No More Back Broken: Thoughts on the Creative Process

by J.D. Roth

I’ve written a lot about building confidence and overcoming fear. It’s something I wrestle with all of the time. Despite all of the things I’ve accomplished, I’m always apprehensive about starting something new. People have liked what I’ve done in the past; will they like what I do in the future?

Via Andy, here’s an eleven-minute video that explores the fear and trepidation that all artists face as part of the creative process (and, yes, I just called myself an artist):

Give it some time. The video starts off talking about a joke, but eventually becomes a discussion of the creative process and the pains involved with it. It’s not earth-shattering, but it’s poignant.

I’ve done some reading recently about how artists struggle (and cope with their struggles). Why do super successful folks like Ernest Hemingway kill themselves? Why do some descend into addiction?

In Cheryl Strayed’s wonderful Tiny Beautiful Things, she shares some of the advice columns she wrote as “Dear Sugar” for a site called The Rumpus. One of the emails she answers is from a woman who is scared to become a writer. “I write like a girl,” says Elissa. She wants to know how she can move from being paralyzed with fear to becoming the writer she wants to be.

Strayed’s answer talks about her own struggles as a writer, about how she was afraid she was a failure when she hadn’t written a book by the time she was twenty-eight. (As most of us now know, she spent several months of that time hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.)

“I believed that I’d wasted my twenties by not having come out of them with a finished book, and I bitterly lambasted myself for that,” writes Strayed. She thought that she was “lazy and lame”.

Eventually, however, she “finally reached a point where the prospect of not writing a book was more awful than the one of writing a book that sucked.” And so, she wrote it. She describes the process:

When I was done writing it, I understood that things happened just as they were meant to. That I couldn’t have written my book before I did. I simply wasn’t capable of doing so, either as a writer or a person. To get to the point I had to get to write my first book, I had to do everything I did in my twenties. I had to write a lot of sentences that never turned into anything and stories that never miraculously formed a novel. I had to read voraciously and compose exhaustive entries in my journals. I had to waste time and grieve my mother and come to terms with my childhood and have stupid and sweet and scandalous sexual relationships and grow up. In short, I had to gain the self-knowledge that Flannery O’Connor mentions in that quote I wrote on my chalkboard. And once I got there I had to make a hard stop at self-knowledge’s first product: humility.

Do you know what that is, sweet pea? To be humble? The word comes from the Latin words humilis and humus. To be down low. To be of the earth. To be on the ground. That’s where I went when I wrote the last word of my first book. Straight onto the cool tile floor to weep. I sobbed and I wailed and I laughed through my tears. I didn’t get up for half an hour. I was too happy and grateful to stand. I had turned 35 a few weeks before. I was two months pregnant with my first child. I didn’t know if people would think my book was good or bad or horrible or beautiful and I didn’t care. I only knew I no longer had two hearts beating in my chest. I’d pulled one out with my own bare hands. I’d suffered. I’d given it everything I had.

I’d finally been able to give it because I’d let go of all the grandiose ideas I’d once had about myself and my writing—so talented! so young! I’d stopped being grandiose. I’d lowered myself to the notion that the absolute only thing that mattered was getting that extra beating heart out of my chest. Which meant I had to write my book. My very possibly mediocre book. My very possibly never-going-to-be-published book. My absolutely no-where-in-league-with-the-writers-I’d-admired-so-much-that-I-practically-memorized-their-sentences book. It was only then, when I humbly surrendered, that I was able to do the work I needed to do.

In the end, Strayed says, what matters is that you do the work, whether it’s shitty or not. To become the person you want to be, you have to “get your ass down onto the floor”. If you want to be a writer, you have to write. If you want to be fit, you have to exercise. If you want to be a better parent, you have to spend time with your children. You cannot succeed if you do not do the work required to succeed.

I think Strayed’s point is that you have to let go of all of the excuses and actually make things happen. And that’s the theme of the video I shared at the start of this post. In it, a musician shares a year-long litany of excuses for not writing a song…until on the last day of the year, he confesses that he hasn’t shared a song because he’s scared to do so.

Strayed’s advice to Elissa, who writes like a girl, is to become resilient and to have faith. To become a warrior and a motherfucker. To have strength and nerve. “Writing is hard for every last one of us,” says Strayed. “Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig. You need to do the same…”

“So write,” she concludes. “Not like a girl. Not like a boy. Write like a motherfucker.”

Do the work, and do it to the best of your ability. Do it despite your fears and insecurities. Put in the days and years of toil and labor. That’s the only way to overcome your fears — and the only way to become the person you want to be.

Updated: 07 January 2015

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