Middles are perplexing

Middles are perplexing

“Beginnings are definitely the most exciting, middles are perplexing and endings are a disaster. That’s why the most authentic endings are the ones which are already revolving towards another beginning.” ~ Sam Shepard

I recently came across this quote from playwright and actor Sam Shepard; I’m unsure of the context he was originally referring to. He may have been referring to the structures of plays, but the quote made me think of the creative process of working through a complex creative project.

The part of the quote that resonated most deeply with me was “middles are perplexing”. But I also agree that beginnings are exciting. You have that light bulb moment, that ‘Eureka!’ epiphany that propels you into the studio or onto your laptop. The potential of your project spins and twinkles in your mind like a new shiny toy. Some people splurge on new equipment to celebrate. The unmarked pages of a writer’s journal or that empty rehearsal studio just beg you to fill them with great new inspirational stuff. Beginnings are exciting. They’re meant to be: your creative self sets out to catapult you into making.

Personally, I wouldn’t describe endings as being a disaster although there is what I call The Big Nothing. For me, there is always an odd phase when a creative project finally grinds or peters or shudders to a halt. Whether it’s been acclaimed or derided, and whether or not you have enjoyed the process, any creative project sucks up an intense amount of imaginative, intellectual, and emotional energy. Back in my dancing days I would end up physically exhausted as well. And some creatives have a practice that takes them on a spiritual journey, too. I used to find that when it all suddenly stopped – when there were no more of extraordinary outlays of energy – then I would feel somewhat disorientated, split between my need to rest but also feeling unused to being consumed by my creative labour. Finishing a project well – learning from it, celebrating it, mourning its shortcomings – is an art form all of its own.

‘Waltz’ from Le ‘Magasin Pittoresque’, August 1840, by Grandville

But it’s the middles of projects that most capture my attention. There is an art to beginning well – conceptualising, scoping, and planning a creative project – and there is an art to finishing well. But the middles have their own particular challenges, their own minefields. This is that part of a project where that exciting beginning is far enough away in the past so that the first rush of blood to the head has faded, and where the finishing line with its hoped for applause and then a chance to rest is still some distance in the future. That part of the project where you have spent just enough time working on it to amass bits and pieces or drafts of work, but not enough time to figure out how to fully realise them into something coherent and engaging. That part of the project where tiredness is starting to seep in, but so is a sober realisation of how much more stamina you will need before you can relax. Where you have had enough time to encounter a few knotty technical, or structural, or conceptual problems so that the hopes and dreams of the light bulb moment are being countered by some nerves or frustration.

That part of the project is perplexing. I used to find this when I worked in performance; I found it to be so when I was writing my books; I witnessed it in other creatives when I was an arts administrator; and I hear about it now when I mentor people.

But it is also a fascinating phase. That hard, sometimes tedious, slog is where the truly rich elements of a creative work are layered down. Regardless of how brilliant or exotic the original concept might have been, it is only going to realise its potential if its is worked with integrity. And this integrity – this realising of technical and conceptual values – is what is ground out of people’s efforts during that middle phase. It is where creatives, too, get to practice. Soldiering on through enough of these middle phases in enough projects leads to proficiency.

Dealing with the perplexity is where people learn about themselves as well. Delivering a complex creative project requires resilience, but, if you do it right, it should embed it within you too. If it doesn’t, then something has gone very wrong with either the project or your creative practice (but that’s a subject for another blog). We all have our own ways of building up resilience; in day-to-day creative work we find out what they are. So, soldiering on through this perplexity leads to a kind of psychological proficiency too.

So, yes, the middle phase is perplexing. It should be. If you want to achieve that ending that “revolves towards another beginning” then you need to work with that complexity and find out what it can teach you.

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