If you’re worried about making a mess of things, you probably will. But then, a mess is the process by which things get made. The perfect thing — if that is what you aspire to — is a sleight-of-hand. The trick is to hide the effort that went into making it, not in making it without effort.

Things are hard to make. Only a fool would think otherwise. The surest sign of trouble is freedom from doubt, lack of fear. Conversely, worrying about the outcome of a creative project is an indicator of competence. It shows you appreciate the difficulty of the skills and the size of the stakes involved. It also suggests you care, without which any work is meaningless.

At the same time, worrying is futile and possibly vain. Mulling over real or imagined problems will not help you or your work. No one cares about your anxiety of influence. There is nothing more tedious than a tortured artist with a half-baked thing or, even worse, a good idea. If only ideas were things, then making would be easy. But they’re as far apart as you can get and still be in the same ballpark.

Things are made with effort. Whether that effort is evident or not is a stylistic trick, like breaking the fourth wall in a film. It’s clever, but you were already aware that you were watching a film before the character turned to talk to the camera. Just as you don’t confuse life with films, you shouldn’t confuse the effort that went into a thing with its effortless appearance. Master craftsmen like to hide the seams.

But even badly made things are hard to make. If your skills are inadequate for the work, the only way to improve them is by effort: practice more and get feedback on your work.

Central to the creative process is this act of faith: that your effort will work itself out. If you know how to get started, and you have a sense of where you want to go, then begin. Between what you know and what you don’t, what you can do and what you can’t, what makes the difference is whether you begin at all. After that, the way out is to muddle through1.

As TS Eliot put it,

For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

This line is from “East Coker”, a poem which Eliot completed in 1940. Later that year the Nazis began carpet bombing London. During the bombing runs, Eliot would go up to the roof of Faber & Faber’s offices, despite his vertigo, and watch for fires. Over the next two years, he wrote two more poems, which along with “East Coker” and an earlier poem, comprise the Four Quartets, one of the finest literary works of the 20th century.

Next time you think about bailing on your creative projects recall that being bombed is not a sufficient excuse.

  1. A conflation Robert Frost’s, “the best way out is always through” with Anna Quindlen’s “Life is … about muddling through the middle.” ↩︎

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