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How We Work

Richard Long, "Summer Circle." Stone installation.
Just as appetite comes by eating, so work brings inspiration, if inspiration is not discernible at the beginning.
- Igor Stravinsky

It was Emile Zola who kept a motto in his workroom: Null dies sine linea. "No day without line.' He wrote one thousand to fifteen hundred words a day, until in thirty-one years he finished with businesslike dispatch something like twenty-five novels and twenty-three other books. When you have nothing to say, you write anyway, if only to keep in practice.
- Sophy Burnham

Are you working?

Perhaps, like me you've been bouncing back and forth between intense spurts of work and fallow dips not quite procrastination, not quite inspiration. Creating anything is tough. Being your own boss is tough. Combining the two is a little like stalking a bird that comes only unbidden. There are good and not so good work patterns, and ways to break in and out of those patterns. This post adds to my earlier posts on this topic.

There are unlimited and divergent arguments for how and when to write, and methods to write your best. There are "sit down and do it" disciplinarians who manage to scratch out something on the page even in the grip of a creative block to make their word counts. And those, Sophy Burnham points out, who find putting pen on paper (fingers on keyboard) plain good practice. Stravinsky believed that simply beginning was the best catalyst: inspiration often arrives in the midst of aimlessness on the page.

Dream the idea and write only when the spark ignites. Is this you? This approach was famously championed by Truman Capote, who confessed, "I am a completely horizontal author. I can't think unless I'm lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee in hand." Many writers, Walt Whitman and Stephen King to name just two, are staunch advocates of active dreaming: long walks or periods of exercise to spur the creative. Others prepare and wait. Agatha Christie cleared a space on a kitchen table - any flat stable surface would do. Some need a blank wall, a closed door, and zero distraction; others, like Harriet Doerr, begin with visual stimulation - "I have everything I need. A square of sky, a piece of stone, a page, a pen, and memory raining down on me in sleeves."

The key to a successful creative work life begins with the acknowledgment that creative effort is exactly that: creativity plus effort. For a writer, it may feel as though the cart fell before the horse to sit down and pound out 500 words without a clue as to what we are going to say. Yet halfway through that paragraph, our theme may announce itself. Musicians find composition riffs frequently follow routine practices, fingers and mind warmed to the task. Painters uncover a fresh color palette or a stroke that inspires. Dancers choreograph in the process of working out better moves. There is some essential element of art that occurs in execution...sparked or partnered by an equally important guiding concept. An idea without an effort remains a fancy, as effort without direction remains aimless. It's a team game.

But back to Capote on his couch and Zola scribbling out his pages... Both writers are maximizing their capabilities. Both men understand how they work their best. Look within to understand the method to get work done. Desperate for inspiration, do we encourage creative flow conceptually, or anchor work to a defined theme or idea? Is "dead time" mental gestation, or procrastination - a question of sitting down and doing the work? The creative individual has to be self-aware, utterly honest, and willing to own the solution to the problem.

What are your musts? Your preferences? How do you ease into your most creative pattern, or do you just drop in and begin?

It took time to realize I work best balanced between two types of writing: PRACTICE writing (journaling, idea sketches, bits of essays, drafts of book reviews) and PURPOSEFUL writing (putting a theme into structure and on the page.) These distinct tasks engage different skills and wells of creative thinking, and somehow cross-fertilize one another. I shrivel faced with a wall without a window or a bit of nature to gaze on. I do need utter quiet, unless I am editing, in which case easy jazz is best. And on days I just don't want to sit down and do any of it, I often don't. That's the day for a hike, for reading, for lying on Capote's couch.

The big lesson has been to TRUST THE FALLOW time. Days of zero output are days of mental work. Ideas gel. The mess in Chapter 20 untangles in the back of our brain even as we step away and dutifully prune the apple tree. The muse hangs out in the moments before sleep, appears mile 5 of our morning run.

Creativity + Effort. It truly doesn't matter which side of the equation we solve for first.
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