Fear will come at different stages in the creative process for different people. But one stage that trips just about everyone up is the first draft stage.
Whatever your line of work is, there is an equivalent of a shitty first draft. That first, rough version, somewhere between blueprint and finished product. It’s a skeleton, and it doesn’t resemble what you had in mind when you started, at all.
When you’re a writer, the first draft is the finished first version of your manuscript. It’s complete with a story line, characters, a beginning and an end. But apart from that, nothing is finished about it. The dialogue is embarrassing, the antagonist is beyond flat, there are large gaping holes in the narrative, and that ending. Seriously.
This is the stage when my writer clients call me and say, “This is not going to work. I obviously can’t write, at all. No one can ever see this.”
For most creatives, producing that finished first draft is the most difficult part of the process. Mainly because they don’t allow it to be a first draft. In other words, they can’t stand how shitty it is, so they keep interrupting the process, keep backing up, picking it apart, deleting, editing, instead of moving forward.
It’s easy to get stuck there. Tweaking and polishing and trying to perfect something that is not meant to be perfect.
It’s only meant to be a first draft, a sketch, a prototype, a beta version, your warm up. It’s the necessary step between idea and finished result.
You cannot go straight from vision to perfect execution. The gap is too wide, you must bridge it somehow, and the first draft is your bridge.
But in order for it to function as a bridge, you must let it take shape in the first place, without interrupting. You must endure its imperfection and watch it unfold with as much curiosity and patience you can muster, so that you can learn what you need to learn to then go from draft to finished creation.
Needless to say, the critic and the perfectionist in you (sometimes they are one and the same) will have a very hard time with the first draft stage. They will panic at the sight of this rough creation and they will judge you, shame you and criticize you relentlessly. They will do whatever is in their power to stop you from moving forward, and the most effective way of doing that is to entice you to stop creating and start polishing and fuzzing with the first draft instead.
Let them steer the ship and you will not get past this stage. Or you will get past it, but it will be a painful drag every time.
Eventually you will start to dread it. Which is sad, because this stage is meant to be the true adventure of the creative process.
The first draft is your playground. This is where you get to try things out, make wrong turns, try again, re-consider, and create without the pressure of perfection. It is allowed to be crappy. I encourage you to let it be crappy.
Who’s in charge?
The key to transforming this stage from battlefield to playground is to become aware of the different parts of you at work at different stages of the process.
For instance, the part of you that dream up a beautiful idea out of nowhere is not the same as the one who calculate the financial risks and rewards of turning this idea into a business. The one who polishes and perfects in the finishing stages of creating is not the same as the one who playfully tries this and that in the beginning stages.
You need to employ different parts of you for different tasks. Your analytical abilities will come in handy when editing a text, for instance, or when planning a marketing cycle, or drawing conclusions from experience and gathered data.
But in the early stages of creating, in the first draft stage, you need intuition, not analysis.
The trouble is, most of us are so used to relying on our analytical mind – probably because in western society, it’s the most valued part of us – that we have trouble letting it stand back.
But you can learn. You can learn to notice when your analytical mind is trespassing into the territory of the playful child or the receptive intuitive, and when that happens, you can learn how to reconnect and re-group. A good meditation practice will help you do this, as will creating supporting habits.
Make it a habit to check in and notice how it feels as you’re doing this first draft work. Notice who’s in charge. Is there space for you to be playful – even a bit careless – about it, exploring and learning as you go? Or are you pushing your way through the work, bullying yourself to produce instant results?
If you’re pushing, stop immediately (no, not when you’ve gotten that paragrah right, but right now) and breathe. Remind yourself what stage of the creative process you’re in and what it’s for. Give youself permission to suck. You may have to renew that permission a million times a day in the beginning. That’s ok.
Also, to take some of that numbing pressure off, remember that this particular work is just one chapter in the long book of your life’s work. See if you can soften your grip a little. Get a little perspective. Maybe even a pale smile at how deadly serious it feels when you get stuck like this.
Invite a little ease back into the process. Look at your work again, and find something about it that you’re truly curious about right now. Start there. Explore what it’s like to go ahead anyway, in spite of the crappiness. Explore what it’s like to not care quite so much. To shift your priorities from making it perfect to just making progress.
This is an excerpt from Lesson 4, Use Your Fear, of my online course The Creative Doer. Go here to learn more about it.