I recently read this very interesting post by Lauren Sapala, in which she argued – very convincingly, to my mind – that writers, by pressuring themselves to achieve goals, can actually hinder their progress. In the post, she made a very simple but, to me, quite startling point, which in turn provoked one of those “lightbulb” moments, when I thought, “Ah-ha! So that’s where I’ve been going wrong all this time!” She says:
Our culture tends to think of time as linear. It moves forward in a straight line. So if you want to get anything done, you need to move forward in a straight line as well. And the most popular method used in our culture to conquer this straight line is to push ourselves. This push is commonly referred to as "drive" or "motivation".
Of course, very often writers have their own particular set of motivations. They want to get their novel finished, and preferably by a certain date. They plan to submit it to publishers, or upload it as an eBook, by a given date. They put pressure on themselves to make x number of sales, or to garner a certain number of reviews, or any number of other things.
And of course this is all reasonable enough. Cover design, editing, publishing, selling – these are for the most part practical tasks, well suited to a linear outlook. Yet it’s also a viewpoint that sometimes seeps through into the purely creative side of our work. Writers might beat themselves up if they fail to write x number of words per day, or don’t write quite well enough, or have only a nebulous idea of a certain plot point or a given character. It’s easy to be hard on ourselves, to take on the role of both the quivering slave and the whip-cracking slave driver. We should be doing more, better, quicker!
|Row faster, slave!|
The goal-driven mentality is, of course, one that we’re all familiar with, and often for very good reasons. The practical business of life, whether it’s going to the supermarket, attending a job interview, or making the dinner, can all be viewed as linear: you do x in order to do y, hopefully with the final projected outcome of z. In many areas of life, that outlook makes absolute sense, which is perhaps why we’ve come to see it as the correct one.
But is this goal-oriented, linear outlook really compatible with creativity? When we attempt to measure our creative work against the linear model, might we not actually be hindering our own progress?
Going around in circles is frowned upon in today’s world, because how are you ever going to travel further down that straight line if you’re just going round and round? Circular movement is aimless, repetitive, and – crucially – it doesn’t have a clear goal in mind. We should be moving forward, not wasting time – or so, at least, our cultural background suggests.
|Circular movement is not necessarily like this...|
But creative writing – and creativity in general – are, it seems to me, not particularly well-suited to the linear model. Instead, they are often circular activities. Whether you’re working out the intricacies of a character’s personality, or trying to decide whether this phrase or that image actually does what you want it to do, or wondering whether a plot point is really feasible, you’re often digging away at the same mental ground, sifting through ideas and impressions that you’ve already examined, searching for that little piece of gold that got lost amidst the mud and sand before. Trying to impose a time limit on such activities is pointless, at least in my experience; they take as long as they take.
Much of my creative work takes place in that relaxed, contemplative state when I’m not actually writing anything, or indeed doing much at all. A non-creative person might deride this state as idling or time wasting. It is neither. This is the period when mental connections are forged, when imagery flowers, when seemingly disparate ideas and elements begin to amass and form a new entity with its own gravitational field, which in turn pulls in still more elements. This period cannot be forced, or measured out in days, weeks, or months. Either it has its own timescale – a timescale quite separate to that of linear, non-creative output – or it is somehow timeless. Motivation, as such, doesn’t really come into it. I often don’t have a particular goal in mind during this period.
Of course, we need some motivations – if we had none at all, why would we even bother to write our stories down, let alone publish them? But we should perhaps be wary of applying the goal-oriented outlook to the creative process. Might it not be a little like applying the laws of flight to a fish?
What do people think?