Thursday, 23 January 2014

The joy is in the doing



"Product is the drug de jour, our ego and superego hit, the crack of creativity."


The joy is the doing, not the having done: the long hours alone, spent in delight and creation and the pleasure of doing hard things.
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The battle between process and product rages at the heart of the creative life. The creating, doing, inventing, and trying-out, versus the finished thing we want at the end: the complete published novel, collection of poetry, or final painting. The two can’t exist without each other, but product always seems on the verge of killing process.  

For the last few years, I’ve been chewing over ideas about creativity, ego, and that war between process and product. The more demanding life becomes and the harder it is to protect writing time, the more important this question becomes to me. What I want is to write more, more creatively, better, and finish more – but the product-driven thinking that serves me so well in other areas backfires in writing.


Process-driven thinking and product-driven thinking can feel almost identical, but use a completely different focus. Try these examples:

Process-driven thinkingProduct-driven thinking
I want to spend the evening writing.I want to write 2000 words this evening.
I’ll try this and see how it goes.I don’t know if this will work.
Ooh, this is an unexpected direction.It won’t go the way I want.
I want to…I should…
Look what I’ve been doing!Look what I’ve done!
I want to enjoy it.I want to get it right.

Being product-driven helps us achieve things and evaluate success. It satisfies our ego’s need for achievement and its fear of failure, and our superego’s need to control and to obey rules.  But it also prevents us from exploring, experimenting, and doing new things: the risk of failure.  It inhibits enjoyment: our satisfaction comes briefly, at the end, from having done.

Ars longa, vita brevis, wrote Hippocrates: art is long and life is short. Creating art and writing takes a long time: finishing is a momentary thing, a brief list-ticking satisfaction. That’s not enough satisfaction for all the time we’ve invested, so the ego starts roaming around, demanding more: admiration, reviews, sales! These aren’t guaranteed, though, and they can never repay enough for what we put in. The ego sulks: “Why should I carry on creating? What do I get in return, huh?” The superego says, “What did I do wrong? What did they do wrong? Work harder!”

Being process-driven, however, is a sacrifice of ego: it allows exploring, experimenting, playing, doing new things, and making mistakes.  It disobeys the superego by “wasting” time, being “inefficient”, and breaking rules. It’s essential for discovery and invention: the new thing doesn’t exist yet, so the product isn’t guaranteed. It may go wrong. It may come to nothing. It may not work. The joy is the doing, not the having done: the long hours alone, spent in delight and creation and the pleasure of doing hard things.  It is liberating, risky, and much more fun.


My students often hesitate, when we start exploring process versus product thinking. If you just concentrate on the process, where’s the product to come from? How do you ever finish anything? I feel the same sense of alarm and hear generations of Protestant-work-ethic ancestors shouting over my shoulder to workfinish itstop playing aroundmake a plan! We do need both – but I’ve yet to meet an adult writer who focuses too much on process. Product is the drug de jour, our ego and superego hit, the crack of creativity.

It’s so easy to become too product-driven: the ego quickly gets demanding and wants more, more, and more. So yeah, you won a prize last year, what about this year? Two short stories published in a year, big deal, where’s the novel, the two-book deal, the bestseller, give me more! If you have that, Where are the sales? The big book-signings? Why aren’t you more famous? Why don’t you have 1.9m Twitter followers? The ego keeps promising it’ll be satisfied “when X happens” – but it never is. It’s a strong driver but behaves like a hungry toddler. Feed it well at home and don’t give into its demands.  

The superego, meanwhile, quickly gets powercrazy with its lists, plans, and reassuring sense of Doing The Right Thing.  It sees how much you can get done when you pull all the stops out, so it starts whipping you to do that every day. What are you doing, relaxing? Make something up! Oh, you think what you’re reading / watching might be useful for your writing? Make notes! This time could be used. Go for a walk, you need exercise; what are you doing going for a walk when you could be writing?  The superego is the police – essential and valuable, but you don’t want them running the country. More than once I’ve turned my life into a police state, and my writing has suffered bitterly for it.

Turning away from product-driven thinking is terrifying. Surely product-focus is our guarantee of success? Again, if you just concentrate on the process, where’s the product to come from? But try this question, instead. If you just focus on the product, where’s the process to come from? The process is the thing that makes the product. Focusing on process may feel fluffy, a recipe for failure, but it works better. A study at the University of Chicago and the Korea Business School tested goal-focus versus process-focus on exercise, origami, even flossing. It turns out that people who focus on their goal instead of on the process destroy their own motivation and end up doing less. “Revel in the process and you’re more likely to make it to the finishing line,” they concluded. So when your ego and superego start yelling at you, you can shove some nice empirical research at them and tell them to shut up.


How do you shift to process-driven thinking? The trick here is changing your thinking, more than your behaviour (though you may need to curb some of your assessing, wordcounting, and lists).  You need to retrain your thoughts: cut goal-oriented thinking short and deliberately replace it with imagining the process.  If the difference between the two seems strange and nebulous, think about sex. Imagine having sex focused on the product: I want to come / I want to get pregnant / I want to get this done as efficiently as possible. That’s some seriously rubbish sex. Now imagine focusing on the process instead. That’s the difference between process- and product-driven thinking!

If you’re not sure how to get started, here are some starting points:

  • your writing time: think about what part you want to write (not “finish”) and imagine the content
  • going to write: think about the experience of working on it,  not The Thing To Tick: think of the papers spread on your desk, the smell of the fresh coffee at your side, the look of the document on screen or notebook under your hand, the juggling and weaving ideas…  Not “Go upstairs and write” but “My colourful notes, leather desk top under my arms, the look of story, shaping reality, those characters alive…”
  • in the writing moment: see the time as space cleared for writing, not a scheduled block to get writing done.  Focus on what you’re doing, not how much you’re doing.  Resist the urge to wordcount – at the most, allow one wordcount per session, at the end, and don’t value writing purely by word count. (After all, Lorem Ipsum can churn out word count.)  Think in terms of ideas and content, instead.

This past summer, having superego-whipped myself into a crumbling mess of stress, I needed to write completely differently. Each writing day, I went to an open-air coffee shop in town and wrote by hand. I relished the buildings around me, the buskers, the changing tree above me, the smell of my latte. I didn’t plan the story at all. I followed bad ideas to see where they went, and they turned out to be brilliant. I followed good ideas into cul-de-sacs and left them there while I wrote something else. I couldn’t wordcount, because I was writing by hand, and I didn’t page count. I discovered a completely new voice, dozens of rich characters, storylines that took me by surprise, playful inventions that startled me, and I loved every minute. I also wrote 192,000 words. I’m already starting to salivate about the process of redrafting. And my ego can stay in its box, where it belongs.

The completed wall, after all my playing around with colours and techniques

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