Comparing Someone’s ‘On-Stage’ to Your Own ‘Backstage’

Patrick Rothfuss is not just a writer of fiction that I’m having trouble wading through, but he’s also a thoughtful person with a podcast that I really like. In one of his many discussions about creative work with Max Timken, he brings up the common problem of comparing someone else’s onstage work to our backstage. In other words, someones genius, refined work vs. our in-progress dumpster fire.

The presumption being that the perfect work represents the output of a perfect process. That the work being presented is so much more refined than the working drafts, frustrations and utter psychological mess waiting for us back at our workspace. Our own work is already a failure.

Social media brought this terrible feeling to everyday people, and boy does it scale! Here is where we present idealized selves to the world. We build the illusion of extraordinary, action packed, fulfilled, creative lives. We know it’s a lie, but sometimes it’s easy to forget. From experience, seeing this at 10pm, on hour-four of a colicky baby screaming in your ear, can be a tad discouraging (this is me being vulnerable).

What we don’t take into account is everything going on behind the scenes of that person’s life. To paraphrase Frank Beamer, nothing is ever as good as it seems or as bad as it seems.

Yes, there are people who are more talented and capable. But that doesn’t mean they just rolled out of bed and produced genius. Everyone has to work through the mess to get somewhere great.

Which, by the way, is also why the idea of creative agencies having a “proprietary process” is always complete nonsense, no matter what their new business deck says. Creative work is rarely clean, orderly, or easily replicated.

Day 2 Has Been Hard.

After making an inadvisable declaration that I would be posting every day for the next seven days, I was worried most about the weekend. When would I be able to find the time to write with the kids around and the activities of the weekend to contend with?

Well, it turns out that Day Two is an asshole. That’s right. Friday. The last day of the work week. The optimism of an upcoming weekend. The drive to get the week tied up neatly. None of it helped.

Writing hasn’t been the problem. I’ve been wrestling several ongoing ideas and haven’t been able to pin any of them down into something coherent.

I’m going to chalk this up to two things:

  1. My brain is flabby after the summer.
  2. I’m being too precious…still feeling the need to make each one into a head-exploding, uranium-enriched, knowledge-bomb.

But this is the point of the challenge. It would be easy enough to just hang it up for the day and try again tomorrow. Then tomorrow, it would be easy to push till Sunday. Then on Sunday, it would be easy to point to Monday as the right time to start, being the beginning of the week and all.

It’s the habit that matters at this point.

Start Before You’re Ready

A few weeks back I was finally able to tear into Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art and Do the Work. I wasn’t disappointed. Both of these books are right up my alley, dealing with the process of actually doing things in the face of the myriad ofbarriers that prevent the doing of said things. He refers to those barriers as The Resistance.

Procrastination is the most common manifestation of Resistance because it’s the easiest to rationalize. We don’t tell ourselves, “I’m never going to write my symphony.” Instead we say, “I am going to write my symphony; I’m just going to start tomorrow.”

Everything he says about The Resistance is incredibly familiar. In fact, I’m pretty sure that he wrote both books specifically for me. It’s all really useful thinking, but after my first read through there was one take-away that really stuck and proved the most practical of everything he writes about:

Start before you’re ready.

Don’t prepare. Begin. Remember, our enemy is not lack of preparation; it’s not the difficulty of the project or the state of the marketplace or the emptiness of our bank account. The enemy is Resistance. The enemy is our chattering brain, which, if we give it so much as a nanosecond, will start producing excuses, alibis, transparent self-justifications, and a million reasons why we can’t/shouldn’t/won’t do what we know we need to do.

Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. I have learned a deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets: “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.” Begin it now.

And then, for the planners:

Research can become Resistance.

It’s probably a no brainer for most people. As for myself, I’ve become really good at making sure that everything is ready to go before getting down to business. Sometimes it’s physical noodly things like topping off my coffee or getting a new pen. Sometimes it’s some sort of bizarre pressure that I put on myself to do better work…like if I start at the right time it will be great, but starting at the wrong time will lead to absolute ruin.

Turns out that just starting will take care of all of the angst and anxieties lurking about in your head. Oh, and that actually working on things is the best way to figure them out.

It’s been really helpful for me. I highly recommend the books if you’re at all into this sort of thing. Otherwise, you may resume eye-rolling.