Creativity Corner #6 — Creative despair

I was so psyched for Thanksgiving weekend. Not just for the turkey and stuffing, but for the FOUR DAYS of unscheduled time, most of which I planned to spend with this personal project I’ve been working on. And then I fell into the Pit. You know which pit I mean: creative despair. Nearly 350 years ago, writer John Bunyan called it the Slough of Despond. When a man falls into it, Bunyan wrote,

“there ariseth in his soul many fears, and doubts, and discouraging apprehensions, which all of them get together, and settle in this place; and this is the reason of the badness of this ground.”

Yes, this Thanksgiving in addition to turkey and stuffing I had a triple-helping of “fears, doubts, and discouraging apprehensions” about my writing. I’m sure Bunyan had them too, which is how he knew so much about the Slough of Despond—but he climbed out of it and published a book, The Pilgrim’s Progress, which has been in print continuously since the first edition in the 1670s. If you thought your work would have even half that long a life, you’d climb out of the pit and get back to work, wouldn’t you?

cover of Austin Kleon's book Keep GoingIf only it were that easy. I tried all the tricks I know: I called a writer friend and requested a pep talk. She reassured me and then we talked through what had thrown me in the Pit. I grabbed a book that’s been sitting on my shelf since its publication last spring—Austin Kleon’s Keep Going, excellent medicine for what ailed me. I turned to Dale Trumbore’s inspiring book about creation and anxiety, Staying Composed. I also went to movies and walked the dog and watched Law & Order: SVU marathons, and knitted.

And I wrote. For 15 minutes every single day, even when I definitely did not want to. Even if it was crap—which it mostly was. Even though every phrase I wrote seemed to say, in that taunting schoolyard lilt, “You’ll never solve your PROB-lem. You’ll never solve your PROB-lem.”

And then I did. I wrote something, partially inspired by my writer-friend’s pep talk, and I took it to my writing group and they agreed: it solved my PROB-lem. And I was out of the Pit and making progress once more.

I hate the Pit, but I know you can’t get to creativity without some creative despair. It’s inevitable. Climbing back out of the Pit is not inevitable, but only because so many people give up once they fall in. I knew that as long as I kept writing, I had a chance at getting out. And so do you.

Keep Going. It’s not just a good book, it’s great advice.

“Day of Utter Suckitude” — wisdom from composer Dale Trumbore

If you’d asked me before this morning, I would have told you that writing music and writing words don’t have much in common. For one thing, we word-writers have a whole lot more material to work with—26 letters in the Western alphabet vs. 12 tones in a Western scale. That’s 14 more things we get to play with and, well, if you want to know how many more combinations that gives us, you’ll have to ask a mathematician.

utter suckitude
Dale Trumbore, photo by Krysti Sabins (from Dale’s website)

What changed this morning? I read a piece my friend Dale Trumbore, the very talented composer, wrote about creativity. And every word in it rings true.

Before I even finished the first paragraph, I knew I wanted to write a blog post about Dale’s piece. Everyone who creates in any medium goes through what Dale calls the Day of Utter Suckitude, when everything you’ve created seems like crap. On those days, I even hate the punctuation. I’d bet Dale even finds faults with the rests.

The important thing to remember is that the Day of Utter Suckitude isn’t the entire creative journey, just like McDonald’s rest rooms aren’t your entire road trip. You get to look at prettier things along the way, too—the back roads, the quaint inns.

Can you tell I spend far too much time on Rt. 95? And, yes, sometimes it feels like my entire day is just one McDonald’s rest stop after another. I remember one quick round-trip from Massachusetts to New York when I was so sick of driving that the only thing that got me back in the car was realizing that the alternative was spending the rest of my life in a McDonald’s.

And that’s what bounces creative people out of our Days of Utter Suckitude.