Thursday, September 4, 2014

Creative Development is a Progression: Finishing Things and Letting Them Go

Neil Gaiman's good advice
From Heinlein’s Rules of Writing to Gaiman’s advice (pictured above) to Chuck Wendig’s “finish your shit”; many writers agree, it’s not enough to simply write, you have to finish what you start. I also believe (like Heinlein) that after you finish a story, it is important to send it out into the world.

For me, writing is its own reward. This is what keeps me writing day in and day out, but once I commit to a character or set of characters and to their story, it’s important to see at least a draft of that story through to the end.

Simply writing all the way to the end – even if it’s the wrong ending and I end up replacing it – has taught me to emotionally commit to a story. Almost everything I write falls on tough times somewhere in the middle. Committing to finishing also forces me to come up with solutions that I wouldn’t have discovered if I’d given up.

After drafting it, resting it, revising it and giving it a final polish, I assess the story. I might see a soft spot in the logic, or a sentence that could maybe be tweaked one more time. But, if I feel that this is the best I can do with this story where I am today as a writer, then it’s time to let it go and move on to the next one.

You can only grow as a writer to a point if you never send your work out into the world. When I started writing, I would hold onto my stories working them over and over. I think I labored under the misconception that one day, in the future, my understanding of the craft would be complete. One day I would be a journeyman writer and the next day I would cross some invisible threshold to become a fully-fledged Writer. Of course in all truly creative pursuits, we are all always journeymen.

I know now that I have to put myself out there as I am with the full knowledge that tomorrow I might very well look back at today’s efforts and find them sophomoric. I’ve discovered that getting a story published is more than just a feather in my cap. It’s a kind of letting go that frees me to pursue the next level in my own development. 

I am continually pursuing mastery, striving to become a better storyteller, and I can see now that any productive artist comes to understand their creative development as a progression.

Painters don’t slave over one canvas for years, sculptors don’t carve only one figure. Artists keep producing until they have enough photographs or drawings or sculptures to fill a coffee shop or gallery. Musicians don’t work on one song or album endlessly; they make song after song, album after album. They go on tour then it’s back to the studio to record the next set of songs. What filmmakers (that you’ve heard of) only made one “perfect” film?

People working in creative arts may focus intensely on a particular work for a discrete amount of time, but they know that they’re playing a long game. Look at any artist’s body of work, whether its pop songs, etchings, or television shows, and you can see them try out new ideas, you can trace their beliefs as they become solidified or change direction. You can watch them explore new techniques, master them, and find their idiom. Each piece or song or novel is a record of his or her creative progression as a human being.

I feel vulnerable putting work out there when I know that I’ll be a better writer tomorrow. I want the world to see a perfect artist, but I’ve found it’s better to let people see me as I am today. There’s no such thing as a perfect artist just as there is no perfect work of art. Each story, painting or album is simply another link in the chain of an artist’s creative life. It’s the autobiography we all write without knowing the ending.

I don’t know who I will become, but if I keep on writing, finishing things, and sending them out into the world, one day ten, twenty, or thirty years from now, future me will be able to look back and see the steps I took to arrive at that day.

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