exploration and possibly some false starts. When you do take a step forward the fog swirls and shifts, allowing you to see a new section of landscape to make the next decision.
Stories about other people’s creative processes can give you a rough map of the territory and help you focus on the next decision to explore. Seek out guides and supporters who encourage you to trust your own creative voice.
I have walked into the unknown every month for nearly three years writing these articles. Once, memorably, the topic, title, structure, and content flowed easily, and I found a perfect matching photograph two weeks early.
Usually, I struggle with one or more choices up to the day I send out the article. Back in English class, I was taught to create a structure and then start writing. In practice, a structure emerges halfway through the process, or I am rearranging paragraphs at the last minute. I changed the guiding metaphor of one nearly-completed article three times, finally returning to the one I started with.
Fear and anxiety
Each month, I wrestle with fear that the article will not come together, as well as anxiety about making my internal landscape visible. When my Inner Critic highlights boulders and roadblocks, I negotiate around them by giving myself permission to write a shorter, more personal, or more playful article than I originally intended. Once, she blocked the way so adamantly I changed course by including her voice. Her critical eye does help polish the articles at the end of the process.
I have learned to focus on a topic early in the month, giving me time to gather thoughts and experiences about it. I often notice related conversations in client sessions throughout the month. As W.H. Murray noted, beginning and commitment have their own magic
When I worry about finding a topic, my attention is on the fog itself, which remains impenetrable. When I say instead, “I wonder what topic I could write about,” soon enough ideas float up and I can choose one that feels open to development. Similarly, I receive answers to focused contemplation about “I wonder how I can structure this,” or “What would make a good example.”
Set time aside
Each article takes two days of solid work, so I look ahead in my schedule and set time aside to write. When the time arrives, it can be hard to find an initial foothold in the fog. Sometimes I start with an old-fashioned notebook and pen, especially on enticing sunny days. Sometimes ideas flow during a break for a bike ride or washing dishes. Sometimes I circle around with related tasks on the computer before finally settling in to write.
Accidental exposure to gluten or fragrances leaves me unable to focus for days no matter what I do. When that happens, I have learned to simply accept the delay and reschedule.
Once I am writing, the path through the fog is different every time. In some cases, it is a challenge to narrow the topic to article length, and in other cases I am surprised by what emerges when I need a couple more paragraphs. Sometimes I find myself writing part of a different article before returning to the one I am working on, and once the new topic took over entirely.
Pushing through doubt to find the next foothold, adding ideas and making decisions, I reach a turning point where a new article is visible through the fog and I can complete it with confidence. I feel relieved and proud of its unexpected shape every time.
You are creating
Do you have a creative work-in-progress, or one you’d like to begin? Sit with that question and see what bubbles up.
What decision can you can focus on next for your project? Listen for an answer as the possibilities sift through the back of your mind. Take notes. Ask again just before bed, first thing in the morning, or at the beginning of a walk. Notice what supports your creative voice and what interferes with it.
Even if you are creating nothing else, your life itself is a creative project. One decision at a time, you are making your way across an unknown foggy landscape. As you make friends with both your internal source of ideas and your ways of handling uncertainty, you can find relief and pride in each step you take.
“Bird by Bird” is Anne Lamott’s acerbic, funny, honest take on writing and life.