Losing the Dream-Battle

“Never give up on your dreams” isn’t terrible advice, necessarily. It’s schmaltzy, sure, but it’s heart seems to be in the right place. Too often though, I’ve seen creators internalize the concept in a way that’s not only unhelpful but actually destructive and inhibitive to the creative process.

I’ve given up on writing far more books than I’ve finished writing. For comics projects, you could triple that number. The vast majority of things you start will never be finished. By the time you kick off this planet, your oeuvre is going to be a graveyard of busted marble shards containing maybe a few dozen or so finished statues. And even then, some of those finished statues will be shoved to the way back where you hope nobody will ever have to look at them again. What I’m trying to say—while badly mixing my metaphors—is that you’re going to lose a lot of battles in the process of chasing your dream but that’s not the same as losing the war. In fact, as far as individual battles go, I think one of the best things you can do for yourself is learn when to cut and run.

There was a tweet recently by Becky Cloonan (not to namedrop but we’ve definitely done a jigsaw puzzle together), where she mentioned the “hundred volume graphic novel series” that she’d wanted to make when she was in college. I don’t think there’s a creator alive who didn’t have similar plans when they were dewy-eyed teenagers or twentysomethings with the whole world sprawling out before them and time was still just an abstract nuisance in the background of their grand adventure. But most successful creators, like Becky, didn’t ever make that series. If I had to guess it was probably that she realized it was either a) unrealistic or b) maybe not really good enough to devote her entire life’s work to. Or probably some combination of those two ideas. Realizing that she should abandon that series doesn’t make it a failure, it’s a sign of growth as a creator. I don’t want to speak for her though, so I’ll use an example from my own life.

When I was in college, my first epic project that I’d dreamed up was essentially a terrible clone of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series. Which was a bit strange considering that at that point, I’d never read the His Dark Materials series. I must’ve heard about it somewhere though because it was way to similar to be a coincidence. Sorry, Phil. For me though, the project was my first exploration in creating epic fantasy and the rush that it gave me as a creator was intense. I loaded the world with all the overwrought history and plots and self-inserts that you’d expect, and it was a beautiful, hideous mess that filled endless notebook and taught me to love the act of creation itself. The rush and the joy of world-building that I got from that sloppy mess of a story was important, it just never needed to be finished. It obviously shouldn’t have been. It was bad. Very, very bad. But not every bad story is a bad thing. Not every commercial failure is a personal one. Even if I’d written it beautifully, the book would’ve never sold and if it had, it honestly would’ve been a bad thing. I wasn’t ready to write a book on that scale but I still needed the practice at planning one. I needed the experience of trying it out and seeing how it felt.

I suppose now, even if you agree with what I’ve said so far, there’s something still itching at the back of your brain, wanting to say that it’s also important to stick things out until the bitter end. There’s probably some part of you, the hypothetical reader, that wants to reprimand me and say the best way to grow as a creator is to finish things and send them out into the world, warts and all. There’s definitely some truth to that but it’s also a bit of a trap we get ourselves in, chaining ourselves to work we’ve already moved past creatively as some sort of self-destructive impulse to prove that we’re not “quitters.” That we haven’t “given up on our dream.”

There’s no hard-and-fast rule to know when we should follow something through to the end or give up and take our lumps which is why I think it’s extremely important to examine your reasons for wanting to move on. Which brings me to my next point. If you’re doing something for money or because you’ve already signed a contract, you should probably just finish the damn thing, even if it’s terrible, and then get the hell away from it as fast as you can. It’ll feel awful at the time but hey, everybody’s gotta eat. Just try not to take it personally if these projects aren’t great. These projects are the aforementioned statutes shoved way to the back that you hope nobody ever sees. Don’t be afraid to have plenty of these in your collection, just don’t be surprised when you want to pretend they don’t exist.

I’m sort of losing the plot so let me try to bring it home.

You can absolutely give up on projects without giving up on yourself. Everybody does it all the time. Clear space in your head for better things. Learn from your mistakes and move on. Any finished project you’ve ever seen is built on the broken remains of the ones that were left behind.

You can lose the dream-battle and still win the dream-war.

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