I recently read Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic, as well as binged on her podcast. She writes about the process of creativity and the feelings that accompany it, like self-doubt, resistance and fear. I am not an artist but the content is relevant to anyone who ever struggled to write a blog post, create a talk, or even commit to regularly working on a software project and releasing it to the world.
Do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures that are hidden within you?
Creating something new is scary. The outcome is uncertain. There are no predefined steps to follow, and no way to verify if the result is good enough. After it’s done, you might not know how you did it, or if you can do it again.
There’s the fear of not being good enough. You want to do something, but instead of starting you’re thinking: Who am I to talk about this topic? What if I have nothing worthy to say? What if someone else already did it better? What if I embarrass myself and everyone I know finds out and laughs at me?
Now here is the thing about fear: fear is boring. Fear is the same every day. And it’s the same as everyone else’s fear. It only knows how to say one sentence: “STOP!”. And it predictably leads to the same result: nothingness.
Elizabeth describes how her fear goes together with her creativity. You can’t just kill the fear and keep the creativity. Instead, she suggests to make room for it, plenty of room. Feel the fear, bring it along to your creative journey. It’s ok for the fear to exist. The more space you give it, the less it resists. However you’ll be in charge of making the decisions, not the fear.
The reaction doesn’t belong to you
On podcast ep. 209 Elizabeth brings up that somehow in this culture there’s the misconception that you’re not allowed to create anything until you’re already good at it. She’s known people who are addicted to taking classes in the thing they want to do, people who do the thing but refuse to show it to anyone, people who collect material but can’t bring themselves to doing it.
How can you get yourself to just do the thing? Her guest, writer Glennon Doyle has this to say:
All I had to do was what I promised myself. Show up, put my butt in a chair, type the words and press post, no matter what.
The other vow to myself was: put your stuff out there but you’re not gonna babysit it. You’re not gonna follow it around and make sure that everybody likes it, and when somebody misunderstands it write back to that person and explain yourself.
That’s not your job!
Because so many people that I see quit this, they don’t quit because they’re not artists. They quit because they’re not lawyers. They don’t quit because they didn’t like making the thing. They quit because they can’t handle defending the thing. Which is never their job. Don’t think of your art as your baby, because if you consider your art your baby you have to freaking follow it around and babysit it.
So, you’re thinking about the art. You’re thinking about what you want to make. And then you’re making it. There is no after. You just release it and then you’re back at the beginning again.
There is no after! What a liberating idea. Elizabeth writes something similar in Big Magic. She promised to herself that she’ll show up and write. Not that it would be great writing. Other people are going to react how they like. They are going to pigeonhole you, stick you into boxes: a genius, a fraud, a wannabe, an amateur. It doesn’t matter in the least. Let other people have their opinions. More than that, let people be in love with their opinions just like you and I are in love with ours. But never think that you require somebody else’s blessing or understanding to do your own work.
I got letters saying, I detest everything about you, and I got letters saying, You have written my bible. Imagine if I’d tried to create a definition of myself based on any of these reactions. I didn’t try... The results of my work don’t have much to do with me. I can only be in charge of producing the work itself. That’s a hard enough job.
A popular piece of advice is “Don’t compare yourself to others, only compare yourself to your past self”.
Elizabeth tells the story of Harper Lee, who wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, which found phenomenal success. She wrote nothing for decades afterwards. In an interview she said “When you’re at the top there’s only one way to go” and “I’m scared” about the prospect of writing another book.
Imagine the pressure of having to top each successful thing you do. This thinking assumes that you must be constantly on top, not only against your peers but also against your past self. Even worse, this thinking assumes that if you cannot win then you must stop playing.
But what about the joy of learning, the quiet glory of just making things and sharing them without expectation?
Elizabeth wishes Harper Lee had kept writing, that after her Pulitzer she had churned out five cheap and easy books in a row. Imagine what might have come out of them even accidentally. At the very least she could have tricked the world into forgetting that she had once been Harper Lee. She could have tricked herself into forgetting that she had once been Harper Lee and then be free to create without the expectation to be the best.
Practical advice to get unstuck
On podcast ep. 207, Elizabeth advises Britta, a former lawyer-turned writer. Britta wrote a successful first book, but now struggles to make progress on the second. She worries that it won’t be as good, and that she might only have had one book in her.
This is the advice that she was given:
First, take a break. For a month you’re forbidden to write. See if you miss it.
On the second month get yourself an hourglass or an egg timer – the most important tool in an artist’s toolbox. Your task for that month is to sit and write for an hour a day, no more, no less. If the hourglass is running you have to be sitting there. If it’s finished you have to give up, even if you’re in the middle of a sentence. This is gonna leave you with a whole bunch of free time for the rest of your day. For this hour you’re typing.
By the third month you’re going to be writing again, I promise you. When you take off the pressure that you have to be sitting there until it’s good, you write a lot better. It liberates you from that thing where you sit at your desk for eight hours hating yourself. No, when your time is up you’re free to go.
Perfectionism stops you from finishing your work. Also from starting it.
Perfection is a concept that does not exist in real life. We create things having limited time, limited resources, limited energy. Letting go of perfection does not mean you stop caring. You do the best you can do, today. Not the best that can be created ever.
It is a paradox: you need to care, care enough to commit to doing the thing and put in your best effort. You also need to take it lightly, not care, enough to be able to tolerate the imperfection, release it and move on.
Neil Gaiman is a guest on podcast ep. 207 and shares some of his ideas on perfectionism:
Perfection is like chasing the horizon, you will never reach it. At some point you have to be willing to say that it’s good enough for jazz, and let go. And let go in the hopes that you’ll be perfect next time.
I don’t know who was it who described a novel as a long piece of prose with something wrong with it. For me that is the best possible definition of a novel. Which means whatever I do I will have created a long piece of prose with something wrong with it. Here is my novel, maybe next time I’ll get it right.
At the end of the day, the only thing perfect is a blank page, untouched with nothing on it. And if you are questing for perfection you’re gonna leave that blank paper blank and untouched, but it’s now perfect.
And to quote Elizabeth Gilbert:
A good-enough novel violently written now is better than a perfect novel meticulously written never.
Done is better than good.
Why it’s worth it
So, creativity is scary. It requires you to hang out with your fear. To push through the times when you think it’s all bad and really want to stop. Why go through this?
I, for one, don’t have a better way to spend my life. Sitting in the safey of doing nothing gets old. Following my curiosity, using my skills and making things is worth the discomfort.
I think there is something inside me and I want to find it.