In the moment of creative suckitude

The thing about looking at a finished, beautiful piece of art (or reading a published story, or watching a play, or listening to a song on the radio) is that it’s finished. And beautiful. And most of the time, we don’t see how it got that way. Artists of all ilks talk about the creative process, and while sometimes it sounds a little messy, it also always sounds (when someone else is engaged in it) cool, energized, inspired, adventurous.

Recently I was talking to a friend about the problems I’d had bringing a particular creative project to fruition. She was surprised I’d had so much trouble. I asked her why, and she said, “I don’t know. I guess I always assume that it’s easier for everyone else than it is for me.”

I started to point out the silliness of that, but then I realized I do it too. I even know better, and yet I still assume that everyone else’s creative process is more orderly, more inspired, more magical, heady, joyous, divine, graceful, intuitive than mine; it’s not like that’s a high bar to surpass. While I do occasionally dip into those rarefied realms, most often the word that best describes how all my stuff gets done is doggedness.

That’s it. No angels, no breathtaking vision, no absolute certainty that I’m on the right path, just dogged determination to finish.

Since I suspect my friend and I aren’t the only ones assuming the absolute shiny best of everyone else’s creative process, I decided to doodle mine for you. I’m thinking, if nothing else, it’ll make you feel better about yours.

  1.  The big, sparkly, insistent idea arrives out of nowhere, takes me by the lapels, shakes me awake, and demands I get to work.
  2. I clear away all the lesser items on my to-do list, and get to work
  3. I work (and work, and work).
  4. And then there’s a moment – just before the moment of suckitude – when I first start to notice that the image in my head and the image on the paper aren’t matching up.
  5. Before you know it, it’s full-on suckitude. I can see that what I’m making is a mess, not art, and I wonder why I thought this was a good idea in the first place. Or maybe I know it’s a good idea still, but I wonder what ever made me think could pull it off. Then I think of all the people who could do this better than I can. The list is long. It includes everyone I’ve ever met.
  6. At this point, I have to walk away. If I don’t, I’ll end the process right there: tear up my work (or hit the delete key if I’m writing) and throw it away. I’ve done it before. On the good days, though, when the process is working, I don’t do that. Instead, I walk my dog, or yoga myself silly, or do laundry, or plant things, or hike, or meet up with someone I love. I don’t usually bake extravagant 7-layer cakes, but you never know. It could happen. The main thing is, sometimes the walking-away process takes a long time.
  7. Eventually, though, I come back. I look at the big, ugly mess of an idea and I think maybe I can see it, the little bit of shiny peeking out from all the yuck… if I squint, and tilt my head just so…
  8. I get back to work, having passed through the moment of creative suckitude for the gazillionth time (and I use the word “moment” loosely here, it can take hours, days, weeks), and I work until I finish. It’s best, of course, when I love what I create, but even when I don’t, the finishing is its own kind of awesome because I know, even if no one else does, how many gremlins had to be slain in the process.

It’s not always pretty, but I like what Stephen Pressfield says about artists and the act of creation:

We’re in till the finish. We will sink our junkyard-dog teeth into Resistance’s ass and not let go, no matter how hard he kicks. Is there a spiritual element to creativity? Hell yes.

Is there a place for straight up, unromantic doggedness in the magic that is the creative process?

Hell yes.


  1. Milli Thornton on June 14, 2014 at 2:05 pm

    What a MASTERPIECE. I love everything about this blog post!

    I’m addicted. I just clicked on your Illustrated Posts link to visit some of your other bloggy masterpieces.

    • j on June 14, 2014 at 5:35 pm

      Thank you, Milli! I love writing/doodling these. I think my artistic future lies at the intersection of the two mediums.

  2. KjM on June 14, 2014 at 3:45 pm

    “It’s not always pretty…”

    And yet, there you go making art and humor and joy, even, out of it all.

    But I know how you feel, or, at least, have experiences that are not dissimilar (but without all the creative art. *sigh*)

    I had to laugh out loud when I reached the part of your post showing the contrast between what’s in your mind and what’s on the page. Oh how I recognize that (though the “on the page” part of yours looked better than some of my efforts have seemed to me.)

    Doggedness. Yes, a valuable part of the creative person’s toolkit. And the one she, or he, should keep closest to hand.

    *sigh* Were I to take my own advice, or learn from your experiences, J, my Goldberg Variations wouldn’t be missing the last half-dozen still. Doggedness. Gotta work on that.

    And…gotta buy me some lapels.

  3. j on June 14, 2014 at 5:45 pm

    I’m glad you liked that particular doodle; me too. When I got it all put together in Photoshop, I actually made myself laugh. (Even though the moment itself, when you’re in it, and the chasm between your vision and your output seems insurmountable, is truly one of the hardest moments in creative work. It’s the point at which way too many projects get abandoned, I think.)

    And yes, get some lapels. Gotta give the muse something to grab hold of.

  4. jb on June 14, 2014 at 9:23 pm

    This is my favorite post of all time EVER! Especially the gremlin graveyard -perfect! <3

    • j on June 15, 2014 at 7:00 am

      Thank you, jb!

  5. Sue Johnston on June 15, 2014 at 6:36 am

    Laughing and crying in recognition. What a wonderful visual story – and an important message.

    • j on June 15, 2014 at 7:04 am

      Thank you, Sue. I was hoping other creatives will recognize themselves here, and be reassured by the fact that my process is just as fraught and non-linear as theirs.

  6. donna545 on June 15, 2014 at 8:43 am

    you are effin awesome

    • j on June 15, 2014 at 8:57 am

      Aw, shucks. *mwah*

  7. unstrangemind on June 15, 2014 at 3:56 pm

    “Then I think of all the people who could do this better than I can. The list is long. It includes everyone I’ve ever met.”

    This is so very much exactly what I do!

    • j on June 15, 2014 at 5:31 pm

      When I showed this post to my son (who is in art school), that was the part he most identified with too. We creatives are kind of a fragile (though resilient) bunch. ; )

  8. Karin on June 16, 2014 at 3:55 am

    What an awesome post. Always love the doodles!
    The creative process is certainly a challenging one–I’m glad I’m not the only one who struggles with it! You have no idea how many poems I’ve looked at and trashed just because I felt they were nowhere good enough. In a stroke of luck, I found some one day I thought I had disposed of forever; I decided to tackle them again and behold, they finally evolved to something I could appreciate.

    I think we are always aiming for perfection, because we see that in all works that we appreciate. Isn’t it funny though that every creative person goes through this process, and may not have the same appreciation for their work as the viewer/reader does?

    We all need a boost of “YES YOU CAN DO THIS” and “IT’S OK TO BE MESSY” every now and then. That’s the beauty of art.


    • j on June 16, 2014 at 7:20 am

      So glad you saved those unrealized poems. The hardest part of that moment of suckitude is the distorted place from which we view our work. It just feels hopeless. Amazing what walking away for a time can do for our perspective. We need an internal “Are you sure you want to delete this work (which has more potential than you realize)” button?


  9. J. on June 16, 2014 at 7:23 pm

    I had a recent realization that could not have come about without embracing imminent suckitude. I recently completed a work of a few poems, my first attempt to gather and bring together a few of the conversations that had, until the point of printing occupied my perspective.

    I knew this work would be rough, and honey, lemme tell ya. . .it was rough. But this amazing thing happened. I finished it. I completed the first step, and as if the clouds would literally part, there it was, the next step!

    I realized that I had to put as much fail, as much suck, as much skinned knee in to this effort as I could muster, and own scrape. Doing that freed me to make mistakes, which I can also tell you is no small wonder.

    I also found that the resolve to see the thing through emboldened me, made me vulnerable to my own hardness and teased me open to the softness of the world, which is where you are, where we exist as one, in wonder. Wonder. It’s what I was afraid to lose, and all the while I’m killing it. There ought to be a big yellow placard. Just sayin’.

    A lot came together, and the sky has opened up to reveal a deeper sky. I’ll still make mistakes but I know I’m on the right journey, and i’ve never been more excited to be terrified.

    Thank you — riveting and thought encouraging post, as always j.

    • j on June 17, 2014 at 5:55 pm

      I LOVE this: I realized that I had to put as much fail, as much suck, as much skinned knee in to this effort as I could muster, and own scrape.

      I think you’re right about that, though it feels in the moment so counterintutive. I had a biology teacher in college who used to say (especially when she asked a question and no one raised their hand), “C’mon you guys. Dare to be wrong.” That’s how I take your sentence.

      I also love “I’ve never been more excited to be terrified.” Me either, J. Me either. xo

  10. Annie Neugebauer (@AnnieNeugebauer) on June 17, 2014 at 12:14 pm

    Wow, you’ve outdone yourself on this one!! Brilliant! Oh so funny, and oh, so true!

    • j on June 17, 2014 at 5:56 pm

      Thank you, Annie. I think there’s something here for me, at the intersection of my doodles and my words…

  11. Alarna Rose Gray on June 17, 2014 at 5:36 pm

    Okay, so I am stuck at 5. But I really love how you’ve illustrated this oh-so-familiar story! Genius, right there 🙂

    • j on June 17, 2014 at 5:58 pm

      That’s okay, #5 can take a while! DO NOT do anything drastic while you’re stuck in #5. I have faith in you!

      And thank you! xo

  12. Chris Edgar on June 19, 2014 at 5:26 pm

    It does seem as if, in the middle of every project, my faith in what I’m working on will be tested — I will start to doubt that there is any point in continuing, because I’m supposedly bored with it, no one will like it, I should wait until I have more experience, etc. But the predictability I’ve noticed about this experience has made it somewhat less compelling.

    • j on June 20, 2014 at 6:31 am

      That’s true for me too. When my frontal lobes are working at least a little bit, I know I should do the walking away part, because the feeling of utter suckitude always does pass.

  13. Nina Badzin on June 19, 2014 at 7:20 pm

    Omg, yes. I need to figure out how to pin some of these right NOW.

    • j on June 20, 2014 at 6:31 am

      Ha! Thanks, Nina!

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