The Ball Will Return: Thoughts on Creative Work

"the original" painting

There was a post I wrote on this blog years ago. It’s so old I had written it back when this blog was hosted on Blogger (jeez, remember that?). It was about the concept Neil Gaiman mentioned in a commencement speech in 2012: the concept of throwing your work out to the world like messages in a bottle, and hoping that the bottles wash back to you.

At the time I wrote my blog post, I didn’t mention it, but I had a kind of fatalistic view of the bottles – I thought that when I threw bottles out into the sea, they would never come back. I would post work, work, and more work, and get no return out of it.

It wasn’t until I came across Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert that I revisited this idea of throwing bottles/work out to the world.

There are sections of the book dedicated to rethinking creativity – because in the West, we tend to envision people who do creative work as martyrs, and these creative types tend to think of themselves as martyrs – suffering emotionally to make such profound work that will change the course of humanity or else be lost in the quagmire until after we die, upon which event our work will be discovered and celebrated and –

Honestly, this view is a crock of shit. And Gilbert recognizes that it is, too. Instead, she embraces the idea of the trickster.

The trickster, she says, approaches creative work as play, as a chance to ask questions and experiment. Where the martyr will see a painting in progress as a failure worthy of being burned to be rid of the shame, a trickster will hang the painting anyway and start painting the next thing – or better yet, paint on top of the “failed” painting. Because it wasn’t a failed painting, it was a jumping off point.

The way she talks about work and martyrs and tricksters all culminates into a scenario – the bottle-throwing scenario, only she uses the analogy of throwing a ball into space. The ball, or bottle, is the work, and the space/ocean is the world.

The martyr may throw the ball, but they never expect to see it again.

The trickster will throw the ball and wait for it to come back, because the trickster KNOWS the ball will return. It may return a different color, or deflated, or hit the trickster in the face so hard it’ll break their nose, but the ball WILL return.

It’s been at least four years since I wrote that blog post about throwing work out into the world, and the projects I have thrown to the world, as the trickster would the ball, were not the projects I had outlined in that blog post. I threw different ones, new ones, and ones I made with other people.

And I have seen, over and over again, that the effort is rewarded – the ball comes back. It has come back years later, or different colors, or even different sizes, but they do come back.

So I’m going to be more like the trickster. I’m going to keep throwing things out into the world. Because I know now that they’ll always return.

Thanks for reading.

You. Are. Awesome.

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