Why the Creative Process is like Running a Marathon
In the past eight years I’ve run six half marathons, a ten miler, eight 10ks, six 8ks, a Spartan Race, more 5ks than I can count, and one “Tough Turkey” which is a 5k and an 8k back to back. During the longer races, I go through the same emotional highs and lows every time.
The phases of running a long race are as follows:
The first few miles:
This is amazing! I got up super early for this and I’m still half asleep, but it’s so exciting! The day has arrived! Look at all the people! I love races!
The first few miles are filled with hope and excitement. They’re easy and fun.
The middle chunk:
This is where it gets messy. Why did I think it would be fun to run over 13 miles?? I should have done more training runs. Gosh, my feet hurt. There are too many people! It’s so crowded.
These miles are often frustrating. I am far enough from the beginning that the race day excitement has worn off and now I’m trudging along trying to keep pace even though I’m getting a little (a lot) bored.
The last two or three miles:
This is where the magic happens. The runner’s high kicks in and the finish line is getting closer with every single step! I can almost see it! This is amazing! I’ve accomplished so much! Thank you, feet, legs, and body for carrying me this far. I made it!
The end of a race is what motivates me to run another.
I never reflect on miles 5-10 of a half marathon and think “wow, I want to do that miserable and boring part again!” It’s the finish line. The accomplishment. Knowing that I put in the training and ran the race. That feeling at the end as the clock beeps above my head and my feet cross the timing mat. That moment makes me want to do it again and again. I eat four bananas, three oranges, and a bagel and start talking about the next race.
Running a half marathon is just like going through the creative process.
The idea phase is brimming with excitement.
That fresh new idea, the first paint strokes, the first stitches, this part is so exciting! The possibilities are endless. The beginning is full of energy and anticipation.
Then in the middle of a project I start to question my decisions. Did I really think those colors looked good together? Did I tackle something way too big? This seems ridiculous. I’ll never finish!
Then just like in a big race, as the end draws near the excitement builds again. Just a few more stitches! I can’t wait to finish this! I’m so glad I tried something new/big/different! Let’s do it again!
The important part of both running a race and tackling a new project is that I finish it.
I’ve never regretted running a race and I’ve never regretted finishing a project. Even if my time sucked. Even if those colors did not, in fact, look good together. I’ve still accomplished something. I’m still excited about what I’ll do next.
The key difference is that even though I might be disappointed in the outcome, I don’t regret trying. I never regret the fact that I pushed myself. I can be bummed by the result, but I don’t regret it.
If the race sucked, I’ll reflect on why it sucked.
For my first half marathon, it sucked because I’d never run farther than six miles at once before showing up and trying to 13.1. Training is REALLY important. Don’t be like 19 year old Amy. She was recklessly overambitious. So next time, I’ll make sure to run more training runs. A lot more training runs.
Some race days it rains the whole time and you get blisters and even though you trained, the race still sucks. That’s okay! I still did it. It still made me want to sign up for another race. Even though I was soaked. Even though my feet were on fire. Even though I accidentally dropped my mid-race snack on the ground instead of eating it (that was a sad race - I dropped my snack at mile 8).
When a creative project doesn’t go the way I hoped, I analyze why it failed.
Was it a lack of preparation or just a bad race day? If I didn’t prepare, that is fixable! I can do more research, go on more training runs, and prepare more next time. If I did all those things and it still didn’t go well, bummer. Onto the next one.
During the 100 day project this year, I experimented with adding fringe to the bottom of a piece that was already fairly experimental. It was cute on the embroidery hoop! Then I stretched it over a wood disc to finish it and the fringe did weird things. I hated it. Instead of a tidy little half moon of fringe at the bottom, it looked like a lopsided maniacal grin more appropriate on the Cheshire Cat. Not what I wanted. I finished that piece up and then I moved onto the next piece (I have not used fringe again).
Another way the creative process is like running a big race is the importance of cross training.
When preparing for a big race, I do a lot of long runs, but I also do sprint workouts, some weight training, the elliptical, and biking. These help build overall cardiovascular endurance and work my muscles in a different way than just running. It helps me build speed and gives me a mental break from running for hours every weekend.
Some of the best advice I ever got was in college from my academic advisor. I went into college thinking I would focus on drawing and painting. That was what I focused on in high school so it made sense, I would keep doing the same thing in college. My sophomore year I had the opportunity to take an advanced sculpture class, but if I took that class I wouldn’t be able to take a painting class I wanted.
My advisor told me “you never know what sculpture might teach you about painting.”
Spoiler: I took the class and I loved it.
That class was taught by one of my favorite professors. He pushed me to think differently and humored all of my ideas - good and bad - as I figured out what I wanted to make. The class was the reason I pivoted away from just drawing and painting and took other classes. My senior thesis was predominantly fiber sculpture. That first sculpture class got my creative muscles working in a way I’d never tried before.
Now I draw and paint as my creative cross training, but my main artistic focus is on creating physical objects. I draw and paint with thread and felt instead of with a pencil or a brush.
The work I create now draws on different creative practices I developed throughout my life. I learned to sew when I was six and have dabbled in knitting and crochet on and off since then as well.
These extra activities give me new ideas. They keep my hands moving and my brain thinking in ways I don’t usually think when I am embroidering. Sketching helps me think through small details and how to translate those details to a physical piece. Small dots can become french knots.
A sketchbook lets me try different color palettes out before I commit to one for an art piece. When I was stuck on the layout of one of my wall hangings, I spent time sketching and doodling different combinations of circles until I landed on one that I liked.
Creative cross training is just as important as cross training for a half marathon. Even if I don’t feel like sewing, I’m still making. I’m still working. I’m still improving.
Now, after hundreds of miles and hundreds of thousands of stitches, I have gotten better at training and remembering the boring middle. A common thought in running training is that over half of the battle is mental. If you can convince your mind that you can run, your legs will follow suit. This is true for any creative practice. If you can convince your brain that you should keep working, your hands will follow. Soon you’ll finish the project or the race. Keep working. One foot after the other. One stitch after the next. One more brushstroke.