It’s 4pm on a blustery Saturday afternoon. My friend and I have committed to making two art installations in 24 hours for the Kaleido Festival here in Edmonton - a couple of lovers that also happen to be a giant cookie and a giant bottle of milk.
The person crazy enough to agree to take on this project with me is balanced on a ladder and trying to glue a 14-foot long strip of poly sheeting to a plastic ring around the top of a lamppost. The gusty wind grabs the bottom of the poly and sets it flapping off the side of the pole like a long winding flag. I have to choose between holding the ladder to keep my friend safe and wrangling the maniacal poly sheet. It hits us both at the same time: this is never going to work.
In every project I’ve ever worked on, there comes a moment when I want to throw up my hands and walk away from it. Sometimes it comes at the beginning when I can’t fathom how I’ll turn the images in my mind into physical form. Sometimes it comes halfway through when all my hard work seems to be unraveling. And sometimes it happens near the end when it becomes clear that I missed one crucially important step back at the beginning.
Creative work is never straightforward, never predictable, never easy. Creations evolve and grow and collapse and occasionally die -- sometimes tearing apart their makers in the process. As makers, we must learn to live in a constant state of uncertainty, always stepping gingerly along a wire (or up a ladder!) that wobbles and shakes under our weight. We must be prepared to fall.
On this day, however, falling was not an option -- the ladder was much too high. Magically, cheerful family members showed up just as we were hitting our breaking point. They offered extra hands, wise advice, and comforting company. We struggled through the process of building a giant milk bottle, one sheet of plastic at a time, and were overjoyed to glue the dopey facial features on as the sun was setting and the sky grew pink. One of the roaming festival clowns stopped in her tracks and burst out laughing when she saw what we had spent the afternoon crafting. She got it and her joy made it feel worthwhile.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what gets me through these moments of uncertainty, doubt and fear. Why do I keep making installations when the terror of not being able to pull it off grips my stomach every single time? Why do I keep pushing for tight deadlines when it seems completely impossible to finish on time? Why do I keep trying new things when the old things are working just fine?
Because somewhere, somehow, I’ve developed a habit of trust. Trust in myself, but more importantly, trust in the process of creation itself. Somewhere I’ve become convinced that if I give my all to a creative project, it will give me something in return. I will struggle, and I will very possibly fail, but the effort will be worthwhile no matter what.
This time, after a day of struggle and stress, we were able to watch delighted festival-goers beeline toward both our installations, playing with them and having their photos taken. We had the satisfaction of seeing sketches and ideas turned into giant 3D realities. And we learned a lot about the realities of building stuff up high, outside, with complicated weather. We learned that we need more help than we think we do.
After the project, it’s easy to see where the value lies -- even if the value consists simply in deciding never to do this thing ever again. But how do we learn to trust the process in the messy middle of it all? How do we get back on the ladder time after time when our minds are telling us that this is the worst piece of garbage we have ever conceived of?
Unfortunately, I don’t have a simple, 10-step process for how to do this. In truth, it’s a still a bit mysterious to me. All I know is that I keep putting myself at the mercy of my creativity day after day - mostly because I can’t imagine a life without it.
It might help to look at your relationship with creativity like you would a relationship with a person. When you trust someone, you believe they have your best interests at heart. They will inevitably let you down now and then, but if the trust is strong enough, you can weather these disappointments with relative grace. Renowned relationship expert Jon Gottman says that the key to building this kind of deep trust in a relationship is to continuously “turn towards” your partner’s bids for attention.
The more you turn towards your creativity, the more it will turn toward you. And though it won’t always react the way you want, with enough experience you will start to feel safe in its arms.
Some of the ways you can regularly “turn toward” your creativity are:
- Make time for it
- Be curious
- Be mindful
- Be creative with friends
- Get started, even when it’s scary (especially when it’s scary)
- Finish what you start
- Stop comparing your creative work to others
- Let go of perfectionism
- Ask for help
And in return, you’ll start to develop the sort of trust that will carry you through the hardest of times:
- Trust that you will figure it out
- Trust that you have the skill
- Trust that people will help
- Trust that whatever happens will be okay
- Trust that you are enough
- Trust that you will find your way
- Trust that it will be better next time
- Trust that no one will see your “mistakes” and definitely won’t care if they do
I think both of us were happy to tear down this particularly difficult project at the end of the weekend. While the finished product brought the festival-goers plenty of joy, the process of building it didn’t bring us the joy that we would hope for in a “fun” project like this. But I’m not walking away feeling like I need to break up with my creativity, or stop doing large-scale installations. There are some conversations that need to be had for sure but I have enough trust in the relationship to know that I want to keep exploring, keeping trying, keep building. And I hope you will too.