Nancy: Creativity Is Hard Work

Me, every writing day. Often, I am pushing the same damn boulder I’ve been pushing for weeks or months.

Last week, I had a conversation with a very creative person in a field other than writing. (Yes, it turns out there are creatives in the world who are not writers! I, too, was surprised.) We were discussing “living the dream.” Which is, apparently, what I, as a full-time writer, am doing. My creative friend, still working the day job, is not. And he had thoughts about that.

Actually, he has dreams of his own, which are wonderful things! He also has some misconceptions about what my day-to-day life of dream-living entails.

For those of you who have not met me IRL, I should explain that I have no poker face. Ergo, I could not hide my shock, dismay, and perhaps even amusement at his idea of my life. And while I have my own dreams of spending my writing days frolicking with unicorns and sliding down rainbows while the Best Story Ever Written magically appears on my computer screen, I’ve only had two, maybe three days tops, when unicorns have appeared. And those might or might not have involved whisky. That is to say, this dream gig is hard.

Is this the hardest job I’ve ever had? It’s an apples-to-oranges comparison. There was that time when I was fourteen and took a summer job at a vet’s office for sub-minimum-wage pay. After just a few days there, I was tasked with holding onto a wonderfully excited, happy, tail-wagging furball of a dog while he got his shot. No one told me that shot was sending him off to the dog park in the great beyond until after he died in my arms.

And there was the was the 80+-hours-a-week grind of a job wherein I spearheaded a project that won the company billions (that ‘b’ is not a typo) of dollars of work, only to have my very supportive and competent boss replaced by a VP’s buddy who had lost his job elsewhere in the company. As the new boss didn’t understand how to do my job and that was threatening to him, he spent his first few months making the lives of all of us who had been winning huge contracts hell, until most of us resigned to save what was left of our sanity. And there were many other jobs and thousands of long, hard days along the way, even if they didn’t quite rise to the level of awfulness that is doggie death and management-level abuse.

What I attempted–and, I’m afraid, failed–to explain to my friend was that writing full-time is among the most difficult things I’ve ever done. It’s spilling my guts onto the page, bleeding out every word, sometimes spending hours or days on a scene or even just a passage that doesn’t make it through the first round of revisions. It breaks my heart and reminds me of my own feeble humanity every time I do it.

It seems so unfair! This is supposed to be the dream, not another shitty, soul-crushing job. To quote Sheryl Crow, “If it makes you happy, then why are you so sad?” And some days, let me tell you, I am SO SAD. But here’s the rub: those tough times are features of the creative process, not bugs. To share art with the world means to share yourself. And sharing yourself requires blood sacrifice, guts on the page or canvas or track, and more than a few pieces of your soul.

It’s no surprise, then, that the bad times when you’re creating feel so personal, so painful, perhaps worse than difficult patches in other areas of your life.  A few years ago, Chuck Wendig wrote an awesome post about the bad days in a writing career, and boy howdy, will there be bad days! To quote Wendig:

The first thing you need to know is that:

Bad writing days — or, if you’re an artist, bad art-making days — are normal.

They are part of it. They are woven into the fabric of what we do.

In fact, writing is supposed to be hard. Easy things are boring things. Easy is like, putting on lip balm, or making a pot of $0.19 grocery store ramen. Those are not bad things, but they are not particularly consequential things, either. Nobody changed the world by putting on lip balm.

I hope my less-than-glowing discussion of the dream job prepared my friend for the reality of the hard days, and also for the inevitable failures. Imposter syndrome is real. So is failure-delusion syndrome (my spiffy, made-up term), wherein every tiny setback feels more monumental and consequential than all of our achievements and successes put together. Again, Chuck Wendig has shared some truths about recognizing success and celebrating progress that doesn’t appeart to be happening in another of his posts. Here he talks about his own sense of failure even after much success:

I am wont to describe myself sometimes as a failed novelist. Which seems strange, of course, because I’ve published over 20 novels with a handful more on the way — which would seem like the earmark of success. I’m a NYT-bestselling author, to boot, which again would maaaaybe suggest that success has been met, good job, go me, self-high-five. But I also wrote my first novel at 18. And wrote four more that were execrable. And tried to write countless others, all of which litter the earth behind me, a wake of Story Corpses and Book Carcasses whose lives were ended prematurely when I abandoned them. Given that I didn’t have my first novel published until 2012, when I was 36 years old, I had far more years under my belt as a failed writer-of-books than as a successful one.

Maybe it’s the girl scout in me that never grew up, but I always want to be prepared. And I want my friend and anyone else planning to “live the dream” to brace themselves for reality. Another article that might help is one written by Ayodeji Awosika. He wrote this post because:

Encouragement helps, but sometimes a cold splash of truth is what it takes to get people in motion.

It might seem like I’m playing devil’s advocate, being the little raincloud that could, or attempting to stomp on perfectly good fantasies. That’s not my intent! I don’t want to discourage my friend or other creative types from pursuing their dreams. Quite the opposite: I want creators to embrace those pie-in-the-sky hopes and dreams. But I want each of us to succeed, however we define success, which more often than not means sticking with the damn dream even on those days we think it might kill us. Knowing the bad days are coming, we can plan ahead, have a support network and survival strategy in place, and ride the lows until things get better.

Because here’s one last thing I want my friend to know: yes, I am living my dream! Not because I’m a superhero. Not because I’m a writing ninja. Not because I’ve tripped over a rainbow and tumbled into a clover field of success. But because I’ve prepared for the bad days and toughest disappointments, and learned to recognize and embrace the better days and smallest victories.

And I also want to send him a bottle of whisky, because everyone should spend a day with unicorns every once in a while.

4 thoughts on “Nancy: Creativity Is Hard Work

  1. Great post! It’s easy to hear someone else say, “It’s hard work!” or “There’s a REASON why it takes me a year to write a book.” It’s really, really hard when you are on day 55 of the long slog, and it’s so hard, and it really is taking a lot of time to get this finished. It’s useful to hear someone else say, “It’s hard.” That means it’s not just my failing; it also means that someone is failing but overcoming it, so why not me, too?

    The first failure starts when we refuse the challenge. If we continue to refuse, it becomes the last failure, as well.

    Thanks! I think I needed to hear this!

  2. I feel you’re spending much too much time with your unicorns since you’ve confused having a dream job with hard work. What you should tell your friend is ‘Yup, I have life by the balls because I get to create worlds where unicorns can run free and a person’s imagination takes flight — and I get paid to do it. Oh, don’t get me wrong, dear friend, there are days when I’m bloody from the cuts I’ve had to inflict to get the words to flow, but I wouldn’t trade this job for any other in the world. Writing is what I am and I love it. Here, have a drink and let’s brainstorm how we can get you to your unicorn place.’

  3. A number of years ago there was a non-fiction bestseller called The Road Less Traveled. Written by M. Scott Peck, the premise was that life is hard. He said people, for some reason, expect life to be easy, and when it’s not they feel outraged. He said if you start with the idea that life is going to be hard, then any day that’s not hard feels like a gift.

    I think the same principle applies to doing creative work. Expect it to be hard, and on the rare days when the words flow and you get a little juice, celebrate!

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