5 Survival Tips for the Messy Middle

Welcome to Good Enough Creative, a podcast for creative people.

Hi again, welcome back – I’m your host, Marie Greene, and in today’s episode I want to talk about the middle. The messy middle. The part of the process where you’re feeling like you’re in the weeds and things are not coming together yet and you have absolutely no idea if everything will work out.

The middle.

It’s exhilarating to begin a new adventure. We often celebrate that moment, right? We celebrate the book contract, even though the work is still ahead of us. Taking that first step feels like something to celebrate, and it is.

It’s also kind of easy to look back on our accomplishments and the progress we’ve made and see how far we’ve come. Looking back and seeing what you overcame and how much you’ve grown, how much you’ve learned, all the hardships you powered through – you can look back at that and celebrate that, too. Everyone wants to throw a party at the finish line.

But you know what we don’t celebrate? The middle. The middle is messy.

It’s often foggy or unclear. In the middle we’re just far enough from the joy of the beginning, and not nearly close enough to the finish line. The middle is where we start to get tired. It’s when our ideas start to fall flat. It’s when we may lose steam or not feel motivated anymore.

The middle is the hard part. There’s no party. There’s no celebration. No one pats you on the back for waking up on a Wednesday and rolling out of bed and making your coffee and throwing yourself right back into the thick of it.

But if you ask me – the middle is where we’re working the hardest. It’s when we have to hold onto our belief in ourselves even when things don’t seem like they’re working out. I have never doubted myself more than when I’m in the middle. In the middle of a book, in the middle of a deadline, in the middle of an overwhelming amount of work that I piled on my own plate because I sometimes think I’m a robot and have no limits.

The middle is where we’re tempted to give up.

When you’re smack-dab in the middle, you may be thinking that you’re on the verge of failure. In the middle where you don’t have the assurance that it’ll all work out – even though it probably will. It’s just that the finish line is so far away that you can’t really see what it looks like.

Creativity, especially, is tricky in the middle. Because you can’t force a good idea. You can’t make creativity bend to your will just because you want it to. And what I’ve found is that we often need our creativity to swoop in and save us usually at the times when we’re feeling the least creative.

So today I want to share 5 Survival Tips for the Messy Middle.

First, remember where you came from.

I want you to take a minute and think back to a time when you overcame something really tough. We all go through hard things, except for one woman I met back in the late 90’s who told me she’d never had any sad or discouraging experiences in her entire life. I don’t know how she managed that, but for the rest of us, we’ve all powered through some pretty big and overwhelming and seemingly insurmountable things. You got through those, and you’ll get yourself through this, too. The middle might be one of the most uncomfortable spots to be stuck in, but there’s no finish line without it. If there were, then we’d all just skip to the good part.

But in thinking about where you came from, remember the tenacity that got you through other hard things. Remember how clever you’ve been, and how you came up with brilliant ideas just in the nick of time. You’ve done it before and you’ll do it again – the middle might be thankless and messy, but you’ve already proven to yourself that you can come out the other side. And you’ll do it this time, too.

The second survival tip is to look for the helpers.

Now, I stole this one from Mr. Rogers, but his idea that in a crisis we should look to the helpers can apply to any of us at any point in our life’s journey. What might feel like a crisis to you may be invisible to those around you – people don’t always see what we’re going through. I have spoken with so many kind and lovely humans lately who are going through hard things, and you wouldn’t know it to look at them. Because we don’t all go around wearing our struggles and our worries on our sleeves.

But what’s cool is that you don’t have to alert the media to rally support around you. Chances are, there are supporters in your life already that care about you and want to share your journey. I remember once that I participated in a workshop where the facilitator asked us to list our support people, and I drew a complete blank. It’s not that I didn’t have people in my life who could be there to help or show support if I were to ask, it’s just that I’d never thought of it like that. And I most certainly didn’t ask.

So many of us feel like we need to be the one to save the day for everyone else, but really – we’re part of a tapestry of connection. And we need each other. There will be times when you get to be the helper for others, and there will be times when someone else will get to help you. When you hit those bumpy spots in the middle, it’s the perfect time to connect with one of the helpers in your own life – whether to cheer you on, to listen, to offer ideas, or to gather with you to celebrate your progress.

Speaking of celebration – the third survival tip is to celebrate the middle.

This one is a little hard for me, because I’m such a results-oriented person, but the more I grow to understand the creative journey and the importance of the entire process, the more I realize that we should not be saving our parties only for the beginning or the end.

Think about how much time you spend in the middle of any given project or goal. The middle is where all the hard work is. And it’s where we feel the most alone.

But what if we were to start celebrating ourselves and our progress right in the thick of it?

Author Katherine Morgan Schafler – who wrote the incredible book The Perfectionist’s Guide to Losing Control (side note: if you at all identify as a perfectionist, it’s glorious, read it – I’ve linked it in the show notes). But she said that she once had a party for herself in the middle of writing her book. She had balloons and streamers and party food, and her daughter asked what they were celebrating, and she told her the party was for how hard she was working.

When is the last time you celebrated how hard you’re working? When did you last take yourself to lunch or treat yourself to flowers, or bake yourself a cake for working hard, not giving up, and sticking with your project even when things look dire or impossible? And why don’t we do that? This reminds me of how we save our good dishes only for important occasions. When you think about it, how many important “good dishes” occasions does one person really have in life if we wait and only celebrate the really big things?

Celebrate more. Don’t wait until you reach the finish line. Celebrate the middle – when you’re discouraged and tired and frustrated and everything looks messy and terrible. That’s when you need a little pick-me-up the most.

Number Four, go through the motions.

When things feel super hard, it might be tempting to hit the brakes. Maybe your ideas have dried up. Maybe some of the support you were counting on fell through. Maybe your work wasn’t selected for the juried art show. Maybe the orders you were expecting just didn’t come. Maybe someone canceled. I think the hardest part about the middle is that you don’t even really know you’re in the middle when you’re in it. You know you’re not at the beginning, and you know you’re not at the finish line (or at least you hope this isn’t the end, because if it is, it doesn’t look the way you had hoped). The middle is often where you just feel lost in the weeds and have no idea where to go from here.

When you’re feeling like that, go through the motions. The important thing is that you don’t stop. Because the only way to get OUT of the middle is to keep going. To keep moving forward.

Even when you’re not inspired, you can show up for yourself and your goal. You can keep baking those cookies or writing those poems or designing those patterns – whatever it is that makes your heart sing – go through the motions of it. Even if what you’re creating isn’t your best work, and maybe you feel like it’s not even any good. But don’t stop. Because what’s amazing is that when you keep moving, you maintain momentum. And that momentum will keep you rolling forward until you accidentally wander right back into a fountain of inspiration again.

Go through the motions, fake it til ya make it, and before you know it, things will be headed in the right direction again. I can’t tell you how many ugly things I’ve knit and pulled out and reknit and pulled out because my inspiration dried up and my ideas went poof. But the deadlines weren’t going anywhere. I didn’t want to submit something terrible, but I also couldn’t afford to quit. So I just had to keep my needles moving and go through the motions until inspiration struck again. And what’s amazing is that it always comes back. I just have to make sure I don’t put on the parking brake.

And last, but not least – keep your gas tank full.

One thing I know for sure is that if you feel depleted, everything else will feel much harder than it has to be, and that includes the middle.

Filling up your own gas tank looks like making sure you’re drinking enough water. Getting enough sleep. Listening to uplifting audios. Reading inspiring books or messages. Taking your vitamins. Surrounding yourself with inspiring and supportive people. When things get tough in the middle – and they will – we want to make sure we have a full gas tank. Because you might be trekking through the back country of your project for a while, and it might be a hundred miles before the next gas station. Obviously I mean this metaphorically and you can probably tell that I’ve traveled one too many times across the middle of nowhere on I-80 in the U.S.

But I think the imagery works here – because we get by for a while coasting if we have gas in our tank. If we keep filling up our tank, then we can keep going for a while because we’re taking care of what’s important. That’s how to get yourself through the middle and to the next stop along the way.

The creative process gets pretty messy, and it’s not always as rewarding or exciting as we might hope. But if we remember that EVERYONE has to get through the messy middle sometimes, and we can set ourselves up for success by keeping these ideas in mind.

Remember where you came from and what you’ve already gotten yourself through. You’ve already done amazing things, and you have more to do.

Look for the helpers and remember that we all get to take turns supporting each other and showing up for one another on this journey.

Don’t forget to celebrate the middle – celebrate the hard work, celebrate yourself for not giving up.

Go through the motions so you don’t lose momentum, and have faith that inspiration will return on its own time. Sometimes the most important thing you can do is just to keep moving forward, even if the rest is uncertain.

And last but not least, keep your gas tank full. No one knows what you need as well as you do, so take that little bit of extra time to fill your body and your mind with the right kind of fuel to support the work you’re here to do.

The best thing about the middle is that it doesn’t last forever. Before you know it, you’ll be on the other side.

— harp —

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Until next time, my friend – you’ve got this.

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