Beginnings get a lot of press when it comes to the creative process. There’s something mystical about taking those first tentative steps toward a new creative journey. Maybe it’s because the path ahead is unknown and potentially dangerous. Maybe it’s because we don’t know who or what we’ll encounter along the way. All we can only hope is that we’ll be changed for the better once we get to the other side. This is the hero’s journey, and it starts with one step. It’s the stuff of legends.
But what comes after those first steps – after Frodo accepts his role as ring bearer, after Rocky Balboa decides he’ll fight the world champion Apollo Creed, after Clarice Starling teams up with Hannibal Lecter, after you decide to start writing a novel?
After the beginning comes the middle. And the middle of any story or creative endeavor is nothing but work – lonely, soul-crushing work. This part of the journey is Act II of a screenplay – that doubly long section in the middle where our hero is fighting her way through impossible obstacles, both internal and external. Every moment offers an opportunity to admit defeat and slink back to the life she had before she answered “the call.” These are the days when I wonder why I ever started the infernal project, for certainly such undertakings have vanquished better people than me.
Act II is hard. It’s hard to write, and it’s hard to live. One of my favorite screenplay instructors liked to say, “Act II is where screenplays go to die.” And he is so right. Act II is also where our creative projects go to die. The energy that we need to get through Act II of our journeys is completely different than that magical energy we mustered to get started. It’s no surprise that most of our creative projects, many started under auspicious tidings and the best of intentions, fall by the side of the road once the newness of the beginning has worn off.
In the face of these obstacles, how do we keep our creative journey alive? Do what any good hero would do:
Take your knocks. Every hero’s journey is fraught with challenges of all shapes and sizes. There are threshold guardians around every corner waiting to test your mettle and send you home. Don’t let these secondary characters keep you from reaching your ultimate goal. Much of a hero’s fortitude is measured by their ability to pick themselves up and keep limping along despite continual beatings, both literal and figurative. Think Rocky here.
Learn your craft. An important part of the hero’s journey is to learn how to master the elements of a new world. This is Luke Skywalker learning how to be a Jedi. It’s Neo figuring out how to harness the power of the Matrix. The more you learn about your craft the more proficient you’ll become. If you’re a writer, write. If you’re a painter, paint. And do it often. You can call on your knowledge of the craft to see you through those dark and frustrating hours.
Find allies. While the journey ultimately belongs to you, every hero has some help along the way. Keep your eyes open for those allies, those safe houses, that small oasis that can nourish your soul, if just for a moment. Think of the Knights of the Round Table, the Fellowship of the Ring, Goose, Watson, Robin, or any supporting character that can offer a respite or piece of information that can keep our hero on her path.
Have some fun. A sense of humor is important for getting through challenging times. Many heroes take some time to have fun during Act II. Despite their predicament, Thelma and Louise found time to set fire to an obnoxious man’s gasoline truck and had fun doing it. Crash Davis played in the sprinklers with his teammates while ensuring a rain out for his Durham Bulls. Your work will be better if you infuse some joy into the otherwise difficult process.
Stay open to luck and magic. We don’t have complete control over our creative process. Getting to the end of our journey requires work and smarts on our part, but it almost always requires a bit of luck and magic. Stay open to it. Trust that it will find you. Listen to the voice telling you, “If you build it, they will come.” Great things will happen.
Do the work. Above all else, show up every day and do the work. The hero has to believe in her journey enough to keep doing the work even when all the external inspiration is gone. You have to show up even when your muse has deserted you. Stephen King says his muse sits around admiring his bowling trophies while he does the “grunt work.” And that’s what the middle of the journey holds for us – the unglamorous, grit your teeth, nose to the grindstone sort of work.
There’s no getting around the middle of your creative journey. The only way is through. So, get through it like a hero. Riches and rewards await you on the other side.
Photos from Evgeni Dinev / FreeDigitalPhotos.net