Everything has its cycles.
The seasons follow each other, night follows day, the moon waxes and wanes and the tides ebb and flow. Creativity is no different. Knowing the four key stages of a creative project can help, as each comes with its own challenges.
Preparing for this, and learning to recognise your own repeating patterns, can help enormously in seeing any project through to completion.
Whether you’re writing a novel, directing a movie, producing a play, a body of art, designing a fashion collection or a beautiful new building, creative cycles tend to be pretty much the same.
Here are the main stages I’ve found in my own work, and from coaching people from all kinds of creative professions.
Stage 1: The thrilling beginning
You’ve had a new idea. You’re besotted. You might start researching, making mind maps and wall charts and elaborate systems with Post-It Notes and coloured highlighters. (Try not to get trapped here, though. It’s easy to get stuck in the planning stage for weeks, even months.)
Or maybe you’re not a planner, so you dive right in and start. Already, you’re dreaming of Turner, Booker or Mercury prizes, Oscars and BAFTAs, adoring audiences or huge commercial success.
In these early days, you’ll stumble if you get too hung up on perfection. It can help to accept you’re doing a Shitty First Draft at this point, rather than a finished, polished piece. And to accept that there will always be a gap between what you imagined, and those clumsy first attempts to get it down.
But mainly, this is like the heady first days or months of a new relationship. You can think of little else. You’re completely absorbed in this love affair with your new project.
Enjoy it! Because it won’t last. Soon it will be replaced by…
Stage 2: The messy middle
This is where the real work starts. You’re over the infatuation phase of the relationship, and now you’re having your first arguments. You’re seeing that your project has flaws. And that it might not ever live up to the vision you had, in the thrilling beginning.
At this point it will be tempting to walk away, to start another new and exciting idea (because who doesn’t like falling in love?). Or you just decide this isn’t for you, and you leave your project gathering dust on the Shelf of Abandoned Dreams.
The third way is harder, longer. But it’s the only path that is truly satisfying. You work through it. You get help. And you turn up, day after day, to wrestle with problems until you resolve them.
On the way, you’ll take wrong turns, get led down blind alleys. But you’ll learn from those.
Sometimes, when the path ahead is unclear, you need to just show up and do the work, with a blind faith that it will work out. And sometimes, it will be as if the work itself is magically telling you what to do next.
A solution will come in the shower, in a dream, or on a walk. One of the characters in the novel you’re writing will do something unexpected, halfway through a sentence. The paint will tell your brush where to go. You’ll suddenly ad-lib the perfect middle eight for that song.
Then a new problem will rear its head, and you’ll go through it all again. (And again.)
The messy middle is repetitive, and often lonely. It’s where most brilliant ideas die. But keep going, step by step, and you will get to the other side. You need to trust yourself, to keep doing the work. This part never really gets any easier, no matter how experienced you are. But you do get to recognise it.
As you complete more projects, you learn that this bit is painful and messy and it’s easy to lose faith. But if you keep at it you will – eventually – find your way through it. And it will all fit together to make a satisfying whole.
Stage 3: Finishing, and letting go
Now comes the sometimes fun, often painful stage of editing and polishing, refining and correcting. Often this stage involves killing your darlings: cutting your favourite bits, in order to better serve the story you’re trying to tell, your overall vision or the purpose of your project.
Keep them somewhere, labelled to make them easy to find if you need them, and you may well be able to reuse them in future work. Nothing is really lost or wasted.
This honing process is crucial. But you can’t allow it to go on too long. At some point – and probably before you feel ready – you need to stop, and let go.
Is a creative project ever really done?
The brutal fact is, it will never be perfect. Never as good as you’d imagined. I take inspiration from looking at some of the manuscripts in the British Library, and seeing that Charles Dickens was still making changes on the proofs of his novel Hard Times, rewriting and editing, still not quite satisfied.
But there is also a point when there is too much paint on the canvas, when we’ve revised the life out of a manuscript, or over-embellished a design. Knowing when to stop is a skill in itself. And it’s surprisingly hard. Especially as the next step can be terrifying!
Stage 4: Putting it out there
Yup. Now you need to send your work out into the the world, to let it find an audience. For many of us, this is the part when we feel most vulnerable, and afraid.
Lots of us stumble at this step. And no wonder. The risks are high: ridicule, rejection, indifference, failure.
But you need to do it anyway. No creative can succeed without shipping and showing their work. And surely you haven’t gone through all of this just to let it gather dust?
Put it out there. And don’t wait to be discovered, to be picked up by an agent, a manager, a major label or a big distributor. Do it yourself, if you need to. There are a million ways to be seen and heard, in the digital and in the real world. Use them! And learn how to market your work, how to draw attention to your message.
Learn all you can from it. Then move on, make your next thing. It’s time for the thrilling beginning again!
Sheryl Garratt is a writer and a coach helping creatives to get the success they want, making work they love. Are you ready to grow your creative business or career? If so, I have a free 10-day course that will help you start strong. Or give you some new ways of thinking if you’re more established. Get it here.