Creative Work Is An Endurance Sport
AKA: Why it’s more fun to start things than it is to finish them.
I’ve got to tell you, I am having a great time right now. I’ve had this idea and the words are positively spilling out of me. You know that feeling where you’re typing slightly faster than you can because you’re afraid that you’ll miss one of the words pouring into your mind from some rich, unseen source? Yeah, I’m feeling something like that right now. Right now, I have everything under control, I know where this is heading, and everything is potential.
The second paragraph is more of the same. More or less. There’s the odd pause in the flow now, but it’s still basically smooth sailing. If I keep up this pace I’ll have a thousand words in 15 minutes or so, I’ll check for spelling and grammar, do a little polishing, and that’ll be that.
Is this self-referential style getting boring? I wonder if your attention is starting to drift, maybe you’re already skimming down the page deciding whether the rest of this is worth your time. Please don’t, there’s a structure here and you’ll ruin it if you skip ahead. I’m still not 100% sure what that structure is, and it’s getting harder to hold the image of it in my head now that the flow of words is slowing down, but we’re arriving at the meat of things now. You’ve got the basic idea, right? You understand the premise. So now it’s time to shift up a gear.
[I’ll be honest, the last line was meant to hype me up and inspire me to write something that would knock your socks off. I sat patiently in front of my laptop for a good twenty minutes waiting for that inspiration to arrive before I gave up and spent the next hour watching YouTube videos about this guy who picks locks. Then I had a nap. I briefly considered giving up on this entirely and writing something else, but then I decided that this is actually a very typical part of my creative process so I decided to roll with it. No more procrastinating. I’m going to sit here with my hands over the keyboard until I come up with something.]
…so I’ve decided to write this. I’ll concede that it’s not great but at least it’s honest and I didn’t want to stay still for any longer. The magic in writing is in the flow. Writing is like a car with one of those high-performance engines that get so hot they need a constant flow of air to stop them from overheating. Or maybe like a shark that can only breathe when it’s swimming and the water is flowing over its gills. What I’m saying is that writing needs to move, and sitting and thinking, is not moving.
The problem is, I can feel myself becoming more hesitant. I’m not sure where I’m headed anymore and driving at high speed isn’t nearly as exhilarating if you’re worried that you’re heading for a dead end. If the first paragraph was a wide-open highway, this feels more and more like a dark, narrow backstreet. I’m still going as fast as I dare, the engine still needs its oxygen, but I feel as if one wrong turn could see me stuck and out of fuel.
Ok, still here. To labour my car analogy even further, I can feel the engine beginning to sputter. Where has the crackle gone? Where is the zip? It’s slow going, I can only see a few inches in front of me. Jesus, I don’t even know where this stupid driving analogy came from but it’s taken on a life of its own. I’m leaning on it so heavily that I’m afraid it’s going to snap at any moment and take me with it. Still, you work with what you’ve got. So let me put it this way: all I want to do now is bring this car home in one piece.
This is the problem with writing — at least for me. The slide from “this is going to be amazing,” to “I hope I can find a way to come out of this with something decent.” All of the bubbling, crackling potential I felt in the beginning, has been solidified by the work that I’ve done, and it’s harder and harder to push through it or see where it’s all headed. Our metaphorical shark is swimming through gelatine instead of water. There’s no sign of the freedom that was there when I started. All the ways this could have gone have resolved into the way it has gone, and all I want is to feel that sense of possibility again.
Of course, that means starting something new instead of finishing this. Don’t think I haven’t thought about it. The rush of words that you get at the beginning of a new piece of work is addictive. But it only means anything if you stick with it through the slow trickle at the end. This is the problem with turning that potential into something real; things are only real when you finish them.
So here we are I’ve finished. Or at least I think I have. Not exactly the triumphant arrival that I hoped for but it rarely is. The tell the truth, it’s always difficult to tell whether I’ve reached the point I wanted to reach or I’ve given up and just written a final paragraph. I wish it was possible to still feel how I did at the beginning but I guess that’s like wanting to feel like a kid when you’re old and grey and your bones ache.
Actually, that’s a better analogy than the car thing. Each piece of work is like a life lived. You start out full of energy, bristling with potential, and as time goes by things get murkier and more ambiguous and the best you can hope for is that when you’re done, you can still recognise the seed of what you set out to do. You hope that in the end, you feel like you’ve learned something, like you managed to make a little sense of the world. And then, after it flashes past your eyes one more time, you move on.