The Myth of Simple

I read recently that the brain tends to see everything as far more simple than it actually is.* It was remarkably refreshing to read that this is a problem common to humanity, since it’s one I struggle with all the time.

Take writing, for instance. I get an idea for a new book project, and as soon as I start brainstorming, ideas for characters, plot elements, and cool world concepts come flying fast and furious. I might even write a skeleton outline of the story structure in those magical first days when I know that the story is THE BEST IDEA I’VE EVER HAD and that WRITING IT WILL BE SIMPLE.

sabrinas stash

Simple? Ha. Once I actually put pen to page (or fingers to keyboard, as the case may be) I have to face reality: The characters and scenes I thought I’d envisioned so clearly are no more substantial than mist. It’s one thing to have the idea, but quite another thing to bring that idea to life on the page.

I’m sure you’ve experienced this, too. It’s easy to forget, somehow, that the beautiful language, witty dialogue, and sparkling characters we want to create are the result of a hundred rewrites. This is the reason that Anne Lamont instructed writers to “write shitty first drafts” in her classic guide for writers, Bird by Bird. There’s always a gap between that first story vision and the first words you write. This is also the reason we practice things like freewriting and participate in challenges like NaNoWriMo, which help us learn to silence that inner critic long enough to get something—anything—down on the page. Once those first words are written, it always seems to be easier to see how they can be improved.

I think that the myth of simplicity is a two edged sword. On the one hand, this tendency to view things as “simple” may encourage us to embark on adventures we wouldn’t otherwise try. We start that novel or join NaNoWriMo or sign up for a songwriting class, for instance.

On the other hand, it’s easy to become discouraged when reality doesn’t match up to our expectations. When you sit down to write and the story you thought was right there, waiting to pour from your pen, instead scatters into a thousand fragments—at that point, you need to recognize that your “simple” project never really existed. You need to know that what you’re experiencing is normal. Sometimes, that’s enough to let you keep going.

I’m getting better at noticing those times when I tell myself that some project will be quick, easy, or simple. Sometimes, I let myself ride that feeling for a while. It helps me dive into big ideas and big projects without fear. Sometimes, I force myself to do a reality check. I know that if I let myself pursue too many of those “simple” ideas, I’m quickly overwhelmed with work. Even simple projects take time, which always seems to be in short supply.

What about you? Do you have a habit of underestimating the work involved in writing a scene or crafting a poem or completing some other creative project—or do you find that some things are, in fact, simple?

* Unfortunately, I can’t remember where I read this, only that the article/book/blog post seemed particularly wise and applicable to my current situation. If or when I do remember, I will let you know. I’m sure it will be simple.

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