I’m a sucker for before and after’s. When I was pregnant with my son I was completely addicted to HGTV. I wasn’t renovating a house or anything. But ooh, that bit right at the end of the show when they’d put up the before and after shots side by side? I loved it! I didn’t even care if I got to see the rest of the show. And it’s not just home renovations. Or being pregnant. I love movie makeover montages, weight loss before and afters, even the stories about famous writers/musicians/actors are usually drafted as “I had an idea” almost immediately followed by, “and now my dreams have come true!”
As a culture we love the underdog story. The rise from nothing to soaring overnight success. We love a reluctant hero. The “I just did it for the love of it, but how nice that it’s a huge success now.” We can’t seem to help ourselves. Partially it’s because we’re wired for story. When we get that first glimpse of the hero’s journey it triggers our craving for those second and third acts.
But I’ve noticed another trend. A sub-trend, if you will. All too often, we prefer to gloss over the mess in the middle—the failure, the shame, the fall—and just say “I was scared” or “I fell down, but I picked myself up.” We like to go into detail about the impetus behind the journey. Why did we start? We’ll talk all day about that. But when we run out of steam from our early excitement and have to battle the demons in our head that tell us we’re no good, untalented nobodies we have to answer that voice that wants to know: who are we to think anyone cares? Once that voice pipes in we’re forced to wade through the most uncomfortable emotions. We have to sit with our deepest fears and insecurities. We have to sit in the dark, without a trace of light.
In writing, it’s often called the middle muddle. It’s the point at which the inciting action has passed and the characters need to do a bunch of stuff before the climax of the novel. This is the part that can feel like wading through honey. It’s sticky drudgery that often feels like wasting time before the main event.
But here’s the thing. As Brene Brown says in her new book Rising Strong, “The middle is messy, but it’s also where the magic happens.” The middle is where the yeast feeds on the gluten to give the bread its airy texture. The middle is where the athlete sweats, bleeds, falls down and learns to be more efficient. The middle is where the seedling sprouts and grows, preparing to bear fruit.
The middle is the part of the story that provides depth. In order to care about the characters we need to see them put into tough situations and then get themselves out. It’s the detailed part that makes us fall in love with places like Hogwarts and games like quidditch. The part that makes us love an otherwise detestable character, like Gregory House. It’s the part that gives the story—our own stories—room to breathe. It’s only by doing that we learn. In order to get to our glamorous after shot, we’ve got to transform from one thing into another. We’ve got to grow.
Growing is always awkward and uncomfortable. There is no way for it not to be. And at some point in our lives we’ve all experienced being in the messy middle. In fact, it comprises the bulk of our existence. There are very few moments spent deciding to do something or reveling in our success. Most of our lives are spent in some part or other of the middle.
We know this. And if we love the fictional vulnerability, why are we so quick to gloss over it in our own lives? Why do we praise overnight successes that we know were ten years in the making? Or call any master of craft a “born talent?” We know better.
I guess we just like things to be easy. Or at least to sound like they are. So maybe along the lines of the ironic Pinterest hashtag #nailedit we should have one just to honor that most important process. Maybe we should idealize the work, effort and facing of fears that goes between the before and after. And maybe, just to make ourselves feel better, we can simplify it with a new hashtag #messymiddle.