On the Fear of Becoming the Rolling Stones

About a week. Or until a bad gig. Or the next time you try to write and end up with a paper with a dozen black dots from setting the pen down.

That’s how long the elation from success will last.

The first couple of times are incredible, like you’ve discovered a brilliant new drug. Being on stage when things are going well is like having your hand on a lever that can make the whole world feel good. It’s great to be in the audience on a good night, but nothing can compare to the feeling of controlling the on/off switch to people’s joy for a few minutes.

Even better, you didn’t really discover this moment, you made it. All the fun of being the captain of the big happy ship is turned up x100 if you designed and built the ship. It’s part of you, it can’t finally be separated from who you are. You’ve presented something to an audience, they’ve loved it, and because they loved a thing that you made, you feel like they might love you, too. Any performer who says they don’t care what the audience thinks has just changed the definition of “audience” – someone’s acceptance is always the prize, even if not always the people sitting in front of the stage. And so when things go well, you walk off the stage feeling 5’7” – not only full of glee, but having been validated as a person, too. Taller people may need to adjust the height of the previous sentence for the metaphor to work.

At some point this feeling wears off, and like all addicts, the hunt begins for more. This drug is particularly evil, because it can’t be purchased or found, it has to be made. By you. And you have no recipe, ingredients, or internet. Hearing someone talk about writing is a fascinating thing, because when things are working it sounds as though it’s very easy, with a simple process to create something brilliant. People have all sorts of sophisticated ways of saying “I work hard and am good at things.” In a dry patch, however, things take on a mystical tone – the process that was so clearly defined the week before has now been rewritten to include a lot more “sitting and waiting for things to come to me.” The reality is somewhere between those two things – if you’re not working hard, you won’t know what to do with a brilliant idea when it does arrive, but however hard you work, you can’t control the arrival.

The cycle continues in such a way that every moment of triumph is followed immediately by the fear of that being your last moment. The frustrating combination of labor and luck leads eventually, possibly, to another great idea, but the pit in your stomach from the whole process never really goes away, and that is almost at the heart (almost, because we’re still in your stomach) of creating anything:

After the success of the first idea has faded, you live with the fear of never having another idea, until the second idea arrives, but the arrival of the second idea does not bring with it any promise of a third idea. There’s success, then work, struggle, and fear, then success… At some point, it occurs to you that you can cheat the system, by finding out how to extend the success of the first idea forever. This isn’t all that hard, there are new audiences everywhere, and by the time you come back to the first audience, they’ve forgotten you anyway.

This should lose it’s thrill – there should be some natural dissatisfaction that drags you back onto the “creating” trail of fear and success… but sometimes there isn’t. Sometimes you can trade for ages on past glories, slowly forgetting what you’re missing because subconsciously you only remember the struggle. Like a guy living on fast food because he remembers that cooking real food takes effort but has lost sight of the fact that it’s also a million times better. And that is something to be afraid of. The fear of never having another good idea doesn’t help anyone do anything, but not losing sight of the joy of creating something new – that is at the heart of creating something great. You have to keep the fear of becoming the Rolling Stones.