Do Not Despise These Small Beginnings
I began composing music professionally a couple years ago and up until recently, I had a problem. As any creative will tell you, we can get really excited about new ideas. In fact, we can get so excited with an idea that we can become blind to the valuable process that leads from ideation to realization. I would often get impatient with my work for not sounding anything like what I heard in my head. Ask any composer, this is all we want. I then noticed whenever I got into the thick of my work, my momentum would sputter, I’d get frustrated, and then have a hard time finishing. This was because I ignored the process of creative work. I needed a change. And then I learned about the importance of a critical step, the sketch.
“The Creative Psychle”
Along the path to making something great, there exists also a parallel emotional arch. Two separate entities but so inextricably linked. Deep into the throes of a project, I sometimes would catch myself judging my own work. I would critique and then judge myself while questioning my own ability. But then I asked myself a more important question, “Why does this happen every single project?” Then someone on Twitter shared the following:
The Emotional Arch of the Creative Process
1. This is awesome
2. This is tricky
3. This sucks
4. I suck
5. This might be OK
6. This is awesome
Each one of these steps listed above are very real. Remember the moment that idea first popped into your head? You start your project and it feels like it has infinite potential. Everything is new and exciting and your brain is a bullet train speeding through forests of ideas. Everything is there and you’d open up your brain and pull it out if it didn’t mean making a mess. It’s all coming faster than you can capture it. Then you reach the work-work part of your idea. But, oh no, it feels as though the train is now chugging upward through a tunnel as you feel momentum starting to diminish. You’re beginning to realize the cost of your idea. You just felt the short track you’re traveling stretch across two continents. Before you know it, you’ve come to a full stop. You try to push on, because, well, what else are you going to do? The urge to move forward is diminishing. And then you start creaking backwards, you start questioning every step you ever took to get you to this moment. Crap! This sucks! I suck…
Because commentary on this emotional arch could fill up an entire volume of books, I’m only going to only discuss that beginning mental state and how it coincides with the sketch. Trust me, that first step is where some of the most crucial thinking happens and determines the sustainability of your idea. It’s important that you go into your project prepared with all the right attitudes. The pattern above can either be a long drawn out process taking place over years, or exist over a weekend like writing this Medium post. Either way, it happens to both beginners and experts. That felt nice to read didn’t it?
The middle of this journey is dark and tough. Yet despite knowing the absurd and cyclical nature of it all, we will continue to find reasons why this time around our self-loathing criticism is justified. That is the craziest part about all this: as creators, we go through this every. single. time. The mere awareness of these psychological blocks does not solve all our issues, though. It’s time we start making things better for ourselves
Value of the Sketch
Our approach to any new idea can greatly affect the path to realization. When that new idea pops into your mind, take it as a sign that your brain wants to work. Now would be a great time to start sketching. A sketch allows you to record that rush of creative energy and turn it into something real and presentable. Build the simplest form of your idea and that’s your sketch. If I’m successful, the simplest form of my idea is usually a piano reduction that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. I’m not yet concerned about getting it correct as I am gettting it down. Sketches help me realize the full potential of an idea there in the moment. I know I’m starting small, but what matters most is taking advantage of that moment of creative energy and milking it for all its worth. It’s all in the details, yes, but better to focus on the bigger picture early on.
you don’t really know what you’re making yet
While you’re sketching your initial idea, it is imperative you stay focused on what’s most important. Work linearly, recognize those peripheral thoughts and record them on the side, but keep moving forward. Use symbols and shorthand or anything quick to keep yourself from tripping down a rabbit hole. Train your mind to recognize what’s most important at that moment and stay on track. Let’s say you design mobile apps and had an amazing idea for an app that lets you order a peanut butter and jelly sandwich from wherever you are (that’s an amazing idea, I love PB&J’s). You wouldn’t spend the next 45 minutes working on the color palette of the app, would you? It would be smarter to think about big picture ideas such as how your deliveries would work, how your service differs from competitors, and what areas of town you could launch first. Sometimes we skirt this big picture thinking in favor of actually “seeing” our idea. After we have wasted our energy on a meaningless facade, we’ll come back a few days later with no solid foundation to stand on.
A sketch is also a great reference point for later whenever your inspiration well has run dry or you’re in too deep. If you’ve succeeded by producing a comprehensive sketch, you’ll return later in the midst of your work to find a whole catalog of ideas.
When my horse is running good, I don’t stop to give him sugar.
- WILLIAM FAULKNER
One more thing: Get away from your workstation. Bring a notebook and pencil and just think. For me, one of my favorite tools is the voice memos on my iPhone. The app is chocked full of ideas I’ve captured while driving or sitting at a piano. If your work is primarily done digitally, Austin Kleon’s fantastic book Steal Like an Artist suggests going analog for your ideas, he even suggests having a separate desk strictly for working with your hands. Because you don’t really know what you’re making yet, it’s a good practice to capture everything. Feel free to consider every angle of your idea, and in doing so, your “product” will slowly reveal itself to you. By getting away, you are also less tempted to jump in too early.
I love looking at these manuscripts above. They offer great insight into how even legendary artists struggled to bring their ideas to life. The manic and disconnected markings show us an honest, more human side of our heroes. Their sketches show they also had the foresight to know that drawing lines across a page wasn’t the final result, but only the beginning.
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