Brick by Brick

If you are looking for a book that will teach you to draw/write/juggle chainsaws while singing Ave Maria in a perfect soprano, Brick by Brick is not that book. It’s the only creative advice book I’ve ever read that has no comments on technique or an introduction to the basics of the craft. This is important, because Brick by Brick is a comic book written by an artist, so the language is skewed toward painters and graphic artists and all those other lovely eccentric people who sold the pot brownies in the college courtyard that you swear you never tried. (You’re a liar, and we all know it. The only reason I never got one is because I wasn't cool enough to be allowed in the art building. I had to settle for sniffing old books in the library.)

Most creative advice books assume you know how to sit down and motivate yourself to actually create, which is a really big assumption if you consider it for more than a second. After all, if everyone who said they wanted to write a novel actually wrote one, libraries would have long ago transformed into black holes, and we’d all be stuck in a Chris Nolan movie. Chuck Wendig wouldn’t have to waste valuable interwebspace to yell at you to write every day. NaNoWriMo would not be a thing, because aspiring novelists would not need the hand up to get started on their projects. Et cetera. 

Most creative advice books also assume you know how to see a project through to its end. Except that for every three people who say they want to write a novel, there’s one who started but then gave up because they realized—OMG—writing is actually work and not skipping through flowers holding hands with a unicorn. (Don’t ask me how you’re holding hands with a hooved animal. You don’t want to know.)

Brick by Brick is a welcome relief. It admits that we creative types are master procrastinators. We all know exactly how long we can dick around on our phone before we have to get started on our term paper/painting/reading of the ancient grimmerie to prevent the rise of the Elder Gods.  (You really need to get on that. I for one don’t want to witness the tentacled apocalypse.) 

Other creative advice works admit this problem too, but they only offer surface solutions—goal-setting, finding rewards or punishments, etc. Not that those are bad things, but they ultimately don’t solve the problem. We don't procrastinate because we don't enjoy the work or because what we're doing doesn't matter enough that we require some trinket as a reward when we're done. We procrastinate because, in general, creators are smart people, and at some point we learned we could get by with ignoring a deadline until the last minute. Maybe in school or at a shitty job, we found out how to get the least amount of work done for the least amount of effort and the greatest amount of reward. Then we turn this practice toward our creative lives… and suddenly it doesn’t work. We don’t finish novels. Sketchbooks never fill up. Cthulhu rises from the deep and we are sucked into the howling void, screaming voiceless for eternity. (Seriously.  Set a reminder on your phone or something.)

Simply putting our nose to the grindstone doesn’t help. It makes creating into a chore, just another thing to check off the task list instead of a practice to make life worth living. A mindset change is required, and Brick by Brick shows you how.

The best line from the book, in my opinion, is when the author talks about procrastination. As he puts it, “In college, I had perfected the skill of putting things off—ignoring tedious homework until the very last minute. But now in the real world I was cashing in that skill at the expense of my own dreams. I’d never learned how to work, only how to avoid work, and now I couldn’t even do what I wanted to do.” How many of us are stuck in that same trap?

The author also points out that the traditional idea of setting rewards and punishments to motivate ourselves isn’t the best approach, either. He used buying himself an MP3 player as a reward for finishing his graphic novel—but shouldn’t the work of finishing his graphic novel have been its own reward? Nothing someone else made can ever measure up to the fulfillment you can get from your own work. 

The book is full of wonderful insights like this. There’s also more practical advice, like how to break your plans down into the smallest goal possible. Writing a novel doesn’t start with writing 1000 words. It starts with sitting down in your chair and taking out your tools—whether that’s starting up your computer or opening your notebook. That seems like nothing, but it’s still an achievement. It’s still more than a lot of other people will ever do.