I was going to write this article about something else. As I huffed my way through the 90 km trek to and from Annapurna Base Camp in Nepal, I thought, The most important thing I’ve learned about creativity is that, when it’s all said and done, your excuses don’t mean shit and you just have to shut up and do the thing you’re scared of, period.
Don’t wait until you’ve got your baggage sorted out; just set it down for long enough to bring something into the world. Treat your excuses like a sweaty backpack. You don’t have to give them up for good; you just have to put them down for long enough to complete something.
Yes, I thought, feeling self-righteous as I hauled myself up step after steep stone step: That’s the most important lesson I’ve learned.
But then, in that frame of mind – the mind of the drill sergeant, the mind of the horse-whipping rider – I got back to Kathmandu and sat down to work on a short story about an ugly girl who unwittingly trades bodies with a beautiful one.
And I had a helluva time. I made up every excuse I could think of: I’m too tired; our friends are only here for a few more days; I have a cough.
Recognising my hypocrisy, I thought, Just do it, stupid, and told myself I’d set a timer for an hour and write until it went off. I wasted several minutes choosing a new tone for the alarm before finally pressing “Start”.
It was a long hour. As my pen scraped across the page, the mean voice in my head yelled, “This is atrocious! Your ideas are garbage! This is the most derivative dungpile I’ve ever seen! Please, for the love of God, quit. Quit, quit, quit, quit, quit, quit, quit.”
Shut up, I told it. I’m trying to write. The voice went quiet, and the ink flowed a little more freely until the hour was spent. Later that afternoon, I sat down again and tried to write this post.
Nothing came. The mean voice was still silent, but this time, I felt like there was a giant pile of sludge blocking the pipeline of ideas in my brain. I stared across the table on the sunny patio of our guesthouse in Kathmandu for several minutes before giving up.
Perhaps I need to reconsider my subject, I thought. I’d wanted to write about the most important creativity lesson I’d learned so far. I’d thought it was “Quit your whining and get on with it,” but my apparent inability to write that post made me wonder if the most important lesson was something else.
The next day, I woke up ill. I was achy and feverish, and my cough had grown roots in my chest. Having learned, over and over again, the importance of rest in the creative process, I forced myself to take a couple days off. On the second day, I woke up remembering an even more important lesson than the one I’d been planning to write about:
Be kind to yourself.
When I think back over the moments when the words have come out blissfully and well, it has always been when I’ve remembered to be kind to myself.
Obviously, it’s a lesson I’m still learning.
But that’s alright. I know at least three ways to practice it:
1. Change the conversation.
Most of us are so used to the voices in our heads we don’t even notice they’re speaking, but chances are, if you’re feeling stiff and scared, it’s saying something nasty. Try telling yourself something like this instead:
Right now, it doesn’t matter if what you make is good. You can always fix it later. So, go ahead. Just let the [words, brushstrokes, chords, movements, etc.] out and see what happens. It might not be so bad.
Then, be silent until you hear, see, or feel something. Be patient. Don’t judge. Something will come. What is it? Let it out.
2. Rest when it’s time to rest.
This one can be tough, because sometimes it seems like “tired” is a constant state of being for most people. It thus becomes a constant excuse not to do anything creative, and a scapegoat for the real saboteur, which is, as Elizabeth Gilbert puts it, “only and always fear”.
So how can you know when to rest instead of work? For me, the answer is in my body. I sit quietly and notice what it feels like to be in my skin. If the overwhelming feeling is one of heaviness, I know it’s time to be still for awhile.
3. Be gentle with your partially-completed work.
If you’ve silenced your inner critic long enough to create something, you’ll likely face an imperfect piece of art. Something will exist, but it might not be what you’d hoped – yet.
Faced with such things myself (every draft of every story I’ve ever written comes to mind) I’ve often wanted to run screaming from what I thought was incontrovertible evidence of my own stupidity.
But in the cases where I’ve been able to coax myself like a frightened child back towards the thing I’ve created, I’ve often found it wasn’t as monstrous as it first seemed.
The negative voice in my head would go mute when I’d say to myself, It’s OK. I can fix this. It doesn’t have to be perfect.
But maybe, just maybe, it can be good.
Featured Image: Photo by tomertu, Adobe Stock.
What about you, Reader? Has being kind to yourself ever helped you be more creative? How? I’d love to hear your insights in the comments.
PS: I’m writing a book about the creative process. Subscribe for free, and when it’s done, I’ll send send you the first chapter.