If there is one thing you take away from this post about how to become a better writer, it’s this: You are not alone in your habit of starting projects, but not finishing them.
You are not the only poor soul that has struggled year after year, longing to see something through, but somehow getting distracted or discouraged along the way. You are not the only person who hampers their own ability to become a better writer because you run into walls that seem like they weren’t there a second ago.
I mean, this happens to me about once a day.
Comparison Trap! *discouraged*
Dog with Weird Lumps That Need to Be Checked Out by Vet Immediately! *distracted*
The truth is, creativity is nothing more than one big killing field. Some people walk off it; others don’t.
But the defining factor in whether or not you end up a good writer misunderstood. We naturally assume that the people who walk off are “good,” whereas in actuality, those who do so just didn’t quit. They … I don’t know, never succumbed to the twin swords of distraction and discouragement? This killing fields metaphor has clearly slipped its leash and taken on a life of its own, so I’ll go ahead and stop there.
That’s not to say distraction and discouragement are the only detractors from successful completion of a project. They’re not (though they sure are high on the list). Being cramped for time, wanting to give your attention to other important facets of life (children, ski trips, vaccinations, whatever) or hitting a plain ol’ creative block can all cause us to skid.
The trick is to steer into that skid by recognizing why you started that project in the first place, grabbing hold of that reason and keeping it near and dear to your heart. Then, even if you have to take a break and deal with donuts or dog eye medicine, you can keep that bright light burning and come back to your project in the end.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
If you want to become a better writer, the first step is to ask yourself:
Just why do we start projects?
Where does that creative urge come from, the one that fills us with such hope and happiness and frenzied planning … only to abandon us later on, when we lose faith and give in to procrastination and suddenly find ourselves sitting in a corner of the bedroom, scrolling through pictures of a young Errol Flynn and trying to decide whether or not he’s hot. (The jury is still out on that, by the way. It’s actually very confusing for me. There are a lot of feelings.)
Errol Flynn is not the only confusing factor here, though. The creative urge is pretty confusing as well.
If you’ve ever wanted to write, illustrate, compose, play guitar, make jewelry out of recycled materials, construct found object sculpture or start a business dedicated to providing short-haired dogs with desperately needed wigs (we can’t all be Lhasa Apsos!), you understand the complex nature of the creative urge.
On the one hand, it can feel great. The excitement of planning a new project is so intense. The feeling that this – yes, this – is the answer you’ve been looking for is so strong. When output is impressive and morale is high, all is rosy.
But then there comes the much-dreaded comedown, with its attendant feelings of perplexity, doubt, self-loathing and despair. Which is equally fun.
For most of us, there’s no distinct transition from one to the other. Sometimes the inciting incident is obvious: a disparaging remark about your work, a disinterested friend, a rejection letter. (None of which you should pay attention to, by the way, as I discuss in Get the Hell Over It: How to Let Go of Fear and Realize the Creative Dream.) More often, though, you just wake up one day not sure where that enthusiasm went, and what you should do now.d
Which begs the question: Is inherent creativity really worth anything on its own? With such a fickle brain, what is even the point of the creative urge?
As to the second question, I truly have no idea. It’s just there, making us miserable loads of the time, and we have to deal with it if we want to be happy. #toughlove
To the first, I believe the answer is “no.” Just like innate talent, creativity alone is not worth nearly as much as we think. The urge to create you feel at a beginning of a project is a great motivator, and generally speaks to an inner spark you’re lucky to have – but without follow-through, you won’t go far.
At its root, procrastination is simply a manifestation of this lack of follow-through, inherent in so many of us. Once the excitement dies and the drudgery sets in, it’s hard to understand why we wanted this in the first place. Sooner or later, we inevitably ask: Where the hell did the desire to start this accursed project even come from?!
I’ll sum up the main conclusion: No one effing knows.
The problem? When you start asking these questions, your ability to practice and actually become a better writer pretty much goes out the window.
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With that out of the way, many people have tried to illuminate this. In his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink argues that we are actually far more motivated by self-determination and creativity than we ever could be by money or punishment. His book covers less the origins of creativity, and more the idea that it is a fundamental human urge about which we care very, very much indeed.
In a TED Talk, Elizabeth Gilbert opines that it is our daemon, an idea she borrowed from Socrates, who believed an incorporeal spirit spoke to him, offering wisdom. Gilbert elaborates, building upon this idea with the reflections of other philosophers and artists and making what I believe to be a solid argument: that the creative urge basically “passes through” our neck of the woods, and we can either grab it or not.
She tells a story of having an idea and not acting on it, then seeing that very same idea pops up in another author’s work shortly after. (In truth I don’t remember if this was her own story or one she borrowed from someone else, and while I will watch this TED Talk again, I’m not going to do so today. Suffice it to say, it’s a good story.)
The idea that thoughts are not ours, but rather lent to us is a compelling thought. I don’t know whether or not it’s true, of course. (I don’t yet know all the secrets of the Universe, after all, just more than most. (Winky face. (Intended to connote sarcasm, in case you weren’t getting it. (In real life, I’m actually surprisingly modest.))))
The unprovability of this highly metaphysical idea aside, it points to an important conclusion: If we’re lucky enough to have a great idea, we bear almost a responsibility to that idea to see it through. Procrastination, thought about this way, is more than letting yourself down. You’re letting down the idea – which may or may not find a home in another creative – as well as the entire human race.
Yes. All of us. You jerk.
The takeaway? Creativity is everywhere. It’s what we do about it that counts.
With so many people in the world lacking in follow-through, that makes it even more possible for you to succeed – if only you can grab your creative ideas and hang on tight.
Like, Ironman grip tight.
Hulk fist tight.
Thor’s hammer tight.
Okay, that last one really isn’t applicable. Although Mjölnir does return to him with impressive alacrity.
Whether or not we ever figure out where creativity comes from and what it means, the fact remains that when we are visited by it, the experience is a powerful one, sometimes almost religious in its intensity. If you know what I’m talking about, this blog is definitely for you.
And if this blog is for you, then I’m betting you’re also very familiar with the urge to put off a project when it starts to scare you, to shelve it when you hit a roadblock, to hide it in a drawer when the first fingers of doubt start to creep in. Which, usually, they do quite early.
The good news is that, like everything else in life, you can practice overcoming your fear and denying your desire to put off a project. You can beat procrastination simply by saying “no” to it and sitting down at your desk/workspace/patio/yacht/whatever. (OMG, do you seriously have a yacht??)
It is actually pretty simple.
That’s not to say it’s easy, however. Oh, my, no. It is one of the most difficult skills for any creative to master. When it’s your superego versus your id, the fight is bound to be a bloody one, and if you’re like most, El Id usually comes out on top.
Don’t let that happen. Remind yourself that, if you want to become a better writer, you have to work. Creativity might seem random, but the toil that brings it to life and fruition are not random. Understand that your brain is working against you. Work hard and say no to procrastination, and you’ll go farther than you ever thought possible.
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