Many times, I have heard (and given) the advice, “If inspiration isn’t forthcoming, then just start writing anyway.” I still believe this, and would echo the words of Jack London: “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”1 However, I believe the process may be more nuanced than this.
Consider the following, highly imperfect metaphor (I do love metaphors): two people attempt to build a house. We’ll call them “Mr. Muscles” and “Mr. Books.” Mr. Muscles is quite a muscular man who works out every day, rain or shine, sick or healthy. With great confidence, he begins laying the foundation. After a few hours of work, he realizes that he has not dug deeply enough into the ground. So, he uproots what he has built, digs more deeply, and begins again. Later, he begins to pour cement for his driveway. He finishes this, only to discover that the mixture is too weak and will be too brittle. So, he alters the mixture and pours the cement yet again, but this is made more difficult by the fact that his first mixture has begun to harden. This process continues for the entire time he builds the house: he constructs it, constantly making changes and corrections as he goes. The process takes him significant time and strength, but he completes the project.
Mr. Books is not as strong, nor is he as confident. He does not spend his time working out, but rather, spends his time reading and learning. When he decides to build the house, he imagines the way he wants it to look and feel. He uses his extensive knowledge to plan every detail ahead of time: how much of each material he will require, the optimal mixture for the cement, the depth to dig into the ground before the foundation may be laid, and so on. This takes significant time and mental effort. Once he has completed all of this planning, he begins building. It requires little to no backtracking or editing: he simply executes what he has already planned.
For our purposes, let us assume that each house is perfectly livable and safe. Both men have accomplished their tasks in a similar amount of time. Both have exerted a similar amount of effort, though in different ways.
Judging by most of the advice given to writers and composers, one might be led to believe that all creative types should be a “Mr. Muscles.” He is the one who writes every day, even if he is dissatisfied with the result. He creates first, edits later. He does not work with plans, nor does he accomplish much of the work in his own mind. He thinks and plans by engaging in the outward act of creation itself.
I know very few writers who resemble Mr. Books. He constantly creates, but only in his mind. He constantly ponders what he learns, though does not always express his discoveries. He only creates outwardly when he feels he has something to say. He cannot simply sit down, throw words or notes onto a page, and be happy with the result. For him to say something, he must mean it.
Which one am I? It took me years to come to the realization, and for a long time, I wondered if it meant that I was “deficient” as a writer. However, I have since come to realize that it has actually afforded me great creative freedom, and has set me free from judging myself in this way.
I am a “Mr. Books.”
In simple terms, I find that I cannot compose, and write it down, at the same time. I am not sure why. I have had this “problem” (if one may so call it?) for years. Here is what I mean: If I sit down and simply start writing, I will usually end up with a chaotic mess in short order. It is akin to digging for archaeological finds while blindfolded, without even knowing if I am at a dig site. There is a small chance, of course, that I may acquire something useful at random, but it is far more likely that I will retrieve nothing from the ground but dirt.
My process differs from this in one key respect. I do not begin the writing process by writing. I begin it by simply deciding upon a concept, however unformed or “big-picture” it may be. Within this framework, I begin imagining freely (again, not writing anything down, save for the most salient aspects of what I imagine). I simply “play the orchestra” in my mind. For writing a story, I imagine myself as one of the characters and do a mental walkthrough of the scene, as though I am an actor or a movie director. Much of the actual work is done this way, and may take quite some time (days, weeks, months, or even years for some pieces).
Once I am satisfied with the composition in my mind, the writing process itself simply becomes a matter of copying it onto the page. The composition has already been (mostly) finished. All that remain are to transcribe and tweak. Ironically, that process can take as long as the initial composition, but with far less pain involved. I wonder why this is so?
Here is my theory: the act of writing itself is a thought process. The human brain can usually handle but a single thought process at a time. When one attempts to create and write it down at the same time, one forces the brain to divide its attention, and in the most taxing way possible: pitting the “logical mind” and the “creative mind” against one another. Ask any daydreaming student sitting in a math class: this never ends well. Either (a) the creative mind will win, causing the result to be a mess, or (b) the logical mind will win, causing the result to possibly have structure and sound pleasant, but be emotionally “dry.”
Waiting to write separates the two processes, allowing them both to function at their best. The creative mind is able to imagine freely, soaring where it wishes and exploring every possibility. Once the project has been completed this way, the logical mind uses its knowledge of grammar to make the imagined into reality. My composition teacher would have called this “the architect and the engineer”: the architect (the creative mind) says, “I want to build this.” The engineer (the logical mind) says, “Alright, here’s how you build it.” The two sides of an artist’s brain need not be enemies, as is sometimes taught. Without grammar, all language would simply be gibberish, and no communication could take place. An artist adept with both sides of his mind will ensure that he has something to say, and the means to say it. (You can read more about this topic here.)
How do I know when the process is finished in my mind? It is difficult to answer this, but I can tell if it is not complete. If I am writing, and notice that I am having to fight for every note or push for every word, it probably means that I have go back to the drawing board. I need to spend more time thinking or planning. I need to flesh out my characters, describe a scene more vividly, plot out of the story in a more detailed fashion, get more deeply into character for the music, or improvise more with the orchestra in my mind.
Sometimes, I notice that the concept itself is “broken,” and that I simply have to scrap the entire project and begin anew. This is quite painful at first, as it involves an admission that I have just wasted much time. At times, I have thrown away months of work for this reason. However, this often results in a far better project, and a more enjoyable process, the second time. In fact, nearly every time I have thrown away a project with which I have struggled, I have composed a new and better project within mere days or weeks.
For the other “Mr. Books” reading this article: you may be asking, “How can I maintain my skills and confidence by writing every day, even if I am scared that I won’t really mean it?” For me, I have found that having multiple projects at varying levels of completion helps. One will be in the planning phase, one will be in the transcription phase, and perhaps another will be in the editing phase. While this is going on, I might sketch random ideas that visit me throughout the day, to save for later. I may also write down concepts, or even plans, for future projects. This ensures that I always have something to work on, and makes it easier to maintain creative momentum. Interestingly, it allows me to adopt some of Mr. Muscles’s confidence and strength, while also using Mr. Books’s planning to minimize the pain of the process. I suspect many creatives have a little of both individuals within themselves.
Strangely, this brief article was written in a single sitting, with but a small seed of an idea with which to begin. (I did, however, return to it for a light edit afterwards.) I did not have a plan for it, nor did I spend any time sketching for it. Amazingly, it did not end up turning into a chaotic mess (though perhaps I should leave this for the reader to judge). I found that, as I wrote, new ideas occurred to me which I had previously not considered – the act of writing did, indeed, help the creative process. Perhaps my mind works differently with writing English than with writing music. Perhaps I will attempt to figure out why that is the case next? This appears to contradict some of what I have just written, which, ironically, further reinforces my belief that creativity is like a cat: it is unpredictable, does not come when called, and often does appear when least expected.
- Are you a “Mr. Muscles” or a “Mr. Books”? How did you discover this?
- Have you ever created a project using a process that was unfamiliar to you?
- Have you ever had to throw away a project? How did you know this was necessary?
- “The Daily Word Counts of 39 Famous Authors”. Writers Write. https://writerswrite.co.za/the-daily-word-counts-of-39-famous-authors-1/