Near the end of her latest book, Business For Authors – How To Be An Author Entrepreneur , Joanna Penn reveals what she has pinned to the board next to her desk, including one scrap of paper with a cryptic two-word inscription: “Trust Emergence”.
In the audiobook version, Joanna then indulges the listener in one of her delightful asides, explaining what she means by this cryptic message. It actually comes from Buddhist teaching, and is part of the practise of mindfulness which includes: (1) pause, (2) relax, (3) open, (4) trust emergence, (5) listen deeply, and (6) speak the truth. (Gregory Kramer).
But in this context, she’s also referring to that strange phenomenon that I have encountered not just in writing, but in every creative pursuit I have ever undertaken, be it design, music or art. And just what is this odd affliction?
It’s the feeling that I will never be able to create anything again, that the supreme effort I have just made has completely exhausted my artistic reserves. More than that, and in spite of what an outsider might see as the obvious evidence to the contrary, it feels as though I have forgotten how to do it.
This may seem like errant nonsense — you probably think I’m making it up. How can it be that a man who cranks out twelve magazines a year, and who is still celebrating the publication of the biggest book, at 520 pages, that the hobby of wargaming has ever seen, would suffer from such extreme self-doubt? And all those graphic and web design clients over the years — surely, you cry, the act of creation must come so easily that I eat, sleep and breathe creativity?
Well, it just ain’t so, and with a fresh contract for a new book set to land on my doormat any day, I can barely describe the knot of anxiety in my stomach. With every issue of the magazine that goes off to press, instead of a sense of elation, what I actually experience is at best a feeling of relief, and then a terrible sense of dread about having to do it all over again. Every time I take on a new design contract, I almost feel like a fraud, as if that portfolio of work built up over 20-odd years has nothing to do with me. Don’t even get me started on my feelings about my unfinished novel!
But it’s not all doom and gloom, because the fact is that despite the sense of dread, another issue of the magazine does appear on the shelves, month after month. As if by magic, ideas for logos pop into my head. No page stays blank for very long and I find myself able to pour 1,000, 3,000, even 5,000 words onto paper in a day (though I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the latter!).
This is where ’emergence’ comes in. It’s a simple act of faith that from the chaos, dread, self-doubt and even panic, something will emerge. Sometimes, as today, the inspiration is obvious: the effect of Joanna’s wonderful book. At other times, I have to admit that I really don’t have a clue — it’s as though the muse is acting through me, but won’t tell me her name. At times, it can simply be driven by how I’m reacting to the medium, which might be pen, brush and paper, but is often just a keyboard or tablet and a bit of software. (This is also why interface design and usability are so critical: I want software to get out of my way so creating with it feels completely natural.)
This is also part of being a professional creative. You can’t afford to give in to the demons. I know Joanna Penn is a fan of Steven Pressfield, so here’s a quotation from his masterpiece, The War of Art, the entirety, in fact, of the section entitled “What I Know”:
“There’s a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don’t, and the secret is this: it’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write. What keeps us from sitting down is Resistance.”
What I’ve described above is just one of Resistance’s disguises: the crushing self-doubt, the apparent loss of memory of the craft, the strange dissociation from past achievements. The only way to beat Resistance is to rebuild, brick by brick — or, in our case, word by word, sentence by sentence, page by page.
But sometimes, the best way to overcome Resistance is to simply ignore it. Pretend there is no task to fulfil, no project to complete. Go for a walk, have a coffee and read the paper, watch an episode of “Friends” (again), do some ironing, weed the garden, play with your pet, go shopping. One of my favourite tricks is to take a shower: I find that when I’m in the bathroom, it’s as though my body and my conscious mind are on auto-pilot, allowing creative thought and problem-solving to emerge from somewhere deep within.
But the main thing is, wherever you go and whatever you do, keep a notebook or mobile device nearby, because when that seemingly impenetrable wall of Resistance does start to crumble and coherent ideas start to emerge, you need to get them down.
For my magazine and design work, this process of emergence rarely lasts more than a few hours, perhaps a day or two at most. For my first book, one of the most insuperable problems took months to resolve and resulted in me cutting an entire chapter. When it comes to fiction, one of my stalled stories has languished for years — but my breakthrough has been to write something completely different. But that’s another story…
Good luck with your own battles with Resistance, and I’m certainly going to add Joanna’s note to my own pin board.
Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net