The Empty Bucket
I kept writing.
I kept not getting published, but that was okay, because I was getting educated.
The most important benefit of my years of disciplined, solitary work was that I began to recognize the emotional patterns of creativity—or, rather, I began to recognize my patterns. I could see that there were psychological cycles to my own creative process, and that those cycles were always pretty much the same.
“Ah,” I learned to say when I would inevitably begin to lose heart for a project just a few weeks after I’d enthusiastically begun it. “This is the part of the process where I wish I’d never engaged with this idea at all. I remember this. I always go through this stage.”
Or: “This is the part where I tell myself that I’ll never write a good sentence again.”
Or: “This is the part where I beat myself up for being a lazy loser.”
Or: “This is the part where I begin fantasizing in terror about how bad the reviews are going to be—if this thing even gets published at all.”
Or, once the project was finished: “This is the part where I panic that I’ll never be able to make anything again.”
Over years of devotional work, though, I found that if I just stayed with the process and didn’t panic, I could pass safely through each stage of anxiety and on to the next level. I heartened myself with reminders that these fears were completely natural human reactions to interaction with the unknown. If I could convince myself that I was supposed to be there—that we are meant to engage with inspiration, and that inspiration wants to work with us—then I could usually get through my emotional minefield without blowing myself up before the project was finished.
At such times, I could almost hear creativity talking to me while I spun off into fear and doubt.
Stay with me, it would say. Come back to me. Trust me.
I decided to trust it.
My single greatest expression of stubborn gladness has been the endurance of that trust.
A particularly elegant commentary on this instinct came from the Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, who said that—when one is learning how to write poetry—one should not expect it to be immediately good. The aspiring poet is constantly lowering a bucket only halfway down a well, coming up time and again with nothing but empty air. The frustration is immense. But you must keep doing it, anyway.
After many years of practice, Heaney explained, “the chain draws unexpectedly tight and you have dipped into waters that will continue to entice you back. You’ll have broken the skin on the pool of yourself.”