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Starting over: to move onto the new, let go of the old

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I shall begin this week with one of my famous unattributed misquotes because I can neither remember the exact quote nor Google it well enough to find out who said it.

“In order to ever do anything really new an artist must let go of even his greatest work.”
– A Smart Cookie

Those of you who set their watches by my blog posts will, by now, be running so late that there are search parties out looking for you. Writing these posts, which I enjoy immensely, has become harder and harder. When I started I wrote three posts in one evening, such was the rush of ideas and opinions. Then I happily bashed out one a fortnight. But then, bit by bit, the torrent turned less torrential.

Being of a scientific bent I immediately and rationally concluded that I had, overnight, completely lost my capacity for stringing together words in pleasing combinations. I was barren. Bereft. Spent. But, of course, the truth is more complex. I found myself, intriguingly, living out an excellent example of one of the major challenges in creativity – how to keep it going. Let’s explore that, shall we?

Creative endeavours are frequently characterised by the following pattern: you start off without much idea what you’re doing but, if conditions are good, you quickly take off; lots of new ideas flow and there’s loads of energy and enthusiasm. You start to create lots of output. Then, as time passes, things tail off. Challenges pile up. The energy needed to keep the train chugging down the tracks seems to increase and, before long, the process can grind to a halt in a cloud of guilt and recriminations.

The reasons for this are many and varied. At a basic level change is just hard and sometimes people just get worn out by it. The rush of the new is a great way to motivate people but that doesn’t last long; the novelty wears off and unless you have real buy in based on a clear purpose it can be hard to keep people focused. Further to this, the fact of the matter is that the early bits of the creative process are easier!

People think it’s hard to come up with ideas but ideas flow like cheap cider on Freshers’ Week if you know what you’re doing. Turning those ideas into reality on the other hand, finding new ways to solve the challenges that you encounter along the way, and overcoming the negativity and cynicism of others can take a mental and emotional toll. Especially as the purity of the vision is sullied by the realities within which you have to operate.

And then there’s what’s happening to me.

When I started out I was just writing for fun. I had ideas, I wrote them down and I sent them off. But, over time, my posts became longer, more detailed and more ambitious. I wrote one or two of which I was really proud and all of a sudden I found myself not only trying to write something good but competing with my past self. If each subsequent post wasn’t deeper, funnier and more interesting than the last I didn’t feel it was worth posting, even if it contained some good stuff.

If not dealt with properly this problem tends to lead to one of three results: you stop producing stuff, you lose heart but chug on producing bland, inane listicles or regurgitating the work of others just to keep the joyless ride going, or you Jump the Shark. This last one is particularly interesting and, in the world of creativity which has more than its fair share of nonsense anyway, particularly damaging.

Jumping the Shark means crossing the line between great content and self parody – when you stretch something so far it breaks. When people struggle to up their quality but feel the need to keep outdoing their past efforts they start producing increasingly wild and out there content; replacing insight with hyperbole; succumbing to the idea that bigger is better; adding more and more glitz until the content is buried under layers of meaningless style. Looking back I can’t help but feel my recent “innovation” of per-point summaries in The World is Unflat was a perfect example of this last folly; the post was good. It didn’t need the gimmick but I was trying too hard.

The trick of course, to avoiding all of this, is just to let go. As my unknown purveyor of wisdom says, to move on to new work you need to let go of your old work. You need to learn to start over. And the first step, as in all things, is admitting that you have a problem. You have to recognise the difference between trying to outdo your previous work and trying to find new expressions of your own creative impulse. In a way it’s a form of re-invention. Go back to the original question and, ignoring the answers you’ve given before, try to answer it again.

Photo Credit: AngelaShupe.com via Compfight cc

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