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The writer in the pit of despair

· Writing,Advice

If you spend any time on social media, you might have seen this image before. It's an illustration of the creative process, from perfect, imagined concept to final product. It depicts a harrowing journey into a place labeled "the pit of despair" where the temptation to give up and quit awaits to overwhelm the artist, or writer, or anyone who is attempting to create something and struggling to produce work that succeeds at realizing their vision. The message is that struggle is an inevitable part of creating. Get used to it.

Like many messages, someone took the time to say it because there are probably some people who need to hear it. So I'm not here to tell you it's wrong. Creating things can be a very difficult process. There may be times when you feel like giving up. Your brain will always try to trick you into believing that now is the same as forever, that the work will never get better. And it's valuable to remember that that's not true, and that being challenged can be a normal, healthy part of creating.

What I want to do is examine why we end up in the pit of despair, and whether despair is really necessary or helpful to creative work. I won't deny, even for a minute, that creativity is work; making something is work; making something good is often a lot of work. But does it need to be a struggle?

Here's the main reason I think we end up in the pit of despair: it feels like our skills are mismatched to the task. Despair is the voice that tells us that there is no solution to this problem. We will never be good enough for what we want to achieve, so we must give up entirely. The good news is, skill level isn't magic, and it isn't in-born talent. Skills can be learned, can be developed, and you can take on new tools all the time.

So when you feel that first twinge of despair, you need to step back and shortcut that spiral. Re-evaluate your vision (is it the right one for your skillset? could it be tweaked in a way that makes it more achievable?) but also, importantly, re-evaluate your tools. When I'm having trouble writing a scene in a game or other work of fiction, I like to step back and play something or read something and take note of how other writers tackled similar problems. I actively search for tools I might not have or might not have thought of using. I also like to free myself up to experiment with different approaches: the wilder ones might not work out, but they might show me what was missing in my original vision for the scene.

The temptation to despair never fully goes away, but the good news is, the more experience you have climbing out of that pit, the easier it becomes to prevent the spiral. You start to recognize the territory. "I've been here before, and I know I can find my way out again."

I have worked in environments where the belief was that pressure built resilience, and by turning up the pressure on people, they would do better work. After six years managing teams of writers, I am 100% convinced that is untrue, and in fact, counter-productive. I am more resilient now than I was at the beginning of my career, but that has nothing to do with the pressures put on me early on (on the contrary, I think those pressures slowed the development of my resilience by making fear of failure a stronger motivation than the possibility of success.) Every time I encounter a writer who struggles with resilience, it is because they have come from high-pressure environments in which failure had real and devastating consequences. They can't produce their best work because they are afraid, and they easily fall into the pit of despair, even when their skills are absolutely up to the task. I spend a significant percentage of my time as a team leader undoing that damage.

What builds resilience is trust. Trust in one's skills. Trust in one's taste. Trust in one's ability to gain new skills. Trust in others to support, to offer helpful feedback that improves the work, to help you expand your toolkit, to not diminish you as a person if you make a mistake or struggle to find the right approach to a scene. And last but not least, trust in one's process.

Process, as this image illustrates, is the work of climbing out of the pit one boney rung at a time. It automates and systematizes the work of finding new tools and trying new approaches, so that instead of needing to consciously short-circuit despair at every turn, we do it almost reflexively, as a matter of course, as a matter of habit.

To be clear, the message here is not that you should bury your feelings. Rather, that first twinge of self-doubt is a signal. If you let it grow to be too overwhelming, it will cause you to give up. But if you interpret what it means correctly--that your skill and ambition feel out of alignment--you can begin to find solutions. What do you need to learn more about? What do you need to practice more? Is there an adjustment you can make to your ambition that better suits your skillset, but still fits your overall vision? Is there feedback you can get from a trusted source that could help you get on the right track? The climb out of the pit does not need to be lonely work.

Resilience is being able to enter the pit and short-circuit the despair before it takes over because you know that you've clawed your way out of it before. Because you know you've come equipped, and that you're capable of learning what you need to move forward. Because you know you're surrounded by people who support you and want you to succeed. And all of these things allow you to imagine, not wishfully, but standing on firm ground, that you will overcome the challenge in front of you.

One more thing about this image: I will always maintain that the final project has the advantage on the perfect butterfly because it is real and it is finished. Because it is tested. We can imagine perfect butterflies all day, but no one else can ever see them, read them, be inspired by them.

Remember: perfect butterflies are only perfect because they are not real. But this thing you've built, and the journey you've taken to get there--the skill, perseverance and resilience you've developed along the way--all of that is very real, regardless of whether the end result is great or just okay.

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