11/08/2019

Get the bad ink out: A hard-won lesson on creative inertia

 

Recently at Joe Smith, we spent some time dwelling on a simple question: “In order to be my most creative self, what do I need to end?” We identified fear, self-doubt, and procrastination as our most common culprits — all variations of the same problem.

We in the “creative industry” often romanticize creativity so that it feels more daunting than it actually is. We bestow some people with the title of “creative,” implying that others aren’t. And, as if it were the latest streetwear brand, we crave to be one of the lucky few who get to wear the label.

The fear of not earning the distinction makes us doubt whether we’re good enough to even start creating, so we don’t. Thus, procrastination grips us. But as intimidating as it seems, the fix is incredibly simple.

Stop trying to be a “creative” and just start creating.

I tried to win the “creative” label by setting a resolution to write a novel in 2019. I failed spectacularly. For months I put off writing. I tinkered with ideas, examined them, poked holes in them before they were even inflated. I dissected plots until I couldn’t put them back together. I burst my own bubbles and began to doubt my ideas, my imagination. I tried getting more sleep, getting less sleep, exercising, writing in the morning, writing at night, writing aided by a nightcap.

No avail. By October, the only fiction that I had written was a few new embellishments to a story that I tell at parties to make myself sound cool.

But then, in the crucible of self-doubt and self-loathing, I realized something. Creativity isn’t about having ingenious ideas. It’s about committing to decent ones. Trusting that, with patience, a bit of ink, and some elbow grease, you can grow them into something great.

Infant ideas aren’t pretty. They’re full of contradictions. Some parts are half-baked, while others are stale. Often, pieces of them are outright copied from other people. Growing them into something great doesn’t come fast, but it’s nothing to be afraid of. The easiest way to start creating is to free yourself from the burden of having to create something good.

Today’s rockstar author, Neil Gaiman, has a theory that every time you sit down to write, your pen has a little bit of bad ink inside of it, ink that simply cannot write anything good. It’s your job to get that ink out of your pen so the good ink can flow. If you worry too much about trying to make the bad ink create something good, you’ll never get started.

So, what happened after I learned this lesson? Did I burn through a draft of a novel in a week? No. But I did commit to a couple of imperfect ideas. I trusted them and nurtured them to help them grow into something original and usable.

A month later, I’ve written two short stories. And I can say, as an avid reader, movie buff, and consumer of stories, that mine are awful. They’re truly bad.

But I’m happy with that. Because I’m not fearful of creating anymore, or doubtful of myself. I’m less concerned with being creative, and I’m finally enjoying the act of creating.

And I’m watching my work get better as I get the bad ink out, drop-by-drop.

 

Evan McGee is a brand strategist at Joe Smith, the brand consultancy of Padilla.