Adam Grant explains why putting things off may lead to more creative work (as long as you don’t leave it till the last minute).
Qwiklit has a 100-day writing challenge going on, 100 prompts for short pieces hidden until you click to help clear out the cobwebs and get you started writing. I’m giving it a go. Here’s my short piece for day 2, “Zombie Invasion.”
Prompt: At this moment, the area you’re in is suddenly ravaged by zombies. With the internet and phone lines cut off, all you have at your disposal are things in your room.
I’m sitting in my office, surfing Tumblr, when I hear them outside. I look out the window and groan. Not zombies again! They’re everywhere you look these days. On TV, at the movies, even in YA romance novels. Aren’t they a little played out by now? Sure, zombies have overwhelming numbers and they keep on coming and they’re disgustingly gross, but other than that, they aren’t all that scary or even interesting. There’s only so much you can do with the premise. Uh oh, it’s the end of the world, everybody grab a gun, try to rape a random woman, and turn on your fellow human beings. Oh, and make sure a couple of you guys turn to cannibalism so we can do this bit about how we’re not much better than the zombies. I like The Walking Dead as much as anybody, but as far as I’m concerned, that’s the last I want to see of zombies for a lifetime. I want something new, something dynamic, something twenty-first century. And no, I’m not talking about something old all dressed up as new, like sparkly vampires. What is that even? Vampires are not sexy. They suck blood out of people’s bodies. They are very pale. They seem to brood a lot. Not sexy at all. Who would even want to hang around with someone like that for an evening, much less forever? Werewolves are so dead end, they’ve been reduced to supporting parts. Ghosts are always a fan favorite, but now we have to treat them like people, with sad back stories and mopey dialogue. That kind of takes the scare out of them. We need new monsters!
Guess I wouldn’t be much good in a zombie invasion.
You may think Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit’s short collection of essays (including the one that helped spawn the term “man-splaining”), is necessary reading for women, and you’d be right. But it’s also a great read for all creative types.
When I first started reading these essays, I felt angry. That’s okay; I’m used to feeling angry. What I liked about this collection is that she goes beyond anger, which can lead all too easily to feelings of despair and hopelessness, and provides hope for a brighter future, as well as an impetus that we all keep doing our small part because everyone’s work toward equality is important. “Woolf’s Darkness” was the essay I most highlighted, because it talks about how creative work gets done and ties that into the limitations placed on women, and also because it introduces the idea that the future is dark. We cannot know what will happen in the future or how our actions now might make a difference. We are all spinners in a web, and how those threads come together, we just don’t know, but those threads are all necessary, so we cannot stop our work, whatever it may be. We all make a difference.
Solnit says in this essay:
“To me, the grounds for hope are simply that we don’t know what will happen next, and that the unlikely and the unimaginable transpire quite regularly. And that the unofficial history of the world shows that dedicated individuals and popular movements can shape history and have, though how and when we might win and how long it takes is not predictable.”
“Despair is a form of certainty, certainty that the future will be a lot like the present or will decline from it; despair is a confident memory of the future, in Gonzalez’s resonant phrase. Optimism is similarly confident about what will happen. Both are grounds for not acting. Hope can be the knowledge that we don’t have that memory and that reality doesn’t necessarily match our plans…”
While this essay spoke volumes to me, my favorite essay was “Grandmother Spider,” which begins by showing how women have been erased from family lines and thus from history, and ends by honoring the work of women, all of it, and how it taken together weaves an intricate and beautiful web:
“Every woman who appears wrestles with the forces that would have her disappear. She struggles with the forces that would tell her story for her, or write her out of the story, the genealogy, the rights of man, the rule of law. The ability to tell your own story, in words or images, is already a victory, already a revolt.”
An inspiring collection for all people really.
It really bothers me when people say they aren’t creative. Everyone is, in some fashion. I am just as guilty every time I say I am tone deaf or that I have two left feet and that no one could ever possibly teach me how to sing or dance. I wish, more than anything, that we would all learn how to let go of limiting beliefs, stop comparing ourselves to others, cease worrying about what others think, and just let ourselves go and be free to experiment and play.
Like the advice in pretty much all writing books, Natalie Goldberg’s advice in Writing Down the Bones boils down to the same core principles: write every day; don’t edit while you write; use detail; don’t worry about being perfect. Goldberg offers some useful tips for keeping a daily writing practice, but she also admits that you have to keep changing up your routine just to keep yourself interested. In other words, no one piece of advice is the magic bullet for all would-be writers, or will even work for one writer for the entirety of a writing life.
There are some useful nuggets to be mined here, and repetition helps the basic advice get heard. What I like about Goldberg’s approach to writing as a “practice” is that it takes the focus off the end product and puts it on the process of writing (or creating) just for its own sake. I think in American culture especially, we become too obsessed with productivity and sales and getting famous. We forget to do things for no other reason than our own enjoyment, and the spark gets lost that way.
Here are some key ideas from Writing Down the Bones that are worth remembering:
- Composting: It takes time for our experiences to sift through our consciousness so we can write coherently about it. In other words, you’re not going to write well about something you’re going through right now. That’s why so many writers start with their childhood, I guess.
- When you practice writing, it’s a good idea to separate the editor/internal censor from the creator, but that’s very difficult to do for many of us!
- It is the process of writing that teaches us how to write.
- Writers write about their obsessions. List your obsessions and you have a list of things to write about.
- Use original detail in your writing, but don’t be rigid about it. Fiction doesn’t have to absolutely mirror reality.
- To be a good writer, you must read a lot of good books and write a lot. (This is what everyone says, but I find it so dismaying to run into writers who don’t read.)
- “Show, don’t tell” actually means: Don’t tell readers what to feel; show them the situation and the feeling will awaken in them.
- Be specific. Use the names of things.
- Even if you aren’t sure of something, express it as if you know yourself.
- If you have a big topic you want to write about, break it down into its aspects. Write small to get big.
Some interesting exercises I gleaned from the book:
- List 10 nouns on one side of a piece of paper. Cover them and list 15 verbs on the other side that are associated with a profession. Try to match nouns with verbs in unusual combinations to make sentences. Think about actions–they have power.
- If you can’t think of anything else to write about, write about food. We all love to eat.
- Keep a box or envelope or file of topic ideas. Pull one out and just start writing when you get stuck.
- If you are unsure of a piece, put it away for a while. Reread it as a reader, not as the writer. Underline the good parts and throw away the rest.
A couple of weeks ago, I decided to eschew my electronic tasks list, calendar, and notepad in favor of a pen-and-paper system, i.e., a notebook. I was inspired by Austin Kleon’s suggestion to go analog to improve creativity. So far, it’s been working well, other than the small inconvenience that the notebook I chose is just a little too small. However, it has perforated pages, which I really like–I can tear out pages once they’re used up.
I enjoy the satisfaction of physically crossing items off in my notebook as I accomplish the goals I’ve set. I am definitely more productive. Perhaps the reward of crossing off is enough to motivate me to actually do what I set out to do.
The most surprising result, though, is that using the paper notebook really has improved my memory. I was seriously starting to get worried, because it seemed like I would forget everything. Just minutes after someone asked me to do something, it would fly out of my brain. I would walk into rooms with no idea why I was there. The act of physically writing things into my notebook and then reviewing them once or twice daily has helped cement them in my mind, though. I can now remember what I need to do without actually looking at me to-do list first, which is amazing. I think my improved memory is helping me get more done too.
Regardless, I am a convert back to paper notebooks. Is it possible that such a small change could significantly boost my happiness? Seems so.