There is a moment that happens while working on any big art project that for me is full of electricity and magic. In a film, this moment would fall at the end of Act 1, about 25 minutes in, when the character makes a choice and crosses into the world of Act 2. It’s when Ripley and the Nostromo touch down to investigate the signal in Alien. It’s when John McClane decides to stop the terrorists in Die Hard. It’s when Joel gathers his things to erase Clementine from his memory in Eternal Sunshine for the Spotless Mind. (Can you tell that I’m married to someone who loves to talk about story structure in film?)
But in art, in books, when working on a manuscript in life, this transition into Act 2 really does happen (which is why it works in stories at all). And for me the moment looks just like this: a tiny box divided in half full of scribbles that represent a page spread:
To anyone else this might look like the very beginning. After all, my sketchbook is empty, and I’ve made countless trips to the kitchen to avoid doing actual work. But usually months have already passed since the initial project discussions and I’ve been turning over the problems in my head for some time. I’ve met or spoken with the editor or art director at least once or twice, and I’ve done my reading, I’m doing research, and I am beginning to fall in love with the material and the context. Perhaps I’ve even started to doodle some characters. Anything (but not everything!) is in the realm of possibility, and I’m trying not to let my fear of certain failure keep me balled up on the couch.
Now there’s nothing left to do but to “start.” More and more I am learning to recognize (and have faith in) the threshold of Act 2. There is a beat, a breath, a pause… and the world goes absolutely silent. I peer into the abyss ahead, knowing that in six months or one year I’ll have completed the project, even though from where I stand I can’t see how it will happen. I pick up a pen and I take a leap of faith. It will all work out (or it won’t) but there’s not going back to Act 1!