I can’t remember the campaign exactly. I remember the client; he had colorful, printed socks. The kind of socks men wore with staid suits to signal they were something more than a staid suit. Now, they all try to grow mustaches.
I remember the smell in that conference room, stale coffee, and acrid cologne. I breathed shallow breaths and tried not to think about how much I didn’t want to be there. I hated that particular account because of what it could have been.
I was half-heartedly pitching a beautiful-looking ad with seriously dull copy. It often goes that way. Clients will go for something pretty but, beat the words to death.
I remember the client dragging on about the letter “H.” He hated the letter “H”. He didn’t like the way “Hone Your Craft” sounded. Of course, no one else would like the way it sounded. Why would I even use a word that started with the letter “H” in a headline?
His words faded to a drip and I began to think about all the things that could be said about creative work.
Most creative work is decidedly unsexy.
In fact, it’s terribly slow.
Slow isn’t a good story. No one watches slow. They watch recaps, compilations, and montages.
They tune in for the highlights. Then they tune out.
If you wait too long, you lose momentum. You lose that audience.
Most of the work I do has been incredibly uninteresting. Everything that makes me proud, was indubitably dull.
When I listened to my client pick apart the word, “Hone” with the offending hushed letter, I agreed that the word wasn’t my first choice.
It was one of those “alternate” options you give certain clients to give them something to pick apart. They use up their bossy energy and you can push them toward the idea you want them to pick.
I don’t remember the better headline. I just remember knowing that people don’t really like to hone, and they certainly don’t like to watch it.
I’ll admit that I don’t like to hone. It’s incredibly dull. You do a lot of work. You throw a lot of that work away.
I know there are people who are more talented than I. There are people who make magic on their first try. I can’t. I never have. I’ve always been honing.
It takes me about three years to accomplish anything. That’s my life. Three-year cycles of creativity.
I get big ideas. I think most people big ideas. They’re incredibly exciting when they burst into your brain. They come along with motion-picture style recaps — compilations of the end, and enjoying the adulation.
Most of these big ideas are worthless. They fade like dreams fade. They’re gone by breakfast.
A few ideas stick and I call them goals. They’re really hopes. I hope for these things but, know they will become nothing. I will forget about them because they are simply un-actionable.
There is always one idea that will fade.
I think about it for months.
I tell myself it won’t happen. I probably can’t do it. It’s not worth the energy because it doesn’t fit into some bigger scheme of my life.
I take no action to actualize the idea. In fact, I put serious mental energy into telling myself I should not actualize the idea. It eats me up — this process of not pursuing my idea.
I actively ignore it until it hurts too much to ignore. I ignore until the ignoring literally consumes me.
Then, I must do it. I commit myself to do this thing. The idea becomes more than an idea but, it is also not anything yet.
I have no word to describe this.
This more-than-idea is almost physically painful. It makes a knot just below my ribs. I can feel it inside me and it squeezes my breath.
I begin to carry it around. It starts to suck the joy out of the mundane things I have to do each day. It hurts because I want to spend all my time doing this particular more-than-idea.
But, I can’t. I have people to take care of and work to do and chores to finish and a life to live. I always spend about a year carrying this thing — and feeling terrible.
It’s all false starts. The idea simply doesn’t work. It never works.
I begin to call the idea a project and it becomes heavy. Projects are always heavy because they come with lists and deadlines. Projects have start dates and end dates. They require time, materials, labor — they come with plans.
At this point, I split into two. My past self, last year’s self, sparked with emotion. She carried consuming energy. I suppose that is passion. The planning self hates that passion. In fact, the passion has changed into something incredibly unlovely. I suppose that’s what we call work.
Year Two is all work.
I destroy most of what I create. If I make ten versions, I only keep one. Then, I redo that.
I set it aside over and over. I get back to doing whatever it is that life really is. I do the parts of life that have nothing to do with the idea.
I hate the project. I give up on the project. I tell myself I am not the kind of person who should be doing projects. I am secretly pleased that I haven’t told anyone about the project because I can give it up now without feeling the shame of failure. I tell myself I am giving it up and lay the entire thing aside for months.
The project ends. I haven’t forgotten about it. In fact, I hate it so much that it’s all I can think about.
I spend the whole third year hating my project. If I was working with someone else, I would call this “editing” or “revising.”
Since it is my project, I simply call it hate.
Again, that’s the way it feels. It’s simply hateful.
Then, I begin to consume that hate the way the idea consumed me. I can only compare it to swallowing back vomit.
It burns. After forcing the idea out of me, I start to suck it back into me. But, that is completely unnatural. It simply shouldn’t be done.
It takes me this whole year before I realize I am done with the project. It’s not a project anymore. It’s a thing. It’s complete. It’s ready to live on its own.
That’s why it hurts to take it back. I can’t take it back, no matter how hard I try. It’s not my choice anymore. The thing will live on its own, even if I don’t want it anymore.
At the end of year three, I release the thing.
I call it a series, a piece — whatever.
It doesn’t matter what I call it because I know it doesn’t belong to me anymore. It has become a part of reality because I have shared it. It has moved into the co-creation of meaning. It is interpreted.
Being seen changes the thing.
This is sad because it becomes even less my own. It belongs to everyone else now. The idea is commoditized. It is consumed.
It ate me and now others are eating it. Everyone is consuming me.
I know that everyone who touched my idea-project-thing carries around a little piece of me inside them.
I am supposed to love this. They are fans, followers, audience, customers, clients — consumers. The moment never feels the way I thought it would feel. It never echoes the movie-trailer synopsis that I saw at the beginning.
I am obscure. My impact is small. Perhaps this is because I do not like the way it feels when I am done. I do not like having people carry little pieces of me inside them. I rarely capitalize on the little momentum I do create. I don’t push.
I move on.
I was done slightly before I let the thing go. Emotionally, I detached. That’s really the only way to release anything creative. You are done with it before you give it to someone else. Let them do with it what they will do with it.
I live every day quite certain that I will never experience noteworthy creative success. I simply don’t do the kinds of things (anymore) that win awards or garner much attention.
I know how it works. I’ve done it in the past. But, I have fallen into three-year cycles which are simply an impractical way to pursue commercial success.
This would make me sad. It makes a version of me sad (a younger me) that felt like you only really matter if you’re famous at whatever it is that you do. But it does not actually make me sad.
I see how this cycle serves me. It makes me better at the daily grind of working as a writer/designer/marketer/content creator (whatever I have to call myself to get the kind of work that I like to do).
Those three-year cycles pulse around the dullness of daily living, normal creative work. All the filler articles, all the uninspiring graphics, all the stuff that pays the bills, they keep my family fed. I’m lucky enough to have work that I don’t hate that uses whatever talents I do have.
I’m also lucky enough to get those aching ideas that wake me up in the middle of the night to grab my laptop.
Maybe you don’t like the word hone either. I don’t always like living it.
Honing is just as boring to live as it is to watch.
I’ve been working as a creative professional for thirteen years. That’s just four of these cycles. I could reasonably do twenty more during my lifetime.
That is the most thrilling notion. I could have twenty more of these passion projects. I could have twenty more ideas that are worth enough to devote all my spare moments and thoughts.