Art Is Work

For several years now I’ve had nine words written on index cards that I post above my desk, wherever I happen to be living. The index cards read like this: IDEAS ARE CHEAP. EXECUTION IS EVERYTHING. ART IS WORK.

I don’t remember where I took this mantra from. Googling these words reveals that the phrase ‘Ideas are cheap, execution is everything,’ is a quote from a man named Chris Sacca, who is a tech investor. I have never heard of him, and I don’t think he was talking about writing when he said those words, and the final phrase, ‘art is work’, I seem to have either added myself or taken from someone else. With this caveat, I’d like to talk a bit about these nine words and what they mean to me.

So what does it mean to say that ideas are cheap? What I mean by it is this: your initial inspiration is the easiest part of the writing process. When people tell me they want to write a novel but can’t come up with an idea, I tend to grimace internally, because the truth is that having an initial idea is the absolute easiest part of novel writing. I can’t stress that enough. I’m not saying it’s easy to do, but it really is the easiest part, and every creative person I know of has more ideas than they could work on in ten lifetimes. Ideas arrive to me all the time. Every one of them is a spark, and can kindle something much bigger. But I believe the hardest part of writing a novel is nurturing that spark as it grows.

This is why I (and Chris Sacca) say that execution of an idea is everything. All your drafts, from first to last, are in the service of this idea, but it is in this process that something cheap and plentiful (your initial, fleeting inspiration) becomes something much more valuable and rare: a finished novel. It is the execution of your idea that matters to a reader. The correct execution could take years, or even decades, but it is worth taking the time and effort that is required to get it right. A weak, unoriginal idea with the correct execution will end up much stronger than a great idea which has been poorly executed.

I can’t tell you which ideas to work on. But I can tell you that the only way any of them will be realised is with sustained, focussed work. Once the initial thrill of writing something has worn off, ennui and boredom set in. Plot problems seem intractable, characters paper thin and unconvincing, the entire enterprise a fool’s errand. The tiny fire you’re stoking gutters and spits. How could anyone ever sit beside this and warm themselves? You look up at the dark sky. Thousands of embers are drifting, tantalising, just out of reach. Surely any one of these ideas would make a better project, more worthy of your craft?

Resist the urge to reach out to them. Focus on what’s in front of you. Keep tending that little fire, because only sustained attention to detail, sustained thought and effort, work beyond what you may think you’re capable of, will turn one of your many sparks into a bonfire. Keep writing, and try to finish a full draft before you move onto something else. Remember that ideas are cheap, execution is everything, and art is work.

Art is work. I can’t say that enough. Art is work, and it’s only work which separates dreamers from artists.