The Yearbook Office
Writings on staying alive

Do you want to be a creative person, but feel locked out from whatever it is that will enable you to make things of your own? Are you frustrated whenever you hear people say "just do it" or "just make things" because you want to, but have no idea what to make or where to start? Have you read that Ira Glass quote a million times to yourself but feel helpless when it comes to execution?

I was like you, but I managed to break through to the other side of it. It happened fairly quickly too, so here is a guide to the steps that worked for me. It is by no means meant to be a comprehensive guide to creativity — everyone has to find their own way — but I remember what it was like to stay up at night wishing I could do creative stuff without knowing how to proceed.

1. Wait

The first thing you need is an idea. For some people this is easy; for others, it can be the hardest step. What you need is an idea so compelling that you want to drop everything and work on it right this minute. These always come at the most inopportune moments, too. Your goal is to capture the idea, in all its perfectly-realized glory, as soon as it comes to you. Do not put it off until later; the longer you wait, the less you will remember all the things that made this idea compelling in the first place.

2. While you are waiting, hone your skills

It can take a long time before the right idea comes to you, but there are things you can do in the meantime. Whatever creative field you pick probably involves some amount of skill, and you can still practice and improve without necessarily making your own work. If you are playing music, play scales or learn cover songs. If you want to do visual art, draw every day or as often as you can. If you are writing, try documenting your day or writing about things that happen to you. It takes practice to have the things you write sound like you, and the more you do it, the easier it will be.

In addition, take time to study the art, music, writing, culture you love. Do not just re-watch your favorite movie because you like it, but try to figure out why you like it. Think about it like a clock: take it apart and figure out what makes it tick. Understanding how art affects you will help you make art that affects others in similar ways.

3. Pounce

When your idea comes, attack it with everything you have. It will be hard; often you will find yourself frustrated that things are not turning out how you imagined them in your head. This is unfortunately part of the struggle when you are starting out, when that Ira Glass quote is the most meaningful. But remember that the more you try, the more work you put in, the better you will be and turning your idea into reality will be easier.

As the process of turning your idea into a thing drags on, it can feel harder and harder to finish it. I wish I had better advice than "power through" but I do not. For me, this is the part of writing that is hardest. Finding the ways to keep yourself motivated is key. Set deadlines and hold yourself to them. Keep trying.

4. Keep it secret

Something important for me is to never talk about things I want to do before they are done. If I mention my ideas to others, it always leads to them taking a lot longer to finish than things I complete before I show anyone.

Fun fact: I have been telling people I was going to write this essay for two years, which is a large part why it is two years late!

Everyone handles these things differently, and asking for feedback is a key part of the creative process, but especially when you are starting out my recommendation is to keep it to yourself. That way the only expectations you have to meet are your own, and those are probably high enough as it is.

5. Finish

The most important thing is finishing your work. It is so important I am going to write it in a bigger font.

The most important thing is finishing your work!

I cannot stress this enough. The benefits of being a creative person only come when you have finished your work. It can be easy to get wrapped up in creative person culture. Everyone is motivated in different ways, but reading inspirational quotes or tweeting that you are working on something are not doing the work. Learn to worship the completed work, not the process, and you will get a lot more done. For me, the warm, cozy feelings come when I can show something I made to others, but I only can get those if I finish them.

And sometimes "finishing" can mean abandoning something, that is perfectly fine too! Recognizing that an idea is not worth pursuing will mean not wasting time you could spend pursuing a better idea (or, you know, chilling out watching Buffy reruns), and it can take a lot of false starts before you can see something through to completion. Not all ideas are winners.

The key is knowing when you are done. There always comes a point when more effort is not going to improve the work, and learning to recognize that is important. You can polish something forever, but no matter what you might think, no one idea is so great that you need to work on it forever. Your ideas are not precious gemstones that need to be protected, they are seeds that you plant and help grow. You can always get more.

It is also for this reason that you should start small. Your idea might be to write a suite of 18 books or write an entire concept album, and while that is a great thing to work towards, you want to pick out the smallest thing you can because you need to finish it before you can move on. Which is not to say you could not work up to a bigger idea, but breaking them into smaller manageable chunks will give you time to re-evaluate as you go.

But finishing your first creative thing is huge.

6. You did it!

Congratulations! You made a thing, like all your creative idols have been telling you to! Whether you put it online and tell all your friends or put it in a drawer and move right on to the next thing, completing your first thing should hopefully leave you eager and hungry for more. No matter what, you are now a creative person. In truth, you always were a creative person (because we all are, no matter what shitty art gatekeepers try to say), but now you have something to call your own. It does not matter if it is good or bad, because it is yours.

And hopefully you learned something in the process, or found yourself inspired with an even better idea.

7. Time to move on

The best part of finishing something is that it frees up the creative space in your brain for new ideas to form. Often while I am working on something, a better idea comes to me. I like to think I only have room in my brain for maybe six separate creative ideas at a time, so when I finish one I know a better idea will come to me pretty soon.

For the same reasons, it is not in your interests to hold on to ideas forever. Sure, you might want to wait until you are ready to write that 18-book series, but it is also likely after finishing the first book your notion of the idea will change or you will come up with a different, better idea entirely.

No matter what your next idea is, you probably now have a better sense how to take that to the finish line. You will always improve the more you work, but the only way that works is to keep working.