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Creation Is Messy–And That’s Okay

[1]Late last summer I ran down to the basement to throw on a load of laundry before meeting a friend for coffee…and stepped, ankle-deep, into my own private paddling pool.

I jumped back up onto the bottom step and tried to absorb everything at once: the odd, reflected light in the room; the way my basement carpet rose and fell like the rolling hills of my Scottish childhood landscape; and—oh no!—the roar of cold water gushing out of the main pipe.

The next few days were filled with a rush of activity and emotion as we tried to salvage what we could, and contact everyone who needed to be contacted.

But then…then we realized we got to build the basement of our dreams, something we’d been putting off for 18 years.

It was just like that moment when you clearly see the vision for your next writing project.

It’s exciting.

And messy.

And scary.

And worth it.

The Nine Stages of Creative Construction

In the months that followed my unscheduled dip in the basement pool, I saw many parallels between the construction project going on under my feet, and the construction project happening between my brain and my keyboard as I finished the first draft of my most recent novel.

At every stage, from the excitement of the beginning, to the dull grind of Doing The Work every day, to the moment of terror in the middle when you’re sure you’ve got it all wrong, to the thrill of the finish and the surprisingly anticlimactic moment when the project is declared ‘done’, creation and construction have a lot in common.

The trick is to learn not to despair when your beautiful end product is obscured in a cloud of construction dust. Learn to accept it as part of the nine-step process of creative construction.

1. The Idea

As soon as the dumpster had pulled away, bearing with it all the soggy remains of our carpet, our bookshelves (sob!) and the bottom 3ft of our wallboard, I started planning.

As with starting a book, I started with the overall idea and the cast of characters. I called our favorite construction firm and began working with their designer on the plot. Deciding what we wanted our basement space to achieve and who was going to achieve it, was a lot like laying out the main characters, premise, and possible framework of a story.

Even for reluctant planners, like myself, this is kind of fun. We don’t have to make all the final decisions on Day One, but we start to see the possibilities; the shape of the thing to come.

I bounced ideas off the designer and my husband, just as we writers bounce ideas off the page, or our writer friends, when planning a new story.

We can’t quite see what the project will become at that stage, but we can see the possibilities and it’s insanely exciting. We can’t wait to get started.

2. The Agonizing Wait

For my basement, the delay was caused by waiting for my construction firm to have a spare slot in their calendar.

As writers, we might have to wait until the current work-in-progress is finished, or until that big project at work wraps up, or until the baby is finally sleeping for more than two hours at a stretch.

Sometimes this is good, as ideas percolate, and our excitement grows. Sometimes it’s bad, because our enthusiasm wanes.

Just as my contract with the construction firm ensured the project really would go ahead, consider making commitments about your project to make sure you really do come back to it when that gap in your schedule opens up.

3. The Buzz of Beginning

Oh, then the day arrives. You can begin!

Everyone’s smiling. Adrenaline abounds. You don’t mind the mess and the noise and the dust. You’re making progress on your project and nothing can dim the joy you feel.

Except the passage of time.

And the reality that this is A Big Job.

And that you have a long way to go before you reach the end.

4. The Mess In The Middle

I loved my construction guys. Really. They were like adorable little brothers.

But there were mornings when I prayed they wouldn’t turn up. That they would sleep in. That the snow would keep them away.

I longed for a respite from the banging and grinding, and from having to be dressed in real clothes by 7:30 am. From having to smile and have hair that looked slightly-less-than-witch-like, all before noon. From dust and mess and a sense of the incomplete.

But my workers kept turning up, every morning. And I kept writing my novel.


When we reach the complicated middle of our writing projects, don’t we just wish we could take a few days off, but that somehow the work would still get done?

The novelty of hashing out the premise is over. The harder work of putting all the plot-plumbing in place is underway, and the pressure rises to get it right.

And sometimes we mess up and have to fix things (like the memorable day when the newbie in our work crew dropped a hammer on freshly-cured tile and the next few hours were filled with bone-itching rumble of a grinder as they removed and replaced it.)

It’s not as much fun as starting, but it’s important to do our best work. So we keep grinding.

5. The Moment Of Doubt

We’ve been in our house for 18 years. At this point, we’ve done a few renovations. And every single time there is a point, mid-way through the reconstruction, where my husband and I look at each other and say, “Oh no!”

It’s usually when the floor is laid and the cabinets are brought in, and we look at the space and think “This cannot possibly be right.”

In its unfinished state, every project looks wrong. Things are the wrong size. The look out of proportion to each other. You can no longer see the vision you had at the start.

Worst of all, you can no longer imagine a day when your home won’t look like a building site.

Every writing project hits the same moment.

The ‘What was I thinking?” moment.

The “Nothing fits, and it never will!” moment.

The “Can we just flee in the night and start over somewhere new?” moment.

What I’ve learned, through three renovation projects, four first-drafts of novels and 9 years of writing a StoryADay in May, is that unfinished is just that: unfinished. It’s messy. It’s scary. It’s a little bit ugly.

And a little bit necessary.

But what it’s not, is “finished”.

So don’t panic.

Just keep pushing forward.

Stay true to your original vision, but be open to changes along the way (like, when I insisted that our basement’s exposed-beam ceiling was going to be painted white, but then saw the nearly-finished space and realized that yes, everybody else had been correct, and a dark color would look so much better!)

6. Finishing

Renovating a room and writing a novel both seem to take forever. That mess in the middle seems like it will be where you live for the rest of your life.

Then, all of a sudden, one day everything begins to come together.

The counters go onto the cabinets, and the wires are tucked away neatly, and the room starts to look like a room again.

The All-Is-Lost moment passes (for your characters and you) and suddenly, you see can see the end of the story approaching.

And then, with shocking rapidity, you’re there.

The workmen swipe down a few surfaces and announce that they’ll be back in a couple of days, after the building inspector’s visit, to do a few last minute things, but that you can start living in your room again.

You put in a few days of incredible word-count production and reach the end of the story, all characters’ stories and problems resolved.

And just like that it’s over.

7. Tying Up Loose Ends

With a shaky sense of anticlimax, you begin looking at your project.

It has a few loose ends, some things to tidy up. Maybe you still need to get a painter in, to make the walls look right. Maybe you need to go back and write that scene you’ve been meaning to add to the first quarter of the story. And you’ll certainly need to tweak and revise everything once you’ve had a chance to live with it for a while.


But this part of the project is done. The story is told.

An odd sense of calm is restored. And life goes on.

I won’t pretend it’s not weird. It is.

It’s best to be ready for this moment of ‘huh’. (It’s why authors talk about books being ‘abandoned, not finished’.)

But there are still two more stages that you might not expect, that I want you to be ready for.

8. The Reveal

After the project is finished, you get one more moment of brain-numbing excitement: the reveal.

Whether you’re throwing an open house, or showing the manuscript to beta readers, or hosting a book launch party, there’s a wonderful moment where you get to let everybody else into the world that has consumed you for the past months or years.

And it’s great. Try to enjoy it!

Ignore the funny looks from the neighbor who would never have put a bar in their basement, or the critique partner who isn’t really your target audience anyway. Focus on the people who are delighting in your New Thing. Take well-meaning suggestions on board, and know you’re free to ignore them. This is your space, and your story.

And be ready for one last surprise.

9. Squirrel!

Before anybody had even seen our gorgeous new basement, my husband and I started looking at the living room and exchanging little glances.

“Maybe if we just got some new bookcases.”

“And asked the painter if he can come back after he’s finished in the basement and do something interesting with that wall…”

“It has been a very long time since we bought that couch…”

Before you have launched—or finished—your current project, your brain will dart off after the next idea, like a puppy after a squirrel.

You know you’re going to chase it. Of course you are. Because writing is exciting.

And messy.

And scary.

And worth it.

Just try to take a moment to enjoy the quiet, calm of your finished project before you embrace the glorious chaos of your next renovation, I mean, writing project.

Take it from the woman who’s been up to her ears in swirling dust and ever-shifting pixels for 12 months, and who is definitely taking the next two weeks off.

(Unless, of course, an irresistible project comes along!)

Julie’s actual basement, during the ordeal

Which is your favorite part of the writing process? The idea-generation? Getting stuck in to the puzzle of working out the first draft? Putting all the finishing touches in place? The reveal? What do you do when your brain spots a squirrel racing across your mental landscape? Do you resist the chase? Do you mark the point on the map and schedule time to come back and search for it later? Do you drop everything and chase that shiny new idea?

About Julie Duffy [4]

Julie Duffy [5] is the founder and director of the creativity challenge StoryADay.org where she has blogged about the creative life and short stories since 2010. StoryADay is the host of annual short story writing challenges in May and September, year-round writing prompts, articles and community resources for creative inspiration. She regularly talks at writers’ groups and conferences about creativity and writing.