In Praise of Beginners (part 2)

4/366: Beginning
Creative Commons License photo credit: Magic Madzik

In part one of this article, we looked at the value of channeling what we might think of as the ‘beginner’s spirit’ in our creative work – that combination of curiosity, naiveté and excitement at the discovery of something new that so often lends the work of ‘beginners’ its energy and spark, and which is all too often missing in more established, ‘career’ artists, musicians and so on.

Today I’d like to look at another kind of beginner, and to think about this idea in a different light. And to illustrate what I’m talking about, I’m going to look at the work of my good friend Josh.

Josh is a cartoonist. Well, in fact there are other dimensions to his work, but that’s the one he’s best known for. He publishes a daily comic strip called Caffeinated Toothpaste, which is basically an illustrated diary of funny, interesting or unusual things that happen to him in the course of the day, filtered through his rather quirky sense of humour and worldview.

(He’s also known to swear quite freely in the course of this… I doubt this will be a big problem for my readers, but just in case – you’ve been warned!)

Now Josh has been putting these strips out for a couple of years now, a little longer than I’ve been at the Sound Fascination project, for which in fact Caffeinated Toothpaste was one source of inspiration. But he’s been far more consistent with it, and in this time he’s finished over 800 comics.

Now, it’s exactly this perspective that most people take on this kind of thing: it’s the number finished that’s impressive (and make no mistake, I’m as impressed as anyone with that kind of tenacity and work ethic). We have a pretty strong bias towards the value of finished works.

But as I was writing about beginners last week, it occurred to me that finishing a piece every day like that also requires doing something else every day, and that’s getting started… Josh doesn’t just finish a piece every day; he also begins a new piece every day, and I think that’s a rather remarkable thing that deserves a bit of thought…

Keep starting stuff

I’m talking about what Neil Fiore calls ‘Persistent Starting’. For Dr. Fiore, it’s a way to overcome the procrastinator’s fear of finishing; for me it’s the other half of the equation that lets us keep that ‘beginner’s spark’ going in our creative work even if we’ve long passed out of the novice phase…

The idea, in my version, is basically to just keep starting stuff. New pieces, new projects, new books, blogs, businesses, whatever. Capture the excitement, the energy, the enthusiasm that comes from starting something new, let yourself get carried away. If you’re stuck on one thing, try starting another rather than beating your head against something that is not ready to be finished right now.

Of course I’m not advocating a total lack of commitment to following through. It’s obviously necessary to finish stuff, too. We are likely to be judged by what we finish, not what we start, and that’s probably as it should be. If we never finish what we start there’s likely a problem somewhere in the process and we should probably try to sort that out.

But me, I’d rather leave a trail of glorious beginnings than an endless series of dreams, ideas, hopes and aspirations that never saw the light of day. And I’m speaking as someone with a strong tendency towards exactly that kind of nebulous dreaming and scheming. It’s a beautiful thing, but if I could trade 90% of my potentially great but never-acted-on ideas for the chance to go back and just get started on the other 10% I’d do it in a heartbeat (or at least, I’d give it serious consideration…)

unfinished business

I also, mind you, have a pretty hefty stash of unfinished beginnings, and sometimes I wonder what that says about me. My biggest piece of unfinished business is Symmetricity, a ‘novel with a soundtrack’ that I’ve put something like a thousand hours into and for which my friend Josh is, ironically, listed as the illustrator. I still hope to get back to it at some point, though I may tone it down a bit in terms of ambition. Life being what it is, I’ve begun to see the value of projects that are not so vast in scope…

However, even if I never get back to it at all, I’m happy that I cared enough about it to get started, and I’m not ashamed of it in any way. It was what another friend refers to as an Enthusiastic Projection (Marc is a fantastic guitarist and mandolinist, composer and generally inspiring musician, and Enthusiastic Projections is a long-running side project, which I think I may have actually played on a track of at one point if memory serves). And that name captures something essential about what I’m talking about here: enthusiasm.

It’s not only OK, it’s absolutely essential to let ourselves be irrationally enthusiastic about starting something new, even if experience tells us we might not finish every new thing we start. Especially in that case, in fact. I think the worst thing we can do is get down on ourselves for too much enthusiasm and too little follow-through, and end up jaded and cynical about our own creativity.

wired or tired? your choice…

Josh starts something every day, give or take, and finishes it too. I don’t, although there are mitigating factors involved so I try not to beat myself up about it. But I know that I spend the better part of an hour sometimes puttering away at email and Facebook and so on, and then realize that I’m too tired to get into anything… whereas if I’d started something creative right off the bat then I’d be into it already and have all the energy and momentum that goes along with that, instead of just feeling tired and overwhelmed. So I am really into finding ways to trick myself into just getting started on something, anything, in order to tap into that enthusiastic space.

(That’s very much the spirit behind the Sound Fascination project, as well as another, still somewhat secret I one that I hope to launch soon – watch this space!).

I’d also like to take this opportunity to mention another great ‘beginner’ that’s been on my mind lately, and that’s my uncle (and godfather, whatever that means at this point) Richard Wilcox, who passed away last week… in the words of his beautiful obituary, “Richard was quiet, kind, generous, self-sufficient and, above all, creative. His furniture and paintings fill the house; the garden is graced by his walls, patios and arbours… Richard’s projects were always done properly, often involving the construction of an exquisitely detailed model first… His early passion for traditional small boats culminated in the making of a beautiful cedar and canvas canoe…”

I’ll miss Richard immensely, and will try to channel some of his boundless enthusiasm for launching into a new project as much and as often as I can. And maybe even finish some small fraction of them!

How about you? Have you started something new today?