Beginnings are hard. The first steps of a creative project are full of uncertainties and fear that can stop you from starting at all. If they’re allowed to breed, these fears can leave you lost in a creative desert, not knowing which way to turn to reach civilization. In his latest book, David DuChemin attempts to crush these fears with a simple mantra: Start Ugly.
The idea behind Start Ugly is that creativity is not about inspiration and the ability to create instant masterpieces, but is a process that starts with rough ideas and uncertain first attempts that are, quite literally, ugly. Accepting this takes away the fear of beginning and gives you the freedom to explore and play without the pressure of producing a polished end product, which is the real process of creativity.
We fear ugly, so we never start
But this book is about a lot more than just beginning. It’s about the creative process as a whole, the fears that are inherent to it, the misconceptions that hold us back and the practicalities of creative work. It dispels the myth that creativity is a gift from above and slaps us round the face with a straightforward reminder that creativity is difficult.
DuChemin takes us through a beautifully structured journey that feels relatable and makes us feel able to overcome our fears. He starts by laying out these fears in front of us as though he can read our mind. The fear that our rough and uncertain starts mean that we’re no good and don’t know what we’re doing, the fear that we’ll fall short of perfection, the fear that we’re not as good as others, the fear that we don’t know what we’re even trying to do.
He follows this with an inspiring chapter, cleverly named “Response: ability” – a play on the fact that the word responsibility really means an ability to respond and adapt, and that the ability to respond makes creative work our own responsibility.
How you make your art – even whether you make it at all – is no one’s choice but your own, no matter what the voices tell you.
This is where he really starts to tell it how it is. Having led us along a comfortable, familiar path of doubts and uncertainties, making us feel that he’s on our side, he stops, leads us down an ominous alley and starts telling us some home truths. That it’s our choice to overcome these fears, and that overcoming them is the only choice we have if we want to do creative work. And we know he’s right and that he’s still on our side, so we can’t help following him down this uncomfortable alley.
From here, DuChemin moves onto more practical discussion of the process. The realities of a process that starts ugly and continues to be ugly and requires work to get through it. He discusses the ideas of separating the creating from the editing, the need for focused work, how to use ideas by focusing on potential and possibility rather than ‘good and bad’, the need to break things down into small steps, the importance of quality time to work without distraction, how to manage time, and the importance of habits.
Towards the end comes another striking chapter on The Power of Failure. Here, DuChemin reminds us that failure is central to the creative process and not something to be feared but to be used. He elegantly explains that the fear of failure is what stops us but the consequences of so-called failures are not that bad. For the biologically minded, he uses evolution as a demonstration of how mistakes are pivotal to the process – without ‘mistakes’, nothing changes and some of these ‘mistakes’ lead to improvements. It’s a strong illustration that can’t be argued with.
We will not die or truly suffer harm from boldly putting our work out there or trying some new endeavour for which we feel barely prepared. If anything, we’ll trip and stumble, scratch up our knees, and learn something that will be important when we try again
In the final chapter, DuChemin brings it all together and delivers a message that is grounding, truthful uncomfortable in some ways, and yet incredibly inspiring. This passage sums it all up for me:
Creativity is a personal process of making things that once were not. It’s a process of becoming something you once were not, and it will always cost you something. If you arrive for your daily work, willing to show up and put skin in the game and work through the initial ugliness of new beginnings, and the risk of making something that until then did not exist, the rewards are high. You’ve just got to want them more than the competing desires for comfort and a life without too much challenge. You’ve got to be willing to go all in because although it’s not a quick process, it is cumulative.
As an artist who really struggles with the fears that DuChemin so uncannily describes, I found this book incredibly inspiring and important. It’s even helped me take some creative first steps that I’d been unable to from fear of the unknown. It will sit alongside Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland as one of my most important books on creativity, and if you do any type of creative work, I’d certainly recommend it takes its place on your bookshelf too.