The tingle in your fingers, the frantic pace, the energy coursing through your body -- these are the feelings of inspiration. They are what I always imagine Paul McCartney felt when writing Yesterday, after a single dream one night.
But usually, our creations take longer. Sometimes they even take years. So how do you keep this inspiration if what you’re creating takes years to finish? This week I took the time to talk to three different creators, my friends and family, about how they tackle long projects. Daphne is a writer and editor, she’s also the tireless mother of three, of which I am one. Duncan is a composer who is currently finishing a Master’s degree at UBC. And Doug is an architect and engineer who completed his architectural thesis by designing a music and dance performance space. He also happens to be my uncle. I asked all three of them about how they tackle long projects, and how they stay motivated and interested.
As a small note, the alliteration of the my friends and family’s three names is entirely coincidental and something I only realized after talking to all three of them once I started writing this post.
Universally they all shared one common way of tackling big projects; breaking things down into smaller bits.
Daphne talked about how tackling a book needs to be broken into small, manageable bites. “Have you ever heard the expression “How do you eat an elephant”? One bite at a time.”
Duncan remarked that he also breaks things down into small bits, but that he also will work on other compositions while working on the big one. “By breaking the ice with something smaller, I can trick myself into getting back into the compositional mindset without having to directly confront the big, intimidating work.”
This idea of starting with smaller projects was something Doug talked about as well. “We had three years of coursework, and in that time had eight or nine different studio courses where you would develop a design over three months. By the time we got to our thesis projects we were all used to working on a tighter timeframe.”
Both Daphne and Doug mentioned creating a schedule. “I try to make a plan based on what’s a reasonable amount of work to do every day,” Daphne said. “This is how a lot of people fall down, people who want to write in chunks of 3000-5000 words at a time.” This means they’re writing for six to eight at a time and then leaving the project aside for months. “This means they’re losing connection with the material,” Daphne says. “I suggest creating a macro plan that is sustainable on a more or less doing it every day.”
Doug did this scheduling with the help of his thesis advisor. “I created a schedule for myself, and had a thesis advisor that I had to check in with regularly. This created “sub deadlines”, points in which I knew I had to have work done.” He also created a final deadline for himself. “I saw students who after five years still hadn’t finished their thesis project. I told myself I was going to be finished in a year and a half.” When I asked him how close he got to that deadline, he said within a month of where he wanted to be from the outset.
But what good is having a schedule if you can’t stay connected to the project? All three people had different techniques for dealing with this.
Daphne “You can’t do things only when you feel like it. The only way to do a long-term project is to commit to spending X amount of time per day. There will always be times where it feels like it’s worthless and that it’s hard to do, and you just have to keep up with it.”
Duncan remarked, “I try never to let myself finish all of my ongoing projects at once, for fear of the paralyzing effect of having only new pieces to work on. By always having something underway, I can stop myself losing momentum.”
In the middle of these ideas was Doug’s comment that what got him working on his thesis, a design for a theatre space, was his “love of theatre and dance”. His enthusiasm for creating this building was what brought him back to it every day.
Although any attempt to distill all of the fascinating things my friends and family said would do them no service, if I was to try to draw out just three conclusions from their advice, I think they would be:
You cannot tackle big projects in big ways, you have to break them into small pieces. You have to work on creating regularly, even if what you’re creating isn’t very good or isn’t exactly related to your big project.
You need tohave a love for what you’re creating. A love of the subject will be the best motivator.
I want to thank Daphne, Duncan, and Doug for talking to me for this post.