The Creative Process, and Why You Should Go On (Even If You Feel Bad)

There’s a numbered list that outlines the creative process going online, and it goes like this (edited slightly to remove profanity):

  1. This is awesome.
  2. This is tricky.
  3. This is bad.
  4. I’m bad.
  5. This might be okay.
  6. This is awesome.

The list is short, sweet, and very accurate. In broad strokes, it describes how the creative process brings the artist from one high end to the next, but giving the artist a seemingly insurmountable slump of dullness and disappointment halfway through. It’s like a fence or a mountain, getting higher and higher and harder to overcome, and eventually the artist – regardless of the discipline – opts to give up and start over.

A professor in my English department shared this list to my class the other day, as an introduction to how difficult it is to write. She is a writer, by the way, and lives her life every day dealing with the vicious cycle that is the creative process.

I’m bringing this up right now because based on experience, and from friends’ experiences, the individual tends to run smoothly through the process until they hit the slump. They reach the fourth stage and never come out alive, likely leaving the work unfinished and the artist inside unsatisfied. Of course this happens a lot, but creating is an uphill battle, a process that’s never easy. One does not cruise through writing with hair down and the sun shining brightly. A lot of challenges face the artist, but the artist’s biggest challenge is the self. Self-doubt and discouraged feelings come in at the fourth stage of the creative process, and this brings the artist down enough to put a stop to everything.

But, as with all difficult things, if you think you’re stuck in the fourth stage, don’t let it defeat you. It’s your own voice that’s telling you to give up, because at that stage of the process it seems as if your work cannot be saved. Don’t believe the nagging feeling inside, and push through the darkness. It will help if you’re constantly reminding yourself that you’re determined to finish the work, and that you wouldn’t want anything to go to waste. After all, far into the creative process, you’ve invested a lot of time and effort, and it’d be a waste not to see it through.

Granted, there are projects that aren’t satisfying when you go through them. However, it’s a thing I’d recommend. If you’re stuck in the slump, read through or look at what you’ve done so far. If you see progress, then that’s fine, that’s wonderful, go on ahead and defeat that thing telling you that you can’t do it. If you think it doesn’t possess any value whatsoever, take it to someone else so they can evaluate it. If they tell you it’s good, then pick it up again. Continue writing that story. Continue working.

Once you overcome that fence, you might start feeling okay about what you’ve done, and it’ll go back to the final stage. The thing is, though, the creative process is basically like this. If you let it defeat you halfway through, there will never be any output that you can be proud of. Everything will be half-finished, half-realized, and dumped in the “what-if” folder. So do your best to overcome the fourth stage – the lowest point – of the process, and everything will turn out fine.

Read next: when should you give up your creative dream?

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Solo Flights: Why It’s Healthy to Be Alone (Sometimes)

People say a lot of things about being with other people. “No man is an island.” “Humans are social animals.” “There’s no ‘I’ in ‘team’.” The world constantly stresses the importance of companionship and being with others. There’s stigma attached to being the lone wolf. One must be part of something in order to be legitimately connected to the world.

Of course, this is not an attempt to deny the importance of being connected with others, as there is a psychological need to feel connected. People are, to a certain extent, social animals, and one’s memories aren’t always made alone. But sometimes – maybe even a lot of times – being alone is better than being with others. It’s a necessity. It’s healthy. Especially if it involves the creative process.

There are several reasons why being alone helps when one is brainstorming, or trying to figure something out. I’ll form a parallel – most people can’t study effectively when it’s really hot, or when there’s a lot of noise in the background. External forces can be intrusive, sometimes dangerously so, and these can break concentration and studied thought. You’re on the cusp of processing something, understanding something – and then an annoyingly catchy commercial theme blasts in the background.

People can be disturbing forces, sometimes more so than any inanimate object. You’re in the middle of thinking of a plot twist, and you’re getting there – so, so close – and then suddenly someone asks you something so trivial. It’s frustrating, especially in the attempt of trying to recover a good thought.

Alone, with your own thoughts, the thought process can get wild and free. There are no restrictions, no influences that impose themselves on the thought process. One is open to think about ideas more than if there are people who constantly interrupt and disturb. It’s already hard enough to try to think about ideas and to make them coherent. It’s worse if people are there trying to steal your attention.

Apart from that, it is easier to organize thoughts when you are alone. Like I said, your attention is all on what you are thinking about, what you are working on, or what you are planning to work on. There’s no need to be influenced by unwanted influences, and it’s certainly less frustrating to be able to piece together a puzzle when it’s done alone.

The thoughts are, anyway, louder and more powerful when one is alone.

It’s useful to try to find a single place to meditate in, somewhere relatively isolated and quiet. A private space, preferably. Or, even just a private bubble in a public space. Being alone means shutting yourself off from the world – not completely, of course, but enough for you to feel a satisfying degree of solitude – and it can be achieved through several ways: jogging, sitting in your own little corner in a coffee shop, going to a garden or a park and observing everyone else, or just sitting in a quiet corridor in the school building.

Being alone, too, takes off the pressure in everything. While people say that things shine under pressure, it’s not fun to be pushed over and over again, especially where the creative process is concerned. Solitude is important, and let no one else tell you otherwise.

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If It Ain’t Broke: On Revising Old Creative Pieces

Writing is hard work, and finishing something and feeling satisfied about it is one of the most rewarding things a writer can ever experience. Questions of publishing and getting exposed are things that come after in the logical sequence of events, of course. Sometimes, though, there’s the tendency to get back to the work, and re-work it. On your own. No pushing from someone who’s edited it, no modifying because of the feedback received from friends and family. Just the incredible urge to edit it yourself, and with good reason: you’re not completely satisfied with what you’ve done.

If you have the tendency to do that, that’s okay. Chances are, you’re not alone.

The urge to modify your own piece will probably come when, for example, you dig up a few old poems or stories and find that they’re cringe-worthy things written by yourself from five years ago. In short, it’s embarrassing. Age and experience have tempered your vision, and that epic love poem you’ve written years ago – brilliant, then, absolutely brilliant – makes you sick. Or, you find ridiculously obvious plot-holes in short stories you’ve done.

It’s certainly tempting to go back and revise many things, especially when your life has gone to a different direction. However, I’m here to tell you that it’s wise not to discard the original. Revise it, sure, it’s okay. But to throw away the original is something I don’t advise. And I have a few good reasons for that:

  1. It acts as a time capsule of sorts. Old pieces written show you what you were thinking back then, what you were feeling, glimpses of what you were going through. Small things may be remembered just by going back to your old poems. Old struggles that probably seem trivial now were monumental then, and if you wrote them down, chances are you would still be able to remember how hard it was, preparing for that Math exam, or how nerve-wracking it was trying to pick out a major in college.
  2. It has its own value. Don’t invalidate the value of what you’ve written before just because you think it’s not good now. It’s important that you be able to judge your past work independent of what your work is now, or what that past work can be if it’s refined.
  3. It plots progress. Keeping old pieces, hiding them, and coming back to them later can help you plot your growth as a writer. It shows progress, or change, in how you write, what you write about, the lucidity of your language, and everything else that comes with the territory. There’s no reason not to look at old pieces just because they may be, at least your eyes now, “primitive” in essence and sentiment. Perhaps, more than just your growth in writing, it also can help you show growth in yourself as a person. So keep those things.

I’ll end this post by leaving you with a quote (and briefly putting it into context, of course):

“To pore over literary shortcomings of twenty years ago, to attempt to patch a faulty work into the perfection it missed at its first execution… all this is surely vain and futile… In order to correct [defects in the text], I should have to rewrite the book – and in the process of rewriting… I should probably get rid not only of some of the faults of the story, but also of such merits as it originally possessed.”

– Aldous Huxley, from his foreword to a later edition of Brave New World

Aldous Huxley says it best, I suppose. Though I do not deny that it’s a rather lengthy quote.

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A Creative Year In Review

It’s still a while before December, but the presence of the coming of the next year – and the ending of the current one – is something that can’t be denied. And sure, a lot of people are looking forward to 2015, but some like to look back and evaluate themselves. What did I do? What did I not do? Three-hundred and sixty five days sounds like a lot of time, and it’ll probably be overwhelming if you try to look back and see how many of those days were spent doing nothing. And doing nothing is okay, except it’s a little questionable if nothing is done over a rather long stretch of time.

Looking back is important, though. Self-evaluation counts if you want to do something different. And most of the time, the New Year means ushering in a “new you,” although that doesn’t always have to be the case. People change over time, but forcing change isn’t going to cut anyone a good deal.

Let’s see. Before the year ends, there are a few things you could do, in order to help yourself formulate what you can do for the next year. Especially if creative growth is your thing.

  • Look at your work over the past year, and see how it evolves over the few months, and how this corresponds to the things happening in your life. If you’ve been consistent in creating something – whether literary, visual, aural, or in whatever medium, really – there’s bound to be slight changes over the course of your work. Whether this is improvement on your part or not, only you can decide. If you’ve still been writing the same way or about the same thing as you did several months ago, you might want to think about that. Your muse gives you an inexhaustible fount of things to write, but writing about the same general subject might be stale.
  • Look at what new things you’ve gotten interested in. A year’s bound to expand your interests, right? See how you’ve incorporated these things in your creations, or look at how your new interests have inspired you in many ways. A good year means a good haul when it comes to what you’ve written, drawn, or done in general, and if your new interests are things that help you creatively, then that’s positive.
  • Look at the things you’ve worked on before Compare them, especially, to what you’ve done this year, and see how you’ve grown – or not grown, because that’s possible (and not something to worry too much about) – and if there’s anything you might want to improve and if there’s anything you might want to make less of.

I’ve been talking in rather vague terms, but I can’t really talk anything specific, especially since the type of advice I’m trying to give can be applied to pretty much anyone and anything. The thing is, though, it’s important to take time to have a quiet period of contemplation, to think about your art and to think about what you do. Looking back might even help you spark your creative drive and work on something new and do something remarkable. And maybe before the year ends, you can create something wonderful, as a last hurrah for the year.

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On Pieces of Advice

There are, no doubt, hundreds – if not thousands, maybe millions – of inspirational quotes scattered all over the Internet. This kind of advice is, of course, on just about any topic imaginable – love, friendship, school, work, what have you. Advice-giving is a sketchy thing, though. I’d assume the advice being given has worked for the advice giver, but there is never any guarantee that the same good thing will come out of anyone else following the advice given to them. Advice is useful, but it is never guaranteed. That’s why disclaimers exist.

The interesting thing is, I believe there is one piece of advice that will always, always work, even if other pieces of advice, and even if other suggestions, have failed and have dragged you down and made you miserable. And that piece of advice comes from one of the most brilliant writers of the century, the veritable rock star of literature – Neil Gaiman.

A brief introduction: Neil Gaiman is the creator of Sandman. He has written the following: Coraline, Stardust, American Gods, Neverwhere, The Graveyard Book, Good Omens (with Terry Pratchett of Discworld fame), and the short story collections Smoke and Mirrors and Fragile Things. He also, I believe, does not need an introduction past that, given that his track record is already very much impressive.

Neil Gaiman gave a speech to the graduating class of The University of the Arts back in 2012, and while the speech itself is well worth the read for the invaluable advice Neil Gaiman gives to artists of all persuasions, the entire message can be distilled into three profoundly moving words: make good art.

I am not here to elaborate on Neil Gaiman’s speech, or to parrot his words and make them appear as if I am the one giving you such valuable advice. Instead, I’m here to connect what I said earlier – that there is one piece of advice that will always work – to Neil Gaiman’s advice.

The thing is, “make good art” is useful precisely because it can act out its persuasiveness by pushing you to do something about anything bad that’s happened. That something is art, of course – art being anything written, drawn, or generally made by the self. Fall down the stairs? Write a poem. Failed a class? Paint something. Got turned down? Write a song.

I believe that “make good art” is not, in itself, a solution to any of the problems one is facing, but is instead a coping mechanism, something to channel all negative energy present in the system and turn it into something beautiful instead. If you’re the scientific type, think of it as something similar to the Law of Conservation of Energy.

It’s not solely for coping, even. Anything good happening in life demands some sort of documentation, and while pictures and diary entries are legitimate pieces of documentation (diary entries, especially, and most especially when they are revisited years later), great events can serve as fuel for good art. Especially if you’re happy. I’m not entirely sure about the science behind it, but – in vague terms – hormones or bodily chemicals, I believe, release adrenaline or endorphins, when something great happens. That’s a lot of energy that can be channelled right there, and what better way to transfer that than to make good art?

“Make good art” is my personal motto in life, simply because it’s the best non-religious piece of advice I know. And simply because, in my experience, it always works. I’ve made art – whether good or not remains to be seen – every time I felt down, wrote poems every time I felt anxious or incredibly happy about something, wrote stories every time something inspired me.

Now, my piece of advice to you – and it goes without saying that you should not rely on it too much – is to follow Neil Gaiman’s piece of advice. But “make good art” is such an excellent, all-encompassing piece of advice that negates the suspicious, uncertain nature of my piece of advice. Follow Neil Gaiman’s piece of advice.

Isn’t that quite paradoxical, though?


Some Possibly Useful Links:

As a university student and aspiring professor, I should not be linking you to Wikipedia pages, but one half of this list of links is a Wikipedia page. I apologize. (In my defense, it is about a scientific concept, and science is not my area – not that I’m saying I know absolutely nothing about science…)

The Law of Conservation of Energy / Neil Gaiman’s Keynote Address to the University of the Arts Class of 2012

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