On Destroying Your Dreams and Enjoying Your Caterpillars

-written by Hearth Founder, Miranda Aisling

It’s four in the morning and I can’t sleep. Yesterday, we hosted the first WhatIMake Conference and I am throughly and utterly exhausted. I had forgotten how painful it is to bring a new idea into the world. Although I am constantly creating things, I’ve spent most of my time recently making iterations of ideas rather than prototypes. Paintings, songs, writing, Hearth events, all of these things that I continuously make have a strong and hard-won foundation.

But I have done two things in the past year for the first time: 1.) I built (am building) a house and 2.) I hosted a conference. It wasn’t, in all honestly, a very big conference and it is, as you may know, a rather tiny house.  But even so, these projects took far more out of me than I expected, which is rare, because I am generally quite good at assessing my own limitations. I made sure that I had the time and the support and the materials and the money, but I forgot to value in the variable we all want to pretend we are above: fear.

Nothing in the creative process is more terrifying than trying to make something for the first time. It all starts when we come up with the idea.  And this, this is what everyone thinks about when they think of the creative process: ideation. That lightning strike moment when–mind racing, eyes dilated, hearth pounding, teeth chattering–all of the pieces that you have accumulated over goodness knows how many hours of meaningless work line up in perfect harmony and present you with an idea.

This is where most people stop, because they are in love.  They are in love with their own idea and, if they’ve ever been through the creative process before, they know that in the next step they have to kill it.  Ann Patchett describes an idea for a new book as “my invisible friend, omnipresent, evolving, thrilling… This book I have not yet written one word of is a thing of indescribable beauty, unpredictable in its patterns, piercing in its color, so wild and loyal in its nature that my love for this book, and my faith in it as I track its lazy flight, is the single perfect joy in my life.” But to actually create said book, Patchett goes on to say, is to snatch it like a butterfly from the air, press it to your desk, and kill it. “Imagine running over a butterfly with an SUV. Everything that was beautiful about this living thing — all the color, the light and movement — is gone.

There is no better image for this stage of the creative process than running over a butterfly with an SUV. It is exactly what I have been doing day after day after day this year and it is why I am so indescribably exhausted. My newly ideated tiny house, over a year ago now, did not have zigzagging lines between plywood boards or spray foam that needed to be sculpted away with an exacto knife.  My newly ideated conference had a line out the door and reporters with very large cameras writing very long articles.

Neither of my beloved, intoxicating ideas become the life-altering smashing successes I wanted them to, and that’s because there really is no such thing as a life-altering, smashing success. Instead, there are hard-won victories. The stories we are fed of these successes are really just abridged versions of a long, strategic battle. As she describes her creative process, Patchett goes on to say, “What I’m left with is the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled, and poorly reassembled. Dead. That’s my book,” and this is where I disagree with her.

The dry husk you are left with at this stage of the creative process is not of your friend, it is of your expectations for that friend. The road to creativity glitters with shattered pieces of dreams, and we must tread carefully or risk letting these shards distract us from the pulsing piece of reality that was encased inside. Like a butterfly metamorphosing in reverse, we fall in love with our ideas only to rip open the cocoon and discover a disappointingly real and ground-bound caterpillar.

This is where the rest of the people stop. They stare in disgust at the caterpillar sitting in their hand, wishing it were a butterfly. But, my friends, the secret to success in creativity is to love your ugly caterpillar. Because it actually exists, because it’s real, because unlike the butterflies it will never fly away from you.

The reason I have been so tired, the reason I cried in front of nearly every person I came across this week and several other times alone in my room, was because I became distracted by the intoxicatingly dangerous shards of my dreams. It wasn’t until today, until I was in that vaulting, beer brewery surrounded by all the very real people who decided to show up and experience my idea become a reality, that I remembered to look past them.

I will write later about how wonderful the conference was, how talented all the speakers were, how engaged all the attendees were, how thankful I am for everyone who took part and made this beautiful day happen, but for now I am going to curl up with my caterpillar and be so glad that it finally, finally exists.

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