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No to Novelty: The Case For Persistence in Creation

April 30, 2014

I read an article earlier. The article was simply called ‘A Game Journalist’s Sob Story: When Play Becomes Work‘. In it, a game journalist goes into detail about how his dream job didn’t quite turn out as well as he wanted to:

If you do it long enough, it’s something far more frustrating: Play really does feel like work.

It has reached the point now where anything I do for work feels exactly like work. It’s not play. It doesn’t matter what the particular task is; work is work.

When I read this, I knew exactly what the problem was. It’s a curse that I’ve seen afflict people in all walks of life, especially those in the creative world. This article was a wake-up call to me, that I should probably write an article based on how to avoid this kind of burnout. So, here it is!

Analysing The Problem

So, what exactly causes this feeling? You have landed your dream job, or hobby — great! You’re raring to go, all cylinders firing, eyes set on the finish line. You head for the goal, when — slowly but surely — you begin to slow down. It feels like you’re running into a web that’s getting thicker and thicker with each passing day. Finally, you stop, wonder why you even bothered, and give up. What causes this, exactly? And what can be done to fix it?

To answer this, let’s analyse a specific part of this article, emphasis mine:

Ah, but that’s part of the problem. See, I still love gaming so I’d often want to relax by playing a game. …I’m sure you can see the issue. How can you convince your brain that you’re not working? When play and work feel inseparable, you’ve got a big problem. 

Can you see what the problem is? The man associated playing games with ‘fun’. I mean, who doesn’t, right? So, therefore, he took a job that was based on playing, reviewing, bringing news about, and researching the creative process of video games. The thought process probably went something like this:

  1. Video games equal fun.
  2. There are jobs that are involved with video games.
  3. Therefore, a job involving video games is fun.

And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with this thought process whatsoever. The key, however, is where you draw the balance.

Let’s take two people. Let’s say they both want to be animators. You’re the recruiter of, say, Disney, and they both take a seat in front of you. You learn that Person A wants to be an animator because sometimes he does some animations, and it seems pretty fun, so he’d like to work as an animator, because that would be neat, and he really liked Frozen, so there’s that. Person B, however, attended university for four years under animation, and has completed several animations in his spare time. The animations he makes have a good amount of views on YouTube, and there’s demand for more. When you ask both Person A and B about the project they’re working on, A gushes about this ‘pet project’ they’ve been working on for three or so years. B simply says ‘which?’. Which would you hire?

Personally, I would say B. And with this comparison, you can see what separates A from B. A is someone who is still in the early phase of a specific outlet. You cannot say that B is currently in that same phase. A is still starry-eyed and all excited about the job, while B is the one with chipped teeth and scars on their face.

What does this have to do with our journalism friend? The problem is that — and this is a vicious, and potentially very unfair, assumption — the journalist appears to have entered the field with the same doughy eyes as Person A did. They saw games journalism as being a fun gig, and then eventually lost the fun. That, I wholeheartedly admit, is a very understandable problem to have. I do not wish to bring down this man simply because he tried something that might be fun. But there was a problem with his attack strategy, and it comes to light in this part of the article:

They always say you shouldn’t live in your favorite vacation locale. They say this because that locale quickly loses its magic if you’re there all the time. When you’re anywhere all the time, when you do something all the time, it inevitably becomes routine and hence, you don’t equate that with leisure and recreation. The latter is something you do to unwind, to distance yourself from that routine. When routine and recreation blend, you might just have to reassess.

Can you see it? He uses a very specific word that sheds light on his problem: magic. He compares the job to a dream destination, and then states that it ‘loses its magic’. This is what kills so many people in jobs they thought they were going to love. It also kills so many creative ventures people take — whether that is a novel, a painting, or a piece of music.

Understanding The Magic

So — what the hell is this ‘magic’? We all know what it is, don’t we? It’s the bubbly feeling when you get a new car. When you meet someone for the very first time. When you sit down and write the first opening words on your novel. That bubbling sensation, however, never does stay around, does it? You don’t wake up six months later, look out of your window, and say “I still have a car! Life is great!”. So, let’s analyse this ‘magic’ some more, and see what it is.

The proper word for this ‘magic’ is novelty. Do not get this confused with the definition of something that is small, whimsical, and doesn’t mean much. Novelty is more than just a tiny titbit. Novelty is the sensation you feel in the situations I stated above. It is the novelty of said event that causes you to feel a heightened sense of happiness.

Why is this? Simple. When someone acquires something new, they experience an elevated state of existence. It feels like they have suddenly had their life enhanced for the greater good. This is a very good feeling, and is what causes people to feel the novelty. The feeling of an enhanced life only comes about because the person has become accustomed to their current state of existence, and the event has added to it. The problem, however, is that whatever you gain from the event quickly becomes a part of your life. You become accustomed to it, used to having it. This then resets the ‘base level’ at which you operate, and you need another event to come in to get the same kick.

The best way I can explain this is with my smartphone. I remember when I didn’t have one. I constantly imagined what my life would be if I had one. It would have GPS, maps, the ability to send video and camera images…it would heighten my life considerably. About four years ago, I purchased one. For a month, my life had become a lot better — look at all the cool things I can do! I can watch movies on the bus now!

Now? I can see the phone from here. It’s sitting on my bed, having been unused for several months now.

I can name other things. My Nintendo 3DS — a birthday gift from a very good friend of mine — was heralded in my own head as the bringer of a more fun-filled life. It’s sitting on my shelf right now. I can’t remember the last time I used it. On my computer is Steam, loaded with games that I thought would make my life better if I had them. A lot of them are unplayed.

I am definitely not a victim of the thought of doing something to make my life forever better. The problem is, we get used to things. The object just becomes part of us. We prod it with a stick and say ‘is that all?’. And then chase after something else to get that feeling back.

So what the hell is this article doing on a writing blog, rather than self-help? Because this is the reason some people drop out of creative jobs or outlets. They begin the job, thinking it will make them a better person. Then it becomes a part of their life. Then the sensation of ‘doing work’ kicks in. Then they leave.

Alright. So what’s the solution?

Easy. Burn the attachment to novelty.

No to Novelty

There are two quotes which I like: ‘art is 10% inspiration, 90% perspiration’, and ‘give a man work that he enjoys, and he’ll never work a day in his life’. People always have a problem with the second quote, because doing something like writing a book definitely feels like work. You’ve got all the practice, the character development, the plot, and then hammering a keyboard for days on end. What I always thought the second quote meant, however, isn’t that it’s not work — because it is. It’s that he doesn’t see it as work. He sees it as fun.

But isn’t seeing work as fun the definition of ‘novelty’? Not really. Novelty is the means to see the idea of work as fun, the romanization of the work as fun. When you see someone in their element, however, and they have a big grin on their face? That’s not novelty. That’s persistence. That’s enjoying the process.

The absence of this is why so many novels get abandoned. The person starts the novel with their head full of fun characters and exciting plot. They get to the halfway point, and they become accustomed to the plot and the characters. The novelty vanishes. Then, they see the story as work. They shelve it. Hey — doesn’t matter though, because there’s the new shiny story that could be started. That one is so much better than this one. It’ll definitely be finished.

This thinking causes literary graveyards. Entire drawers of unfinished manuscripts. Creative death and decay.

The key? Realise that, at some point in your process, the sheen is going to wear off. The characters will get boring. The world will be same-old. Everything will feel like routine. Then, when you get to that point, realise that you haven’t lost the original spark. You may see it as all the fun and enjoyment being drained out of you; what’s actually happening is that you’re coming out of your drunk, intoxicated self, and becoming normal. Now that you’re back in reality, you’ve got one thing left to do; keep going.

It will feel like hell. Trust me. You’ll hate every line, every scene you write. You’ll want to throw it away and do something new. These are not warnings, however. These are obstacles in your own mind. If you want to finish what you start, you have to tackle your personal demons in order to get it done.

Some tips to doing just that:

  1. Do not rely on ‘magic bullets’. VERY important. There are no shortcuts in art. Nothing you can do to speed up the process, or get better quicker than everyone else. The only things that do that are practice, guidance, and practice. So, practice a lot. Join an online group and chat to the writers there. Read a book you love and find out how they do it.
  2. Add spice to your work. Stalling because the next scene is a chore? If it’s a chore to write, then it’ll probably be a chore to read, as well. Find out a way to make the next scene fun to write. Make something explode. Make someone explode. When the fires are aflame once more, go for it.
  3. Use the Yes/No rule. Using this trick can unearth little treasures you didn’t see before. This will help keep you, and your readers, interested in the process.
  4. Flow. Don’t chew a sentence for thirty minutes. Don’t worry about word choice until your brain explodes. Go with the flow, and let the first draft form itself. Discover what the book is about, who your characters are, and what the theme is. Then, give it an edit and touch it up to be the best it can be. People get defensive when this is suggested, saying that a perfectly written first draft doesn’t need editing. Ask an artist if they ever commit to a picture without a basic sketch. Ask a musician if they ever create a song without ever going back to tweak the earlier parts. See how many agreements you get.
  5. Love the process. You want the no-bull, no-sugar view on writing? You sit at a computer and write thousands of words from your brain. Then you go back over these words and squash the bugs in them. That’s what you do. That’s what being a writer is. Sound bland? Doesn’t have to be. Do whatever it takes to make the process of writing — the past-halfway, everything’s boring, remind me why I’m doing this again writing — fun again. My good friend Lazette Gifford has always said that the key to writing is in the attitude of the writer. Approach writing with fun. Approach editing with fun. Approach giving your work to a loved one and watching their unimpressed face drop as fun. Writing and editing is only arduous and boring if you make it out to be. As soon as you change your viewpoint of practice, learning, changing, improving, developing…well, you’ll be the one laughing.

In short, be very careful with a creative process. It’s a lot of work. Our journalist friend feared mixing fun with work, but finding fun in work is really what makes a career, I believe. The next time you’re doing something creative and the novelty wears off, just remember that it’s merely everything returning to normal again. Then, do what it means to ignite the creative fires in your heart, and do it every single day. Write every day. Draw every day. Whatever it is you want to do, do it every day. The ones who really make it are the ones who don’t see the process as something you need to have fun from, but as fun. If you don’t find the process fun — the 90% of doing creative work — you’re going to burn out and drop out.

Enjoy yourself, won’t you?

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2 Comments
  1. anglynnofnano permalink

    Great article. That’s always been one of my fears about wanting to make a career out of novelling–that, if I ever actually managed it, it would just become stressful and not something I enjoy. Sometimes when I hit those rough spots in writing, I have to wonder if I actually even like the craft or if it’s just something I… just kind of end up doing to pass the time.

    Thank you for the encouragement!

  2. Nice article! I like to think this is something which drives my writing downswings–a bipolar instinct, if you will, which prevents me from burning out on my writing so I can keep tthe novelty/fun/love for it strong.

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