#122: Axioms of the Creative Life

In Maths, an axiom is a given. Something to be considered true without further enquiry. No matter how complex, every valid mathematical theory can be traced back to one or more of the basic assumptions, removing any ambiguity. 1 + 1 always equals 2. Should you have any doubts, you can read up on the theory and see for yourself.

Creative pursuits are much more nuanced (for better and worse). What was true only yesterday may no longer apply. Things that work for one person can make absolutely no sense for another. Reading about creativity can only get you so far. You have to try for yourself and learn your own lessons.

A few weeks ago, I was thinking about my creative process. What are the “fundamental truths” that I keep coming back to with every project, regardless of what it is? Here, in no particular order, is what I came up with.

It always takes longer than you think

It doesn’t matter whether I’m writing a book, blog post or computer program. It always takes longer than I expect.

In a way, every creative project is something that you have never done before. You may have written a dozen books, but you have never written this particular book before. And to write the next one, you may need to do something completely different than what worked the time before.

Every project has its icebergs that you’re bound to sail into along the way. That’s the nature of doing new things. By their very nature, creative projects are unpredictable.

You’re your own worst critic

By the time I finish anything, I am repulsed by the ruin that I have made. How could anyone possibly like it?

Just like every human, every work of art is riddled with imperfections. They may not be immediately apparent, but you’ll find them if you look close enough. The thing is: you’re probably the only person looking close enough. You may have gone through a dozen drafts. Others, however, will be seeing it for the first time. And most likely and also the last. They’ll read it, enjoy it and move on.

You’re the only one scrutinising every single word.

It’s never really done

That feeling when you’ve changed the beginning of your story 27 times, then accidentally open the first draft document and find out that it’s exactly the same.

Perfection is a mirage that has lead many a creator astray. Finishing a story doesn’t mean arriving at a clear point of completion. There’s no finish line with free hot drinks and a crowd to cheer you on. You can always do more.

Finishing is a decision that you have to make. Those who don’t end up wandering the depths of the creative underworld like ghouls haunted by their perfect dreams.

Is it just about good enough? Then you’re done.

It never is as good as the original idea

Very few things come close to the euphoria of coming up with an exceptional idea. Everything seems to fall in place miraculously. This is going to be a massive hit. The only thing between me and stardom is that I have to write the damn thing. A mere formality.

Of course, the process of writing the story changes everything. What once seemed like a stroke of pure genius is now barely a corpse in a ditch, disfigured by your incompetence.

A novel or any other complex work of art can only be perfect inside your head. Once it has to come out, all its flaws will show. And you will have to face them.

They were always there, of course, but it was easy to ignore them and think about something else instead.

No matter how good it is, someone will hate it

Stop reading and go check the Amazon page of any famous author. Scroll down to the reviews, filter out one-star only and enjoy.

Even the most widely acclaimed, the most famous authors that entire generations of humans learn about at school get scathing reviews. The whole of humanity is a pretty diverse bunch. Our preferences aren’t only different, they’re contradictory. No matter what you do, you will never please everyone or even the majority of people.

Write for yourself, and then you’ll please people who like the things that you like. People that you can identify with.

Finishing is infinitely harder than almost finishing

That novel I was writing? It’s almost done. I’m working on this other thing now, and I’ll get right back to it.

The last 10% of any creative project is the hardest part. You may think that you’re almost there, but the next day the ground disappears from beneath your feet.

As you work through your book, you tend to leave off various decisions for later for one reason or the other. To really, truly finish, you will have to make every single one. You will have to tie up not just a few loose ends, but all of them.

Finishing your story is crucial. Either claw through to the very end or abandon it forever. ’Almost there’ is a lie.


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