The creative process: work ethic vs. inspiration

“I don’t want to write, it’s too hard,” says practically every American child sitting at the kitchen table with homework spread out past bedtime.

That was the first thought I had when considering the value of a hard work ethic versus inspiration in the life of the creative for this blog. I know, I just used creative as a noun, that’s what us creative people in the professional world are typically called. If we were creating art for art’s sake we would be known as artists. Regardless, creativity requires a lot of hard work no matter the medium, discipline, and audience; it all comes from the same place. Some days it flows, everything is happy and the end result is clearly in sight. Other days you’re punching holes into the walls, dropping your head in your hands and, on occasion, throwing your whole body through walls. A book I recently read by Blaine Hogan, Untitled: Thoughts on the Creative Process, captures this struggle:

This is the creative process. For the most part it’s just plain old, unsexy work. It is slogging in front of the computer, canvas, or blank piece of paper, hammering out words and images in hopes of better days. And then, all of a sudden, a flash of brilliance. A phrase comes to mind and your heart is full. (Hogan, Locations 878-880)

We all hope it’s a flash of brilliance that strikes, and I don’t mean that to sound pessimistic. The simple fact is that it’s a subjective thought that I’m spending my words on right now. If you haven’t picked up on it yet, I’m procrastinating as I think this topic through and type it. I had a vision to tackle the polarizing topic that’s eating everyone’s brains and I’m falling flat on execution. I know, hyperbole and superfluous. Pushing myself back on topic now.

Vision is easy. Ideas are even easier. It’s execution that separates the amateurs from the pros. (Hogan, Location 111)

Okay, okay, I’m not an amateur. Pulling myself together now.

So creativity is hard work and I’m all over the place tonight in conveying this. If you know a creative person, maybe you are one, you are no doubt aware of stories about a great project that looked like it would fly by because the energy and excitement was all there. Only it didn’t. It dragged on, ten times longer than planned, sometimes one hundred times longer. The project was over budget, understaffed, late to press, drives crashed, feelings hurt, frustrations vented, enemies made, supplies snapped in half and thrown out the studio windows … yes this happens to all of us. This is what hard work looks like to a creative, driven by passion and fueled by caffeine. A volatile condition, yet effective, usually.

“But what about inspiration?” you ask.

Inspiration is fleeting. It appears, it disappears. Some of it sticks, some of it slithers down your back and drops to the floor never to be heard from again. That is its nature. Accept it and move forward. When it strikes, be ready to record it with the understanding that its execution is never going to occur quickly and without pain.

Pain is the essence of hard work, ask your grandparents if you don’t believe me. Back breaking hard work was once a thing, it still is for some, and in the creative world, it’s more psychological than physical. It’s a daytime nightmare you cannot wake from. It’s also a daydream you can lose yourself in. Inspiration will do that to you, though, take you to another world. Which is great, because we all need great ideas, but we need grounding too – a hard work ethic.

Artists by nature are never satisfied. I heard that once while in art school and took it as gospel, so I continue to tell everyone that without citing studies. Not quite. It does, however, describe myself and every other creative I know. That level of dissatisfaction translates to self-editing, scrapping work and starting over, and other laborious steps backwards amidst a slow motion tumble forward. Hours, if not days or weeks, are lost to this tragic phase called revision. All of that lost time equates to lost creative labor that may never see the light outside of a garbage can. The creative, or artist, drags boulders up icy mountainsides to achieve the goal, spraining ankles and breaking bones along the way. And when he or she reaches the peak, spirit-breaking mental exhaustion gives way to bigger and better things.

And then inspiration kicks you in the face and you are so wired you can’t sit still. You type or paint or sculpt or whatever frenetically, making mistakes along the way without caring. Editing/revising/modifying doesn’t matter, love your first draft, the only draft, it’s perfect in every way! You keep going and going and going till you burn out. You crash harder than a thousand foot free fall on the ocean surface. But you have it, your first draft, your only draft, your gift of the gods enlightening the world through your voice. Don’t dare alter it, it is perfect in every way, that first draft. Except it’s not.

Hard work returns quickly with ferocity. The revision or whatever you do is critical if you are serious about creating not just good, but great art. It’s a vicious cycle, eventually finding a conclusion due to external forces like client deadlines or collecting a paycheck before your bills are due.

It’s chaos, it’s struggle, it’s enlightenment through mental anguish. When it’s all done and you gaze at your work, it will have separated itself from you. Unrecognizable, it’s an extension of who you were during those moments of creation and what you do. But it’s not you, it is its own holistic being. Your creation. You immediately forget the pain and embrace it. And then you deal with client revisions and approvals and finally collect a check sixty days later.

Creative work is rewarding on a level separate from anything monetary, but it’s not for the thinned-skin. As you might have determined by now after reading this offbeat meditation, there is no winner. Inspiration and  work ethic compliment each other, they improve each other’s capabilities and well-being. To be successful, you need both.

On writing aesthetics: brutal intellectual honesty

Last week I finished reading a selection of essays published in 2011 by the late Christopher Hitchens in his book Arguably. I’ve known his word for over a decade and was a fan of his regular TV news show appearances before he fell ill. He brought something to those TV shows and his published works that I found both refreshing and rare amongst the modern day news media: brutal honesty.

I have been a long time advocate of writing honestly in both my professional and creative lives. When a writer holds back emotions, facts, details – anything – it’s blatantly obvious to any reader. Sometimes a reader may not know why something feels inauthentic, but the resulting uneasiness of having spent five or twenty minutes on a piece that feels dishonest is nothing short of time wasted and a lost audience.

Fortunately, I’ve have a good run of reading material lately. I haven’t felt the need to question any author’s honesty in quite some time. There is something unique about reading Hitchens, though, that goes beyond authenticity. I was granted a peak into his posthumous psyche by way of his essays, a much deeper and more intimate experience that I normally encounter. He took controversial stands on sensitive subjects, particularly with religion, like deconstructing the Ten Commandments – of which there are four different versions, I learned. His candid perspectives were well-informed, thorough, and unapologetic. And often laced with wit and humor.

This fawning over Christopher Hitchens’s work doesn’t mean I will devote my personal aesthetic to copying him. I don’t care to to be viewed as a curmudgeon who writes scathing book reviews or regarded by many as a polarizing figure on religion or politics. So let me be clear. Hitchens has been and always will be a personal inspiration in terms of creative and succinct prose, and of brutal intellectual honesty. If there is anything I can emulate in my writing it is this. Along with the ability to piss off people when I know I’m right and the satisfaction that accompanies it.

Motivation is my vicious circle

Motivation has been on my mind lately, due in large part to reading Daniel Pink’s Drive, which I recommend everyone to check out. So I’m looking at how it relates to what I do as a writer and how I can write about its existence in a professional setting. And I continue to wrestle with it.

Then I had the brainstorm when fear motivates us. What could possibly be good about a negative motivator? Are there exceptions to the rules of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation? As I felt the need for my bones to rip out of my skin in pondering this, an epiphany struck me – I’m fighting through motivational issues right now as I type these words. Feeling unmotivated to write about motivation. Not good.

Returning to my earlier question about fear motivating us in a positive way – sure, in that no one wants to be called a failure or deadbeat. In business, I see fear a lot, and I see it driving people to do things – albeit strange, often counterproductive things – but it is a powerful force that must be recognized.

For example, I’ve witnessed a manager’s decision to end a key communication project – one that was nearing completion – only to replace it with another mundane safe-yet-proven-ineffective initiative. Why? The manager voiced second thoughts that a higher-up wouldn’t respect the original initiative. And fear that too much information wasn’t good because it could cause employees to be hired out of the company should info somehow leak to the competition. A frustrating scenario to say the least. And I’m not talking about trade secrets leaking, just comprehensive information for the betterment of the employee body and improve efficiency of business as a whole.

I don’t mean to write in the abstract, but various non-disclosure agreements I’ve signed over the years put me in an awkward spot.

The reality is the employee body wants honest, transparent communication. They want access to information so they know who does what in which department at what location, especially in a global organization. Access to useful information eases work processes and reduces frustrations, which in turn increases efficiencies and productivity. Not a hard concept to fathom, unless fear of trying something new and different is a restraint. This is a common theme with vertically structured organizations that have been around a long time and are finding it difficult to survive in the current business climate of horizontal matrices and the flexibility of the up-and-coming Results Only Work Environments.

So, that is just one example of many that I can somewhat write about without risking litigation. Maybe I’m exaggerating a little, but far less than if I was to start a sentence with “let’s be honest….” My point – this is a topic I must explore in further detail on this blog within the realm of creativity vs. fear.

That preceding statement is the motivation I needed to realize to so I could write these words. It’s all a large infinity loop of jagged lines and hooks.

If you’ve learned something – anything – from this post, please tell me about it. It’s the details between the lines readers pick out that seem to resonate most, and I learn a lot from that in return.

Exploration

Sunrise over East River, NYC

It’s been over four months since I last posted on here. A lot has happened since April. Most significantly, my daughter had corrective brain/spinal surgery from which she has fully recovered, thankfully. We’ve persevered during these difficult months and good things are finally beginning to happen.

My focus has returned to honing writing style and voice while exploring topics for my MFA thesis including creativity, fear, and motivation. And of course, writing dark fiction occupies my free time.

So why am I sharing these thoughts with the world?

I just finished reading a great book on motivation – Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink – which resonates quite well with my professional experiences. I’ve always found it hard to dedicate my time to a job I didn’t care about, even more so if I felt there was no greater purpose than collecting a meager paycheck at the end of the week. This got me thinking about my writing: what motivates me to write about certain subjects, what breaks me out of self-imposed episodes of writer’s block, where my ideas come from, and so on. Furthermore, why I am so focused on writing about the creativity vs. fear thing, the topic of my thesis. Sure, both are fascinating subjects on their own, but there is a much deeper rooted thing here, which I am beginning to investigate.

Over the next few months I will explore these items and more on this blog. And I invite any readers to share your thoughts and experiences on these topics as they relate to fiction and nonfiction. Topics include but are not limited to: creativity, innovation, fear, motivation, work culture, and writing/working environment. If you’re willing, I may include some of your stories in my thesis/book.