Struggle Is a Sure Sign You’re Creating Art

All great works of art are trophies of victorious struggle.
—Julius Meier-Graefe

The other week was hard. Late nights, tight deadlines, and little sleep. To top it off, I lost my wallet, misplaced my license, and was subjected to the horrors of Babies-R-Us for an entire hour.

Struggle Is a Sign You'r Creating Art (Two Fighters)
Photo credit: Eric Langley (Creative Commons)

As the birth of a book (and child) fast approaches, I assume this frenetic lifestyle will only get worse. It makes me wonder how much more struggling I can take.

However, something happened the other day that made me think differently.

The silver cylinder that changed my perspective

“Where’s the top to that lamp?” my wife asked one morning before work. It was a small, cylindrical screw that held the lampshade in place. Like a lot of things that week (including my mind), it was lost.

“I don’t know,” I said with a sigh. I knew we would never see it again. It was beyond redemption. She left for work, slamming the door.

Sitting in my chair, I considered going back to bed. Would this week just be over already?

As I sulked, the phone rang. It was my wife. She does this every morning, usually because she’s forgotten something or to remind me not to forget something. But this time was different.

“I love you,” Ashley said. “You’re awesome.” Then, she proceeded to thank me for all the things I’d done right this week.

I didn’t feel awesome. I felt like a failure. But she didn’t see it like that.

I hung up the phone and looked out the window. It had rained all day yesterday. The downpour had added to my feelings of frustration and flustered-ness. But now, the sun was shining.

I grabbed my Kindle and headed to Starbucks. On my way out the door, something shiny caught my eye. A small silver cylinder — once lost, but now found.

You’ve got to enter the mess

The hospital room may be spotless and sterile, but birth itself will always take place amid chaos, pain, and blood.
—Steven Pressfield

We all have our struggles — our obstacles and hardships. If we’re not careful, they can hold us back from moving forward, from doing what really matters.

I’m learning an important lesson about struggle and art: Creation always comes from chaos.

Often, we want to wait for perfection before pursuing our craft. We want to clean the desk before going to work. To empty our inbox before we begin writing. But often, this is just stalling. If we’re waiting for perfect, we’re kidding ourselves.

Life is messy. And if we’re going to do meaningful work, we’re going to have to enter the mess. Babies are born amidst pain, sweat, and blood, and so are our greatest projects. There is no way around it.

Getting your hands dirty

Every painting is a war.
—Neil Welliver

The other night, I spent four hours working on citations for my book. It left me feeling angry and exhausted. But when I shared my feelings of struggle with others, I realized I was not alone.

This is the feeling we get when we dare to do dirty work. And let’s face it: All work is dirty. What we mustn’t do is avoid the mess.

Sure, our hands will stay clean, but the world will still race towards entropy. Humanity will still descend towards destruction, while you hold the key to its rescue.

All artists struggle. It’s an indication that you’re actually “in the game.” I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: We need your voice. Start using it.

Yes, there will be pain, but there will also be glory. Every graveyard is a tale of legacy, of something important left behind. So will your stories of struggle live on in your absence. If you dare to be an artist.

See you on the battlefield.

What’s a project you’re currently struggling with? Share in the comments.

100 thoughts on “Struggle Is a Sure Sign You’re Creating Art

  1. So grateful for your post. Sure does confirm what I heard God whispering to me in the post I wrote yesterday. Thanks for encouraging all of us struggling artists/writers!

  2. Great thoughts, Jeff.  Just wrote a post about how we often refuse to choose or act until we are forced to. I love  how you said this, “All work is dirty. What we mustn’t do is avoid the mess.”  So true.  We find the most growth and most satisfaction when we confront the mess.  Thanks. 

  3. I love your writing. I resonate with it. I follow all your tweets to make sure I don’t miss anything. Thank you for all you do. I appreciate you.

  4. Jeff, I hate to hear that anyone else struggles like this, yet I live with it constantly and accept it as a given.  I, too, wonder how much more I can take.  How’s that for a double-standard??

    The project I’m struggling with now is The Orphan Manifesto – an eBook to educate and motivate people to serve orphans both at home and globally.  Editing it to evoke feelings (but not guilt) is HARD! 

    I keep hoping that when this is complete (and it’s getting close), that the anxiety will get better, but I know the struggle will just take on a new form.  Thanks for reframing it for me!!  I’m on the right path…

    1. Christine,
      Your project sounds so interesting to me.  I have a heart for the orphaned.  Keep fighting through to the finish line.

  5. It is true, with a baby, every second counts. This is both exhilarating and frustrating, because there is no time. It really makes clear what projects are important and which ones can “fall by the wayside.”

    The biggest struggle I face is thinking that the world needs to hear my voice, that I am not just adding to the noise, and that someone needs to read my writing. So thank you for reassuring me that indeed they do, and that is just another excuse for me to keep quiet.

  6. Dude… Jeff… 

    I know I’m new to your community, but you are certainly not alone.  Everyone trying to CREATE goes through these same struggles.

    The only way the struggles win is if you don’t learn from them.  Allow the struggles to help you become the best version of yourself.

    Victory will taste sweet.

    Ryan H.

  7. I struggle with wanting everything in place before I start a project.  I’ll be waiting on someone to email back answers to questions I need for a chapter, or something like that.  But it’s when I just sit down and start writing that things happen.  Sometimes the chapter takes turns I wasn’t expecting, sometimes I think of questions to ask people that had not occurred before.  Oftentimes it feels like building a house without a plan, but it’s something I have push through, or I’ll never begin.  

  8. “Every graveyard is a tale of legacy …”  So beautifully put!  Anything worth doing is a struggle and every day we have the opportunity to take risks and become who we are.

  9. “Life is messy. And if we’re going to do meaningful work, we’re going to have to enter the mess.”

    Fabulous! I get so afraid of dragging others into the mess that I forget the ones I want to reach are already neck-deep in it themselves! Thanks!

  10. So beautifully written! I need this. I’m a journalism student whose draft for my human interest story assignment was rejected by my tutor today, for the second time. I’m starting to think that maybe I have no talent, but I still have three more days to do something b4 I give up. Before that assignment is due, I will try to do some justice to it.

  11. Q:  What’s a project you’re currently struggling with? How are you fighting through?
    A:  I’m struggling through my second book, a sequel, which focuses on horses as healers for veterans.  When I wrote my first book, I just wrote it, and edited and edited, and had editors and a publisher edit and edit.  In the end, I was very happy with it, and it’s been a great success. Now that I have spent the past year reading so much about writing, and how to write, and how I should be writing, the words never seem good enough.  I’m trying to fight through by following your advice and “just writing.”  Thanks once again for your words of encouragement, and I’m off to the battlefield again! 🙂 

    1.  No prob, Valerie. You’re doing what very few writers have done: You’re working on a SECOND book, which means you finished the first. Well done.

  12. Thank you for your encouragement. I am working on my first larger writing project (which for most others is small).  I have never considered myself a writer but am being pushed by my colleagues to write out my methodology – how do I work with my clients and what helps them.  I am a career expert.

  13. My current struggle is trying to stay focused on something long enough to finish it. I have about 5 writing projects I’m working on, and because I bounce around to them, it’s hard to stay straight. I’ve made it a goal to focus on one of them during Lent. So far that’s working, but the more I focus on that, the more ideas I get for other things. It’s a double edged sword.

  14. Hello Jeff, first of all I like getting your blog posts in my inbox. They are all related to my life how it is at that time. They motivate me, encourage me, toughen me and make me keep going. So thank you for that.

    My current struggle is trying to work out how to end my non-fiction book. My book ‘Mongol’ won a trophy recently and I hope this book will change people’s attitude. Therefore, I want it to be good and powerful yet simple.

  15. You’ve got to enter the mess  –
    The hospital room may be spotless and sterile, but birth itself will always take place amid chaos, pain, and blood.—Steven Pressfield

    Fantastic! This is very encouraging. Thank you very much.

  16. I’m currently working on a re-write of our book, Cheap Love.  We’ll be re-releasing it under a new title and the framework needs to shift.  It’s difficult to go back to the drawing board with something you celebrated as  “finished.”  Yet, I know I can do better, so I am entering the mess.  I am hoping extraordinary art will result!

  17. Last night I had a choice-write or pick up dog crap. I grabbed the pooper-scooper. I think I’m stalling a bit here. Good post. Tonight I’m taking no crap.

  18. It took me a long time to recognize the value of the struggle. Like butterflies emerging from a cocoon, our strength is found in the battle. But sometimes it doesn’t feel that way!

  19. My struggle is my memoir.  It’s on hold right now because diving into it feels like diving into a raging, stormy ocean with the stomach flu.  I need a clear vision for it to give me strength and right now I just don’t have it.  To busy dealing with the war on the beach.  Soon, I hope.  Thanks for your encouragment, Jeff. 

  20. Jeff, I’m working 40+ hours a week. I’m writing my blog every week. I’m trying to spend time with my wife and kids. I’m doing some work in my new church now. In just over a month, I will be preaching every Sunday at a campground until November. And I have three book ideas. It’s a struggle to get anything some days.

    1. Wowsers! Sounds you like you might have to push the hold button on a few things, prioritize big time, or scale back some.  Just remember, you’ll never regret spending too much quality time with your wife and kids!  

      1. One of the keys is that I am going through a process of creating a life plan. All of this is one of my priorities and big rocks, so I have to plan for it.

    1. By the way, I don’t mean to be unregistered – somehow Disqus has rejected my registration – will hopefully reappear as “registered me” soon!

    1. Yep. I’ve been there. Creativity is a muscle and sometimes it can get fatigued. In which case you need to rest. Other times, it just needs to be stretched.

  21. okay, a 40++ stay at home mom/world citizen who is trying to write AND learn all this new media schmedia stuff.  ha, you think its hard to focus with small children around? try a kid who calls from college at 11:30 pm with a 10 page paper for you to “look over”…due at midnight, teen daughter who wants a ride to the barn to see her pony at 7 am the next day, and suddenly your heart is torn out as you stumble upon an old photo of you and a street child in Peru…Where is she now… Are you getting the message out. Does anyone care? ugh. it’s a circle of need pulling every which way. and I just keep trying to learn and write and write and write.

    1. I’m right there with you in trenches Catherine! I only have one 8-year old boy but he constantly tries my patience on a daily basis. Unlike you, I’m a single mom and I run my own business so busy in understatement.

      I write two blogs – one for personal/life stuff and one for my business – and I ask those questions all time: Are you getting the message out. Does anyone care?

      It’s tough sometimes, I feel your pain 🙂

        1.  I feel like I’ve gone off on a personal rant yesterday in your post – sorry about that (again).

          And you-thinks correctly! It’s a wonderful and yet exhausting roller coaster of a ride when you have a baby. But everyone of us would say that we wouldn’t change it for the world 🙂

  22. Truth on many, many levels.

    I’ve never experienced more frustration and struggle in my life than this last 14+ months.

    When you’re in it to the teeth – “It” just gets harder to shake.

    To be honest, there are many days that knowing this is a shared struggle is the only that keeps me plugging.

    There are no maps – just have to press go and never stop.

  23. Jeff – you remind me over and over again to take risks…to be in the mess and to be honest about it.  

    I’m struggling mightily with writing about something that’s currently going on in my life…I’ve written draft after draft and they’re all sitting there in my draft folder, collecting dust.  

    I’m fighting through by allowing myself to write about it in little bits and pieces – bits and pieces that only *I* recognize as smaller parts of the bigger struggle, until I’m finally ready to pull the story out of “drafts” and hit the publish button.

    Thanks for reminding me again that the risk is worth it.

  24. Thanks for the encouragement today, Jeff.  You actually read my mind!  My desk is snowed under with messy little details and I had just told myself that it really needed to be cleared before I could start writing.  Not so.
    Part of the mess, I’m learning, is growing in skill as an artist.  Learning to prioritize, which voices to listen to (they all sound urgent) and knowing my message.  All of this takes time, precious time.  So I guess I’d better just don my waders and get use to this messy, intriguing, never-boring life I’ve chosen.

  25. Solid post for the creative in us all.  With this…you got a “first comment” out of me. 🙂

  26. Often, we want to wait for perfection before pursuing our craft.”  As usual, you seem to speak directly to what I’m going through.  I am (as most writers are) my biggest critic and have thrown more writing away than will ever be published because of my constant strive for perfection.  I know what I want my writing to be and when I don’t see it in the words on paper I freeze up, abandon ship or agonize over the insignificant.  
    Thanks for the wake up call.  And to hopefully return the favor and send some encouragement your way.  The approach of a baby and book will be more hectic, but I think it will be unbelievably inspiring as well.  What an accomplishment the book release is and what a blessing a child is.  Those two things will put you on top of the world and fuel your creativity like never before.  Hang tight and be thankful that as a writer you have the world’s best outlet for expelling negativity.  Congrats and good luck!

  27. Stalling is my biggest enemy. It had no name until I read your article. My blog was written but for two weeks I stalled and stalled every day until in the wee hours of this morning when I posted it. When I find myself doing that I’ll immediately stop and post. Great article. I wish I’d read it before these last few minutes. It would have lessened the grief.

  28. What am I NOT struggling with may be a better question? Guess if I had to narrow it down to one thing it would be my ebook. I had setup an outline with timelines (dare I say deadlines) and I’ve already missed the second deadline. Then I read from a guest post of yours to not give yourself timelines like this and I could just be setting myself up for failure, and one more excuse to NOT do this.

    I’m not really doing a good job of fighting through this either. Once I missed the third deadline, it almost felt like I started the avoidance dance. As a single mom and business owner, my time feels limited. It’s a constant struggle to get everything done for work (gotta keep the money coming in to keep the lights on and food in the fridge), take care of my son, write my other blog posts AND then find time to write this ebook.

    Some days I just feel like I’m at a loss ….  

      1.  I just re-read what I had written here yesterday. Looks like I just did a braindump of my frustrations that I’ve been feeling lately … sorry about that … but I do appreciate your response.

        Some days getting through the days and living in those special moments should really be enough 🙂

  29. I ran a tough half marathon, submitted a book to be edited, performed at TEDxPhoenixSalon, lost 20 lbs and two pant sizes, and am now getting married on Saturday. I’m not sure if I’m proud or sad that it took me until yesterday to crack.

    Problem is, I’m used to purging my fears and stresses in writing, more specifically, public blogging. How in the hell do I do that without whining and/or pissing off everyone coming for my upcoming nuptials?

    Anyway, thanks for letting me vent. I think that’s really what I need.

    Keep up the good work.

  30. If you’re not stretching yourself and in pain, you soon will be. Good stuff as always Jeff. Love the reference to Do The Work. Such a fantastic piece! 

  31. I’ve had a fever for the past 4 days and I’ve tried for what feels like 100 times to sit and write a post from bed amidst the snot, sneezing and coughing.  My brain is just fog. I sat and typed the word sacrifice the other night and just stared at the screen for another 10 mins. Nothing came but fog. Tonight I am going to try for what will seem like the 101st time. Meds have finally kicked in. GREAT post! 

  32. I’m struggling with an article for a publication I write for routinely. The topic is relevant, and the research and interview I did are a perfect fit. But it just isn’t coming together.
    Thanks for the encouragement that the struggle is an important part of the process.

  33. Creation sure does come from chaos–I have had days and weeks like the one where you lost all that stuff!  This spurs us to grow and stretch and find better solutions.  It also gives us LOTS of great writing material!

  34. Funny how there’s a weird equilibrium in all the chaos that surrounds us. 
    Every time my life (or my state of mind) throws me off the beaten path, i’m seemed to be brought back on the road by the writings of some illuminated people like Jeff and this kind of blog post.
    It got me back on track. 
    It got me thinking that all the worries, the restless nights, the allergic crisis and the others most profound concerns that I do not dare to speak up loud… all of this are part of what we are. And because what we are, we do the things we do, and our creative inner self and his creations are originated of this sensory ooze.
    Thanks of sharing this with me.
    Thanks to be a inspiration when I thought that I had none.
    Thanks to remember me that it’s within our struggles that we grow up as a person and as a creative being.
    Thanks to remember that the love ones are the most important thing.

    Luis Macedo

    (i’m a portugueses photographer-wanna-be =>

  35. Someone asked Muhammad Ali how many push-ups he could do… He said:

    “I don’t know. I only start counting when it starts hurting…”

    I don’t know any successful person who was successful without facing a lot of adversity. It takes persistence, believing in yourself (even when nobody else does), preparing to win and enter the fighting ring every day.

    With so many “overnight” success stories it’s really great to know that we’re not alone in this struggle to make meaning in the World!

  36. i’m a college kid who wants nothing more than to be musician…such a dumb dream. each day i think about this dream and it never fails to bring me pain, i.e. i think i’m not good enough, i think people won’t like my music, i’m unhappy if i’m not working on my music, and sometimes i’m unhappy when i’m working on it because it doesn’t meet the standard i’ve built up in my head.

    i’ve been trying to record an album on and off for the past 6 months. every recording i make sinks me into a depression because it’s not good enough. i know that if i don’t make this album it’s going to kill me. i also know that if i do make this album it’s going to kill me. such a painful dilemma.

  37. Thank you for this lovely post! I’m a perpetually struggling graphic designer, writer and musician. Sometimes the mess just gets too overwhelming; life feels likes a walk through the plush undergrowth of a tropical rainforest – every step a herculean effort to just keep up with the unrealistic standards set by a not-so-humble self-image.

    Words like yours soothe the soul and lend strength to my weakened legs. May you be blessed with all the success, beauty and fulfillment possible in this limited form of ours, Jeff!

    Peace and Love,
    From one artist to another. <3

  38. I am a musician. Hardest time of my life. More than time and focus. I’ve been drowned in debt from all over the place and I’m not making enough money to even cover half of it. Ultimately part of this will distance me from my family because they dont believe in this thing like i do. Only thing I do is make strides and invest in my music and I know that doesn’t sound like the smartest thing but this music is all I know. It’s all I’m great at. I can’t let what’s inside me die. I’m trying to persevere thru every struggle possible that perhaps I may have ultimately brought on myself and it’s hard. But at this point I have no choice. I’m going all in and if I fail, it can never be said I didnt risk it all to pursue a passion.

  39. I’m a writer and my first book is about to enter the fray this coming month. Oh and this article just hits the spot. From the time of the conception of the plot, to writing the first draft…the edit sessions, the cover and all those nitpicking for publishing caused nothing but headache on every turn. And it felt like none of the people I knew thought I had what it takes, but I kept at it.

    I’ve been writing for years…for as long as I remember actually and I’m not about to stop just because others think I don’t have what it takes. So here I am, going public and enjoying all the detours and obstacles along the way. 🙂

  40. I’m experiencing some chaos myself. Thank you for this piece. You don’t know what you don’t know. And when you begin moving “into the dark,” you quickly realize your own ignorance. But thankfully, through the process, you learn and become more. Which learning would never come if you didn’t voyage into the chaos.

  41. Thank you for this article. I think I will now allow some things around me become more chaotic as I push on toward completion of my first book. You’ve given me permission ?

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  43. Thank you for writing this article. I really needed some words of encouragement in this difficult time, and your thoughtful, even- handed prose cut right to the quick. I am struggling with a few different artistic projects (a comic book, a few songs, and drawing/ painting in general) and have felt a lack of focus and inspiration from my creative mind. I’m going through a lot right now: dealing with epilepsy, divorcing my abusive husband, and soon I’ll be moving out of state. My art and music used to be my escape, and without inspiration, it’s like having a jet plane but no fuel to fly away with. But reading this helped me gain some reassurance, so again, thank you.

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