This article was originally published on davidnwaeze.com on August 30,2021
I’ve been learning a lot lately about mindset. I feel as though a lot of what I’ve written this year has centered on the act of creative self-starting, and getting my creative work off the ground. This isn’t an uncommon struggle. As I wrote last month, “all early writers… struggle to find [their] voice.” This is true of artists in virtually every medium. Be it fear of putting oneself on the page, on the screen, or the audio record, fear of starting is one of the biggest obstacles to anyone getting started in pursuing their creative ambitions. As I’ve been learning recently, this is a mindset problem. I’m awakening to the realization that I need to change mine if I want to get things done.
In a very well known and heavily cited interview for current_ on the subject of storytelling, Ira Glass muses on the art of beginnings as follows: “All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there is this gap… For the first couple years… what you’re making isn’t so good… It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not that good… your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you.” This sense of the work not being what I want it to become is exceedingly familiar and brutal. Set against this backdrop, the fear of starting can feel unspeakably cruel. I’m not there yet. I can feel it when I create and see it when I engage in the elementary work of creating. The same product of my labor is frequently an active reminder of the very thing that motivates my fear of moving forward. But the sense that the goal I have in mind is a good one — even if unrealized at this point — carries me on.
Glass continues, “Everybody I know who does interesting, creative work they went through years where they had really good taste and they could tell that what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be. They knew it fell short. Everybody goes through that. And if you are just starting out or if you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week or every month, you know you’re going to finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you’re going to catch up and close that gap. And the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions.” This is the challenge. Do the work to get to where I want to be with the work. It feels a lot like climbing up to the edge of a diving board and looking down, scared of the next step. Thinking about it, but 2nd, 3rd, and even 4th, and 5th guessing myself. I have to jump. I have to leave the security of the solid board and enter freefall through the air into the near-weightless fluid space below. Not only do I have to jump that first time, but I have to get back up there and jump again and again. I have to jump until I’m so well-practiced and comfortable with jumping that I can move beyond this primary task to the more complex challenges of engaging my fall with grace and elegance.
For me, this implies a dramatic shift in mindset. I’ve spent a great deal of my life anchoring my thoughts and feelings about its circumstances on external factors I have no control over. In the worst of times, this mentality has made the essential functions of everyday life seem almost unbearably Sisyphean. At the best of times, it’s left me frequently joyless and without a sense of fulfillment. This makes sense. It’s difficult to feel fulfilled at the initiative one doesn’t take. Fulfillment requires volition. Volition requires self-knowledge. It’s not enough to have only a roughly formed large picture vision for where I want to go and what I want to do with my creative projects. It’s also not enough to slam, workaholic into the wall of work that I could set for myself to advance myself in what I’m attempting to create. To get past my fear of starting, I need to take an honest stock in who I am, what I’m bringing to this work, and why I’m doing it.
To that end, I recently completed a self-assessment that required me to make a list of the most deeply emotionally moving experiences in my life, identify the conflicts associated with these experiences, and then arrange these conflicts into themes. Finally, I had to organize these themes into a narrative about my emotional self. This exercise aimed to establish a clearer picture of who I am and what I bring to the stories I want to tell. It was enlightening. What I learned was — to my surprise — that most of the events that stood out in my memory — whether from my childhood or adulthood — were very negative. The themes which came up for me centered around feelings of alienation, distrust, and isolation. From my childhood into adulthood, I’ve never felt much of a sense of rootedness in anything I would call my own community. I’ve also long had a deep longing to connect to my heritage. These themes feel connected. The feeling of being broken away and a wish for connection to “home.”
This exercise certainly helped to explain some of my underlying esoteric motives in choosing regarding my topic-themes of Sub-Saharan Africa and the African Diaspora (Discontinent) and national break-away movements (Secessio Populi). More than that, though, it helped me clarify the challenge of the work ahead of me. My ultimate goals revolve around turning my wounded sensibilities on their head so that I may fill many of the spiritual holes that I brought with me in my journey from childhood into manhood. I must find my community and build my home. In recognizing this and thus getting a sense of the stories I want to tell and why I want to tell them, I realize how and why I can only tell them the way I need them to be told. However, to do that, I must also take honest stock of where I’m at so that I may see the way forward. Before I evolve into the creator I want to be, I have to become an expert in being the me that I’m bringing to that work. The key to the shift in mindset that I am beginning to embark on is recognizing that I am a husband first, then a father, then a companion to two great dogs and cuddly cats. After that, I’m a homemaker, and only after that am I a beginning writer and video maker. It’s only when I’ve mastered each of those in turn that I will be able to bring all of myself into the next level down the priority chain. At times, this can feel incredibly overwhelming and completely insurmountable. But I have a few ideas as to where I can start.
First off, I need to stop getting bogged down in planning and get moving on doing. I have a terrible habit of wanting to see a more complete picture of what I’m doing than is helpful, and it eats a ton of my attention and time trying to map out everything I do before I even get started. I need to stop stopping and start doing with more of my time. Second, I need to put hard limits on those tasks I know will take days to complete but feel comforting to bury myself in. I’ve become adept at these long and slow but low initiative projects, like sorting my cluttered computer files or emails or aimlessly chattering away on social media in conversations that feel important n the moment but which I won’t remember next week. I have to set a time limit on how much of my day I want to dedicate to this sort of thing and stick to that limit. My wife and kid need me in the real world and not off in the inviting la-la-land of make-work, make-conversation, and other such make-believe. Third, I need to establish some role models. I’m not going to go into too much detail. This piece feels like a goldmine for potential embarrassment. The pertinent matter is that I’m going to try and seek out the methods of people who’ve done similar things to what I want to do and attempt to emulate some of their approaches. I’m also going to try and keep an eye out for opportunities to help everyone I can along in our intersubjective journeys to reach our goals. In a more immediate sense, I will make a concerted effort to lean into my fears and demand from myself that I finish something to be published every week. As I do so, I will try to let my deep sense of wonder and my will to do the right thing be my lodestones. It is within my power to move forward with this and achieve my most profound dreams and desires. I just need to get my mind right and get to it.