Inertia: the tendency of objects to preserve their present state of motion unless acted upon by an outside force.
Creative Inertia: the tendency of a creator at work to stay at work unless allowing an outside force to act upon them. Or, an artist at rest to stay at rest unless applying their will as an outside force.
NanoWriMo is almost halfway finished. As something of a Nano evangelist, I convinced a couple friends to get on the bandwagon. Yesterday, I received an email from one of them. He said that even though he was behind, he hadn’t written this much or had so many ideas since he was in college. “The ideas,” he said, “just start jumping out at you.”
Reading about this made my day. It also made me think about burlaks.
What were burlaks? In pre-industrial Russia, burlaks were flea-bitten peasants laborers who would pull barges and ships along the Volga river or through canals. Working alone or as a team, they tied ropes around their body and were able to move huge amounts of freight to and from Moscow to the White Sea.
What does this have to do with creative inertia?
Before railroads, water was the way to move large amounts of stuff. Why? Because once you got the boat moving, it was pretty easy to keep it moving. You needed only sails, galley slaves, or some flea-bitten peasants to keep your vessel in motion.
In my experience, and as most NanoWriMoers can testify, creative inertia is no different. Getting started takes a huge act of will, but once you’re moving, it’s not too hard to stay in motion. You just have to do some grunt work.
Think of your creative project, whether it’s a book, a massive sculpture, an album of songs, whatever, as a big ship that you need to pull from city to sea. The distance is great, the size of the boat is intimidating, and you’ve got to work if you want to survive the winter.
Nobody ever said creating anything worthwhile was easy.
The work isn’t actually too bad, though. Getting started is the hard part. Once you overcome the first three stages of creative inertia, it’s smooth sailing.
The first stage is when you decide to pick up the rope. You know what outcome you want, but the ship seems so big. The thought of pulling it all the way to the sea makes your hands and shoulders hurt. That’s understandable. Most people quit at this point, before the job even starts.
Maybe you’re not sure. You might be waiting for the perfect time. You might say you’re still working out the details. These both seem like reasonable, logical reasons to delay starting a project. However, you should remember four things:
- The perfect time will never come.
- The details will work themselves out as you go along.
- Your mistakes will help you learn what you’re doing right.
- All that said, you can save yourself a lot of effort if you’re sure you’ve got the right boat.
The second stage is when you begin to pull and set your project in motion. In my opinion, this is the most challenging stage. That ship really is massive, and building up the inertia takes a lot of energy, will, and force.
Most new projects carry a huge learning curve. There are new steps, new processes, new physical and mental coordinations to learn. The five simple tasks required for completion have turned into fifty. Yikes!
Worse, this is when the real friction starts, and a lot of it is negative mental chatter. The ship is huge, and it really wants to remain at rest. This stationary inertia may manifest itself as anxiety, fear, or insecurity: fear of failure (or success), worries about how you’ll be perceived, fear of the shame of failure, insecurity about your own abilities. Things to remember during the second stage:
- Getting good at anything takes time. Getting really good takes years. If you want to get really good as something, expect to spend a lot of time doing it.
- You’re probably better than you think. If you’re not, you’ll learn from the process and will improve.
- Most people won’t even notice if you fail, and if they do they won’t care. If anyone laughs at your failure, you can ignore them; they’re irrelevant bastards anyway.
- Keep pulling! It gets easier.
In the third stage, you’re moving down the water to the sea.
The first two stages are hard, but if you keep working, you’ll reach the third stage. The third stage is when things begin to move along a lot easier. You’ve broken the stationary inertia of the ship, and now that your ship is in motion, it really wants to stay in motion. The bigger the ship, the more mass you have working in your favor. You still have a long way to go, and great effort and patience are required, but the important part is the ship is in motion.
The best part is this: in the third stage, your skill increases and your anxiety lowers. For those of you familiar with the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, you know these are two conditions you need to achieve flow in your work.
And what burlak doesn’t like a good amount of flow?
When the ship starts to move, when you start to take advantage of creative inertia, you will start to see great results. A little bit of effort applied over a long period of time will keep your ship moving and your project(s) on track.
Sometimes all you have to do is pick up the rope and start pulling.