It’s happening again. I’m in Google Docs, editing a client’s copy, and I see their cute little face icon pop up in the corner. My fingers freeze. Now they can see my writing in its not-so-sparkly splendor—the backspacing with self-doubt, the broken sentences, the weighing two words for 20 minutes before making a call. (I exaggerate not.)
This weirdly awkward and sweaty forehead moment happens often. My client will get notifications as soon as I start revising their document, and if they’re online, they might go Curious George on me and peek in before I'm done. And hey, I don’t blame them.
If I could watch over Meghan Trainor’s shoulder as she teased out the lyrics of a new song, follow Lisa Congdon’s pencil while gliding through preliminary sketches, or hang out with Ree Drummond in buttery heaven while she refined one of her Pioneer Woman recipes, I’d be all over that. The mysteries of the creative journey are fascinating to me, too.
But knowing my clients are seeing this version of my writing makes me want to break into hives and grab ALL THE CRANBERRY MAPLE GRANOLA while I wait for them to flutter away into cyberspace. Why?
Because this is the part I don’t like people to see. The part no creative wants others to see. It’s the bare your soul part. The uncomfortable, unknown, unpolished, unfinished, uncool part where your vision isn’t totally cohesive and you’re still working your magic (and it is work).
It's kind of like when you're sitting at the salon waiting for your highlights to develop. But for a while, you feel like some bizarro foil chandelier that belongs in IKEA, and you can't WAIT for the relief of your blowout.
Ultimately, while riding out your process, you’re still experimenting. Exploring. Fumbling. Questioning. Visualizing. And really, feeling like a lost amateur even though this is the zillionth time you’ve done this.
It’s still an uniced cake. Unfinished sentence. Uncoloured logo. Unfiltered photo. Undecorated room.
And the journey of shaping a vision is a lot scarier than sharing it once it’s already been through the final edit.
There’s this illusion that creatives are “naturally gifted” at their art. Born with innate talent and genius. But the truth is, even as a professional writer, I don’t find writing easy. People are always surprised to hear that. And I’m always surprised to hear that they’re surprised.
Because as creatives, our process can often be confusing, frustrating, and scary vulnerable. Like someone just sitting there, poking your heart over and over again, Pillsbury Doughboy style.
Sometimes I feel like I’m turning myself inside out. Sometimes I feel like I suck so bad, I’ll never be a “real writer” who has a closet full of musty cardigans. Sometimes I feel like I’d rather just be a gladiator for Olivia Pope and live in one of those industrial chic loft spaces with hundred-foot ceilings that only seem to exist in movies like Flashdance. Because it sounds like more fun. (Doesn't it?)
For most of us making a creative living, there’s a lot of silent struggling. Self-discovery. Endless evolution. And people on the outside might see the beauty we choose to share, but they rarely see the mess we have to wade through to get there.
My brain isn’t a constant confetti-bomb of colourful words. I can’t sling sentences in my sleep, like some people assume I can.
This is a habit I’ve built. A passion I’ve followed. A craft I’ve practiced, honed and sharpened until I became known for it. Just like you.
And the problem with denying our artistic process...hiding it...making it unsafe to share...and pretending there’s no middle to our mastery is this: We focus too much on that pristine, perfected product. We forget to honor the mistakes it took to get there.
For fear of being ignored or not making the impact we want to, all we start caring about is getting it RIGHT. Getting the right angle. The right font. The right crop or filter. The right words. The right design. The right outfit. The right results. So we can get the social validation of comments, likes, shares, follows, buys.
But when we’re only focused on the outcome, we cramp our creativity. We dim the joy that comes from making. We lose the purity of our ideas. We repress the exhilaration of being in the moment, doing what we love. We disconnect from our art, our truth, our intentions. We curate instead of create. We do what’s comfortable instead of courageous. We force our raw work to compete with someone else’s best work. We get lost in online illusions, false perceptions, success formulas.
I could share a pretty flat-lay shot of my desk with you and pretend that it’s this glorious display of stylish paper goodies, an expensive watch tossed nonchalantly, fresh flowers luxuriating in sunlight, untouched desserts waiting to be savoured. But the reality is, it’s not.
The flowers on my desk are usually long past their prime. And it takes me about 10 seconds to eat a cupcake and probably 10 minutes to photograph one, so I’m pretty sure my patience would lose out to my sweet tooth every single time.
Yes, these photos are beautiful and inspirational. But they’re also misleading and unrealistically polished. And I think you should know this is what my desk actually looks like 99.9% of the time:
A touch messy, playful and undone. A lot like my creative process.
And whatever writing you’ve seen from me, I want you to know, it didn’t start out like that. No unicorns, eurekas or lightning bolts showed up. This is what it looks like when I’m navigating my initial sparks and ideas:
When I send a “first draft” to my clients, what they’re seeing for the first time is at least the 10th draft. Most of my blog posts have been through over 30 revisions. And no matter how many times I’ve had to hit share, or how many raves I’ve received, my heart still winces a bit to let my words be judged.
I’m always still wondering: What if they hate it? What if they regret hiring me? What if I start running out of ideas, and this is the last time I write something good? What if my voice doesn’t really matter? Maybe Mac 'n' Cheese will help? (For the record, Mac 'n' Cheese always helps.)
And if you think I write in charming coffee shops on my MacBook Air wearing a cowlneck sweater and black-rimmed hipster glasses, with a Kate Spade purse at my feet and a pumpkin spice latte in hand, I have to admit I lead a much less thrilling life than that. (Although I appreciate your vote of coolness!)
You can usually find me kicking it in fuzzy leopard slippers, rocking my dino-Dell that’s known to flash a lot of “NOT RESPONDING”s at me, guzzling plain old drip coffee, and hanging out with my four-legged office supervisor who constantly overheats me. It looks a lot like this:
What really defines us as creatives isn’t our skills or accolades. Our perfectly curated Instagram feeds or pretty websites. That 6 figure launch or podcast with 5 star reviews. Those flawless finished masterpieces. Or the perceptions of others, which are almost always skewed.
It’s how we express ourselves through this painful but passionate process of creation. And the only way our process stays pure, stays inspiring, stays freeing, stays innovative is if we stop worrying about always getting it right...and start letting ourselves be works in progress. Take those detours. Be ok with figuring it out along the way. Play a little in the "making muck".
Because no matter how scary it is to navigate through this confusing creative circuitry, over and over and OVER again...it’s still where the real magic happens. Where our curiosity lets us learn, where we grow more resilient, where we discover our best ideas.
And in my books, that’s something we deserve to be proud of, not ashamed of.
Together, wouldn't it be kind of awesome for us to celebrate the creative process, and encourage others to feel safe doing the same?
I'd love to see the middle to your mastery. How you treat the artistic journey as an act of love. Show me what your work looks like undone, unbaked, unedited.
Share a snap of your brain sparkage on paper, a half-written tagline or poem, a product in progress, you in the midst of creation, or even a totally unstaged view of your work space. Throw it on Instagram and tag me (@janineduff) so I can give you a virtual high five, or tweet it to me (@janineduff) with the hashtag #creativeprocess. I can't wait to see it!
Tweet the message out!