The Dark Side of Creativity
Like many of the stories I tell, this one begins with an enlightening conversation over get-to-know-you coffee.
It was Tuesday morning. Arguably the most depressing day of the week — the buzz of Monday gone, the weekend still lightyears away. It seemed fitting that our conversation drifted toward the morbid topic of dead projects — those that seemed so promising at their start, only to find themselves later abandoned in a fragmentary state.
As we commiserated about our latest endeavors, my companion pulled a library book from her bag — Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist. She opened to a bookmarked page and enthusiastically showed me a chart, one I had hung on my wall years ago, but had since forgotten:
The lifecycle of a project — creative or not — will reliably, depressingly, march through each of these stages. When you start something new, your brain is flooded with dopamine (the feel good hormone released during sex), but as time passes, the chemicals wear off. Ultimately, there’s nothing but sheer willpower to push the project forward, and often, that’s not enough.
We have biologically evolved to fail.
The beauty of a weekly blog post is the short project lifecycle. I come up with a topic on the weekend, write the article in a few hours during the week, and then post the following Monday. On a timescale so protracted, the “dark night of the soul” may only last a few minutes.
As a project’s timeline grows, so too does the “dark night of the soul.” It can increase from minutes to hours to weeks or even months.
And what happens when you can’t escape? When you’re sucked in beyond the event horizon?
Even the Most Exciting Ideas Eventually Suck and Get Boring
“It is a lot better to have written a book than to be actually writing one. Without attempting to overdo the drama of the difficulty of writing, to be in the middle of composing a book is almost always to feel oneself in a state of confusion, doubt, and mental imprisonment, with an accompanying intense wish that one worked instead at bricklaying.”Joseph Epstein
Last September, as I finished my first book, Improv ABC, I already had a follow up in the works. A few friends asked what aspect of improv it would cover, but I was ready to leave the subject behind. I had said what I needed to say, and the book proved a nice capstone to my education.
This time, I would tackle a brand new topic — the creative process.
I eagerly started the new book during a three-week vacation. Each morning, I’d wake up around 8:00 AM, walk the dog, and hole up at Blueprint Coffee to write until lunch. I was making quick progress, and I believed the book would offer valuable advice to anyone feeling stuck in the creative process.
Little did I know, I would be the one needing that advice more than anyone else.
Once my vacation ended, progress slowed. I made a commitment to finish the rough draft before the end of January, and while I met my self-imposed deadline, I did so with less vigor and less attention to quality than I would have liked. My friend Brian gave the book some tough love, and I spent the next two months rebuilding it from the ground up.
But much like the story of John Henry — an African American folk hero who outraced a steam powered hammer only to kill himself in the process — my creativity died during two months of rewriting. I succumbed to the “intense state of confusion, doubt, and mental imprisonment.”
I have not recovered.
The Dark Night of the Soul Rises
Writing is not a process of transferring fully formed thoughts from your head onto paper. Writing is, first and foremost, a process of discovery.
I mentioned before that when I released Improv ABC, I felt like I had discovered what I set out to discover about improv. The end of the book was the end of my study. With my newest venture, I have that feeling right now — a feeling of “been there, done that” well before I’ve reached the finish line.
When you stop discovering, writing stops being fun.
I’ve started to feel like the advice I share in this upcoming book and in my recent blog posts has much in common with Mexican food — it’s just three simple ingredients (rice, beans, and meat) in a different wrapper (and sometimes with guac). Instead of rice, beans, and cheese, with creativity writing, you get:
- Work hard
- Set time aside to do the hard work
- Share your work throughout the process and when it’s done
As much as I love Mexican food, when you eat it for months straight, it gets pretty old pretty fast.
The Light at the End of the Tunnel
I share all of this to dispel any sort of façade I’ve created around my own creativity. I know that from reading a few of my weekly articles, it can seem like I’ve got it all figured out. Like every morning, I wake up refreshed and eager to work on my projects. Like every day is sunshine and rainbows.
That couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Of course it feels great to hold up a published book and say, I made that, but the months leading up to that moment are never easy and rarely “fun,” at least not in the way that playing video games is fun. Most days, I have to be incredibly disciplined and/or set traps for myself (like publicly committing to sending out a weekly newsletter) so that I can make forward progress. But sometimes, even that’s not enough.
And when that’s not enough, I don’t really know what to do.
What I do know, though, is that I can’t stop. I’ve made a promise to all of you to keep writing, and I’ve made that same promise to myself. Ironically, I have to swallow my own medicine and use the process I’ve been writing about for four months to finish my book about that same process.
This week, I don’t have four quick tips to help you become an amazingly creative person presented in a trendy listacle format. This week, all I have is honesty.
Hopefully, for today, that is enough.
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