Don’t Just Dream It — Do It

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image: Rachel Gorjestani for Unsplash

To create is to do.

It’s to have the idea for a story and then actually write it. It’s to have a vision of a painting and then actually paint it. You can’t just wish art into existence; you have to make it.

I have close to a million (okay: slight exaggeration!) half-baked ideas on my computer’s hard drive. Stories I started and never finished. Lonely paragraphs of articles or blog posts begun and abandoned. I’m glad I had those ideas, but they’re doing nothing sitting incomplete on the hard drive. They’re not art. They’re not literature. They’re not anything. They haven’t been created… yet.

Like most authors, I’ve listened to someone say, “I have a great book in me, if I just could find the time to write it.” We know, of course, that it takes more than just time to write a book; but even more basically than that, this “great book” currently doesn’t exist. It hasn’t been made.

You create by working at your craft. If someone says they’re “learning their craft,” it means much more than just going to a class, memorizing some lines, thinking about dialogue. It means they’re learning how to be present, how to listen, how to access their emotions. Craft isn’t just what you do as a creative person; it’s also about organizing your personality to attain excellence.

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image: Juliet Furst for Unsplash

Jean Anouilh wrote that “to say yes, you have to sweat and roll up your sleeves and plunge both hands into life up to the elbows.” Craft isn’t dreaming; it’s doing. You learn to paint by painting; you learn to write by writing; you learn to act by acting. The creative life entails constant learning, constant changing, constant doing. I cringe when I look at my writing from the past — 10 years ago, five years ago, even last year. Every time I write, I get better at it. We’re embarking on a lifelong apprenticeship and we have to know that no matter what we’re doing today, if we keep doing it, we’ll do it better tomorrow.

Of course, I don’t mean to say the dreaming part of creation isn’t important. Dreaming is fundamental to making something out of nothing, which is what we’re doing when we create. A mug off a potter’s wheel, a dancer moving across a stage, a finished novel, a painting being framed — none of that just happened out of the blue. Inspiration did come first. We’re dreaming things into being.

But we have to have a balance as well, a balance between dreaming and doing. Ideas are just ideas until they’re tried out in the crucible of reality — that’s why I have so many unfinished bits and bobs on my computer! They were good ideas that didn’t stand up to the process of making them into something else. You can step back from your work to decide how to make it, but eventually you have to step forward into its creation.

Creativity has two different components: creative imagination and creative activity. Creative activity aims to do something purposeful. The imagination is something inner that inspires the activity.

We’re lucky to have the imaginations we do; not everybody can imagine the things we imagine. Taking that a step further, making it into our craft, means picking up the brush, keeping the seat of our pants in the seat of the chair, throwing pots on the wheel until our arms ache. It means doing.

And failing. Sometimes the work really isn’t good enough; sometimes the time isn’t right; sometimes the authority — in the case of writers, the acquisitions editor — is just plain incorrect. John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was passed on because le Carré “hasn’t got any future.” Sanctuary, by William Faulkner, was called “unpublishable.” Beatrix Potter had to publish The Tale of Peter Rabbit herself. Stephen King’s Carrie was rejected 30 times before it was published. Louisa May Alcott was told to stick to teaching. Failures, all of them.

Samuel Beckett is often quoted with the motivating, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” (Echoed in the 20th century by Yoda: “Do. Or do not. There is no try.”) Failure is so intrinsic to success that there are books written about it, courses and retreats taught on it, memes circulating throughout the web reminding us of it. Apprenticeship to a craft always involves failing, because creation isn’t easy; if it were, everyone would be doing it. Doing involves failing. And sometimes the failures are deserved: many of my ideas really aren’t worth the bytes they’re taking up. But sometimes, just sometimes, a phoenix can rise from the ashes of failure, an old idea can be given new life, s vision can be fine-tuned, and creation can take place.

When that happens… well, try it for yourself. The magic is there for the taking.

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image: Allef Vinicius for Unsplash

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Bestselling novelist of mystery and historical fiction. Writer, editor, & business storyteller at

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