Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.
― Kurt Vonnegut
The beginnings of a creative idea are beautiful and awful, often in equal measure.
I don’t mean the very first beginnings, those magical and liminal hint-of-an-idea moments that happen so often on subways and Sundays. I don’t even mean the preliminary trysts with an idea, intensely private and thrilling, when it first feels like something, something is forming from nothing.
I mean the real beginnings. The hard ones. The times when your plan has life but no limbs, when it needs to be nourished and fed and carried places and introduced to people and taught to sit up straight and speak for itself.
Whether you’re starting a night, a poetry book, an exhibition, a zine, a website, a novel, a collective or a band in your basement, the effort of growing and shaping, building and organising, caring and proclaiming, all in service of an idea that is most likely still half-formed and very possibly shit, can feel like madman’s work.
Comfortingly – or perhaps not – the burden of creation has been felt by many of our greatest minds. Dorothy Parker: ‘I hate writing, I love having written.’ P.G. Wodehouse: ‘I just sit at my typewriter and curse a bit.’ Philip Roth: ‘the road to hell is paved with works-in-progress.’
At some point in almost every creative process, it becomes apparent to the unfortunate idea-haver that beginnings are hard because beginnings are work. In fact, all works-in-progress are work, no matter how enlivening and cherished they are. Even the great works of Michelangelo were work. (‘If people know how hard I worked to get my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful at all.’)
With the ironic twang that the universe so often provides, it is revealed that your most bright and vivid passions are hard work, and worse: initially, hard work without much to show for it.
I’m reminded often of an essay by Maria Popova. She writes on the beginning of Brain Pickings, her literary lifework in which she unpicks the well-lived life through the voices of our greatest writers.
‘What I was learning at night and on weekends, at the library and on the internet — from Plato to pop art — felt too uncontainably interesting to keep to myself, so I decided to begin sharing these private adventures with my colleagues at one of my jobs. On October 23, 2006, Brain Pickings was born as a plain-text email to seven friends. Halfway through my senior year of college, juggling my various jobs and academic course load, I took a night class to learn coding and turned the short weekly email into a sparse website, which I updated manually every Friday, then, eventually, every weekday.
‘The site grew as I grew — an unfolding record of my intellectual, creative, and spiritual development. At the time, I had no idea that this small labor of love and learning would animate me with a sense of purpose and become both my life and my living, nor that its seven original readers would swell into several million. I had no idea that this eccentric personal record, which I began keeping in the city where Benjamin Franklin founded the first subscription library in America, would one day be included in the Library of Congress archive of “materials of historical importance.”
‘And now, somehow, a decade has elapsed.’
I’m fond of Popova’s words because ZO has grown out of a desire to form an ‘eccentric record’ of the work of the people around me. It’s a snapshot of the creative state of our portion of the world; a slice of time and space that’s small, to be sure, but as precious as any other.
But Popova’s experience also gifts perspective. When work seems woeful, it helps to look at your life from the wrong end, to imagine yourself in the future echoing her words with astonished finality: ‘And now, somehow, a decade has elapsed.’ Or perhaps the first lines of Cleopatra’s Hair Clip:
Hasn’t it been forever? I could have sworn I saw
the end of the world and its new beginning.
What happened between the end of the world and the beginning? What will we have to show for the decade that has passed? How have we spent our days, and our lives?
At times throughout the making of this magazine (and every other creative project I’ve worked on), I’ve thought about quitting, for a day or a week or forever.
Every time, as I’m reminded of my own lazy unwillingness – prompted as often by fear of failure as fear of work – I think about the people whose work I enjoy. I think of the lazy unwillingness they might also have felt, sitting in their brain like a shitty co-pilot.
I think of the works that have changed me, and recognise that all of these were work: Adrienne Rich’s The Dream of a Common Language, Cheryl Strayed’s essays on the death of her mother, the Pratchett books I read as a child that taught me how to think. Where would I be without them? Without the love-labours of others, what would I be?
If there’s even a chance that our work could move, inspire, console or entertain someone, somewhere, even for a moment – isn’t it worth it? How can we not work?
Every worthwhile thing started as a ‘to do’ that wouldn’t go away. Everything beautiful came from a seed, hardy and persistent, that refused to stagnate. There is no point trying to look around your biggest ideas. They draw in your light like a black hole until you can’t see anything else.
Fortunately for all of us who are just beginning, there’s another essential truth in the dialogue of work: it’s worth it. For the satisfaction of seeing our muddled minds laid out clear on a page or a screen or a stage. The satisfaction of finding our work a little bit beautiful, or useful, or funny, or true. The satisfaction of having grown something, something from nothing. That’s why we work.
The reality that our passions can feel like a burden is a simple fact of human nature. We’re small, fallible, easily-distracted animals with enormous dreams and often very little in the way of resources, time or luck. A talent can sometimes feel like a responsibility. The things that we care most about are made all the more difficult by that care. (Thomas Mann: ‘a writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.’)
But the pressure we put on ourselves and our work to be perfect before we share it, to iron out every crease before putting on the shirt, leaves us shirtless as often as spotless. To paraphrase Frank O’Hara, the poem is as much between two persons as two pages. There’s no joy or movement or dialogue in work that’s never shared.
And as much as the internet loves to remind us not to compare our Chapter One to someone else’s Chapter Ten, it’s rarely acknowledged that this would be easier if we could have a peek at Chapter Two, Five or Nine.
That’s why this magazine is concerned with work: it’s a loving (and nosy) look at what we’re doing, what we’ve done, what keeps us up at night.
I’m endlessly grateful for the opportunity to showcase our contributors and the work they do in ZO. Thank you to our featured illustrator Emily Wylde, kitchen poet Maria Harper, photographer and zine-maker Louis Brown, nouveau curator Isabella Shields, Hawaiian honeys Jeff Kaneta and Terri Lee, Dukebox showrunner Robbie Orr, the indescribable Vox Pop trio, and most of all, to my non-shitty co-pilot and co-editor Heather O’Donnell. I couldn’t have asked for a better bunch of beginners.
This magazine is what I bring to the table – the idea that wouldn’t go away no matter how much internet I browsed or how much actual-paid-work I had to do. It’s based solely on a love of, and respect for, other people’s work.
I love seeing creative projects come together. I love people who had an idea, and ran with it, and did the work. More than that, I love the people who share their work, even though they’re not at Chapter 10. Even though they’re not sure. Because the work is more important than their ego. Because you have to start running if you want to race.
This is all to say: this magazine is concerned with beginnings. Not the seed, but the sapling that grows – unsteady, but reaching high.
Glasgow, May 2017