I used to think that truly brilliant works of art, in whatever form they may be – music, comedy, novels, paintings, technology, you name it – came from a truly special breed of humans. Humans who were born with some incredible, instinctual, unworldly sort of talent that was not something you worked towards or a level you could get to with enough hard work. It was just something that naturally existed within you. Something you were given.
Either you had talent or you didn’t, and that was that.
Eventually, I realized that I was an idiot. That I was stifling any chance I had of creating the sort of art that brought me bottomless joy – by assuming that if things didn’t come immediately and effortlessly to me, if I couldn’t just sit down at my kitchen table and creating something amazing in a mere matter of hours, then it must mean I just didn’t have “it.”
My dream, to put it broadly, was comedy, and anything that fell under that umbrella – standup, sketch-writing, improv, and everything in between. But I realized that, regardless of what your exact passion was, this sort of fear and self-doubt and crushing inadequacy was felt within anyone and everyone who wanted to create something.
As I was going through this process of finally looking myself in the face and admitting what I wanted to do with my life, I read countless books, articles, and studies that began to give me a small, and powerful, and terrifying amount of hope. Terrifying, because it meant I didn’t have an excuse anymore. Terrifying, because I realized what was ultimately blocking me from achieving the level of creativity I wanted to get to was not my own capabilities and talent (or lack thereof). What was blocking me was my unwillingness to do the work. To turn out a lot of shitty rough drafts. To put in hours and hours and hours and HOURS of work, only to get the tiniest, tiniest bit better, maybe.
I didn’t want to work on something too hard. I didn’t want to care about something too hard. Because if I failed, it would hurt so much more.
In my mind, it would be embarrassing and shameful and pitying – to fail at something that I wanted so badly.
It just felt so much safer to do something I didn’t care about, to not try.
I didn’t want to look like a fool. I didn’t want people to feel bad for me. So it was just easier not to go after the harder (but incredibly more joyful) things.
But then the endless amount of reading and exploring and studying began to hit me hard. I began to finally understanding that effort, that trying, was exactly what I was supposed to be doing. That if creating something didn’t involve struggle in any way, it was probably a bad sign. Some of the more memorable things I read began to echo in my head over and over again, like this quote from musician and artist Brian Eno:
“Beautiful things grow out of shit. Nobody ever believes that. Everyone thinks that Beethoven had his string quartets completely in his head—they somehow appeared there and formed in his head—and all he had to do was write them down and they would be manifest to the world. But what I think is so interesting, and would really be a lesson that everybody should learn, is that things come out of nothing. Things evolve out of nothing. You know, the tiniest seed in the right situation turns into the most beautiful forest.”
Or this quote, from Steven Pressfield, that I’ve read so many times that it feels like it now exists in its own little crevice in my brain:
“Are you paralyzed with fear? That’s a good sign. Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Remember one rule of thumb: the more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.”
Creating is never going to be easy. There’s no simple solution I have to pass on to you. Because if there was, you bet your ass I would have been all over it the instant I learned about it.
What you really need to do, if you want to have any chance of gaining control over your own creative process, is to realize this: it’s going to suck. It will be painful, it will make you feel horrible at times, it will make you feel exhausted and drained and empty. You’ll go through bouts of feeling uninspired, and wondering why you’re doing this, and reading the Wikipedia pages of all the people you admire and deciding that you’ll never, ever amount to anything close to them.
But you’ll also feel a strange release, just by being close to the work and doing it and breathing it in. Even if it’s horrible, even if it’s the shittiest thing you’ve ever created, you’ll at least be right in the center of it – instead of being miles away from it and feeling the crushing weight of the whole I’M NOT DOING WHAT I WANT TO DO WITH MY LIFE thing suffocating your lungs and wrapping itself around your heart like a snake.
You’re never going to be free from the self-doubt and uncertainty of it all. Even the most successful and admired artists in the world are encumbered by senses of inadequacy and mediocrity.
But if you do it, if you sit down and just do the damn work, at least you’ll see that creating art – even the shittiest art that’s ever existed – is a thousand times more freeing and more joyful than doing nothing at all.