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Writing: Love of the Craft
David Duggins : How to Make Projects Work: Methods, Medium, Mindset

Love of the Craft

How to Make Projects Work: Methods, Medium, Mindset

By David Duggins

It's been a very long time since I last visited you, my Creativity Portal friends, so I thought I might start by re-introducing myself — at the same time shamelessly plugging my paying gig. It's also a good time for one of those year-in-review kinds of exercises that people often indulge in.

Before my (hopefully) conspicuous absence, I wrote several columns about handling criticism and rejection — the dissenting opinions of those around you in a general sense. We get a lot of it, especially when we express a desire to pursue our passions professionally. It takes a lot of faith to do what we do.

But what happens if that naysaying voice is your own?

You know the one:

Oh, man. This is not gonna work.

It usually happens at the midpoint of a project — particularly something that takes awhile to evolve, like a novel, play, or painting. You get halfway through the finished work, and it just isn't gelling. You lose faith in your vision, at least in terms of this particular project.

Initially, you're hit with a hurricane of emotion — despair at the time wasted, fear at the start of a new project, maybe even worry about the loss of fees if you're doing it commercially. It all hits at once, leaving you powerless in its wake.

You may take some small comfort in this: we've all been there. While I have never lost a contract due to an inability to produce, I have started countless writing projects that failed after a hundred pages. When I say countless, I mean dozens. Some even went as far as one hundred fifty pages before dying like blighted flowers. Bright sparks of idea at the beginning, snuffed candle flames at the end.

I know a lot of artists who say "my projects are my babies" without truly understanding the implications of that statement. I happen to feel that way myself. I often say I won't get married again, because I'm already married — to the stuff inside my head. It is very difficult to maintain a relationship when you're constantly preoccupied with your own imagination — which is an article for another time.

The point is, if your creations are your children, then the ones that don't work are stillbirths — or, worse yet, abortions. You may have to make a conscious decision to turn away from something you once loved dearly.

It takes another writer to get this. I get it. It's traumatic. You feel loss: characters whose full potential will never be realized; a story whose dramatic beats will never be felt in the heart of a reader; a visual work seen unclad by only one pair of eyes.

It's not the intention of the work to be seen only by the artist. The intention of art is to be expressed.

Unfinished creation is loss. As humans, we have a psychological — and some say biological — need to grieve.

Does this surprise you? Does it sound silly? Seven years ago, I participated in a novel writing workshop sponsored by Writer's Digest magazine. As part of that workshop, I began a rough draft of a space opera that I was totally in love with. One hundred fifty pages in (yes, it was one of those), it stalled. Stopped dead. I tried many, many resuscitation methods. None were successful.

So I'm in the middle of a workshop — one I paid for — with a broken book. I had to start over. Worse than that, I had to tell my instructor that I had to start over.

I started over, but the first six months of new writing were very, very hard. I understand now what I didn't then. It was hard to continue because I was still grieving the death of the space opera novel. That process requires work, which requires energy, which has to be diverted from other tasks.

The depression resulting from a failed project is one of the reasons artists find it so difficult to work in the wake of that failure. Depression tends to immobilize — to trap you in a feeling of hopelessness, with no way forward or backward.

So. Your darling has died on the vine. The question: How now to progress?

The answer: redefine your terms.

The key word here is failure. When my book didn't work anymore after 150 pages, I called that a failure. Many reasonable people would agree that a month's work down the tubes seems like failure.

But it isn't — unless you say it is.

The beauty of art, and the pursuit of passion through art, is that we get to make up our own rules. While I paradoxically think it's really up to someone else to tell us if the work is good or not, it is certainly up to us to determine if what we are doing is success ... or failure.

Uncompleted projects are not failure. They are an opportunity for reflection, increased understanding and positive change. Napoleon Hill, author of Think and Grow Rich (now a bestseller all over again due to its role in the development of the film The Secret), calls it "feedback." Not failure. Feedback.

What happened? Why didn't the project work? Something needs to change. What can you change that will give you a better shot at a completed project next time?

Sometimes, when you're in that hyped-up emotional state, it's hard to think at all. It's like that for me, which is why I tend to avoid supercharged emotional conflict. My brain becomes like a record stuck in a groove; I can't think of anything to do or say next.

A mnemonic (the first m is silent) is a tool used to help remember things — like lists — that are difficult to remember without some meaningful association. Mnemonics can also be used like affirmations, which we've discussed before, to bring about certain states of consciousness that help break emotional blocks like depression and anger.

If you're in a place where your own mental voice is saying this isn't going to work, you have no idea what you're doing, what ever made you think you could have a career as an artist, try this. As soon as you become aware of those thoughts — which are generating powerful emotions — begin thinking this instead:

Methods. Medium. Mindset.

Say it out loud if you need to. Focus on it. Don't worry about what it means initially. It may seem like total nonsense. That's fine. Just say it.

Methods. Medium. Mindset.

If you're doing this exercise for the first time as you read this, and you don't know what those terms are all about, at the very least you should be thinking, "what the heck do these words mean and why am I saying them?"

Which means you aren't thinking this isn't going to work.

Why those three words in particular? In many cases, your difficulty with your current project will require a change — sometimes minor, sometimes major — in one of those three areas.

  1. Your methods. Do you write in the morning? Before or after your shower? Why not try a different time of day? A different place? Do you always write at your desk, in your office? Try writing in the park. On a train. In a diner. A change of place can shake things loose.

  2. Your medium. Do you usually work in watercolor? Try charcoal instead. Do a still life if your landscapes aren't inspiring you. Are you a realist? Try an abstract.

  3. Your mindset. This is a big one. If your predominant thought is this isn't going to work, guess what? There's no way it will. If your predominant thought is this will work, it will — even if it doesn't turn out exactly as you'd planned. Belief is very, very powerful.

What constitutes success or failure in art? There are no objective criteria. One man's art is another man's junk.

I have a confession to make. You may call me a heathen, but you need to hear it. I know Jackson Pollock is considered a master, but I just don't get his work. Same with Andy Warhol. A tomato soup can nine times? What's that about? Ditto Raymond Carver's short fiction, Renoir paintings and Trainspotting.

All critically acclaimed works. I just stand there shrugging my shoulders. Don't get it.

That's the beauty of this thing we do. No rules, no limits — except for the ones we set for ourselves. If it's only good or bad depending on who looks at it, how can it ever be considered a failure?

Strike that word from your vocabulary. There's no such thing as failure. There are only learning experiences — stepping stones to success. •

© 2008 David Duggins. All rights reserved.

David DugginsDave Duggins, owner/creator of Voidgunner, is a creativity coach and writing mentor. More »

2/5/08