What To Do If You Are Stuck in the Middle of a Project

Middles are tough.

It’s no accident that Dante began The Inferno, his allegorical journey through Hell, thusly:

Gustave_Dore_Inferno1Midway upon the journey of our life

I found myself within a forest dark,

For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

Or that Christian, the pilgrim in John Bunyan’s allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress, encounters the bog called the “Slough of Despond” midway along his journey.

At Grub Street Writers, where I teach, many writers refer to the “Murky Middles” of writing projects.

Dark forests, bogs, murk: you might get the idea that a lot of people find middles not just difficult, but confusing and downright scary.

Here’s the problem with middles:

  • The piece (or project) is no longer fresh and new and shiny. Your early energy and enthusiasm are waning.
  • At the same time, the piece is at maximum entropy: meaning, what you’ve done up till now is super chaotic and disorganized.
  • You’ve also become more aware of the piece’s problems. It’s not living up to the pristine, Platonic vision that initially inspired you!
  • Moreover, you’re not even sure how to solve the problems, or whether you’ll even be able to solve them.
  • And the end is nowhere in sight.

The middle, in other words, is where the work gets tougher at the very same moment that your enthusiasm weakens. No wonder you’re discouraged!

It’s also easy to see how the whole thing could snowball into an avalanche of disappointment and discouragement! (Forests, bogs, avalanches—it’s all getting worse and worse!) This is particularly likely if you perfectionistically constantly judge your output: e.g., “This word sucks. That sentence is so inelegant. This project is badly organized. I’ve mismanaged the whole thing. It’s doomed to failure. No one’s interested, etc.”)

Here are some tips for getting through:

Gustave Dore's Paradiso1) If you’re struggling in the midst of a project, recognize that you might not, in fact, be doing anything wrong. It’s just the Murky Middle!

2) Maintain your perspective—this won’t last forever, and like Dante, Christian, and many other intrepid voyagers, you, too, will eventually reach paradise. (Or, at least the end of the work!)

3) Be extra vigilant about perfectionism, and extra diligent about using your tools, including self-compassion and timed writing intervals.

Of course, this entire discussion applies far beyond writing. Dante and Bunyan were writing about one’s spiritual development, and relationships also can have Murky Middles. (I was warned about it in foster parent training.) The Murky Middle also happens during hikes and quilting projects and probably all of life’s important or challenging endeavors.

Good luck using these techniques. As always, I welcome your questions and feedback. In the next two posts,  I’ll discuss some other reasons middles are tough, including the dreaded Middle-of-the-Middle! Have fun till then!

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