writing

Process

What is your process for taking an idea all the way through to a finished product? 

There’s no simple answer, no magic bullet, no one solution that works one-hundred percent of the time. 

Besides, you have to figure out whether or not what you have is really an idea to begin with because my definition of an idea is something that has some life, it has legs. More often than not, what I have first is a thought not an idea. A thought is something that captures your attention or stirs you up a little. It’s that line you underlined in that book you’re reading. It’s the quote you stumbled across. It’s the photograph that made you lean in. It’s the conversation you keep mulling over. It’s a spark and not much else. 

The first step in your process has to be finding a way of fanning that spark into flame, finding your method of turning that thought into an actionable idea. For some people it’s a mood board, an inspiration wall, or a brainstorm. For me, it’s most often writing.

When I start trying to articulate the thing I sometimes discover that all I really have are a few disconnected pieces without enough of the sinewy stuff to make them hang together. The thoughts are not yet an idea. I push and I prod, but I can’t seem to make it make sense anymore. Then it’s time to stop hyperventilating in an attempt to get that ember burning, and just let it die, or go dormant at the very least.

But sometimes the writing just begins to burn. I’m caught up. It may smoke a lot, but in those curls and wisps I can see riveting scenes and moving moments. Most often, that’s when the thought becomes an idea for me, and the process starts to take care of itself a little bit—not because the way is clear or easy, but because I’m suddenly compelled to keep piling all the logs on that I can to keep that thing burning. My heart is all wrapped up in it. 

So writing is almost always the first step for me. 

I’ve been doing a lot of writing lately. And by that I mean that I’ve been staring out the window for long stretches of time, after which I get up and make myself a cup of coffee. 

Then I sit down again at my desk and glare at a mostly blank page while I debate for two or three minutes whether or not I should write down the sentence I just thought of because it might be genius or it might be as bad as I’m starting to think it is. Finally, in a glorious 10-minute flurry of activity I write some actual words. 

Creativity is, by its very nature, an inefficient process, if it’s a process at all. 

Reading Poetry

Two weeks of
turning the pages
and turning down corners
of Billy Collins,
and Wendell Berry,
and Mary Oliver.

Sitting with three old souls,
who speak in soft tones,
murmuring and mulling
over the things most true.

Just us four.
Each one, in turn, 
looks at me square
and sees my soul
and tells me who I am,
that I'm peculiar in all the right ways
and quite right in celebrating
the world the way I do.

"Be not bridled
by the unromantic ritual of daily life,"
says Mary,
with a conspiratorial lean.

"Yes," nods Billy.
"The Devil is in the doldrums,
so romanticize the hell out of them."

"Right out,"
smiles Wendell
between puffs of his pipe.
"Right out."

These three and me
with tea
between us.
Talking about little things
that are the biggest things in the world.

Just Play

I hadn't written much of anything in months other than pithy captions on Instagram photos, nor was I in a hurry to do more. My actual writing had grown stagnant, but my desire to have written was still gushing. Starting seemed insurmountable, ideas and lines flying here and there and the task of organizing all those birds in flight into the single-file lines of rational sentence structure wore me thin before I could even begin. I was explaining this wearying paralysis to a friend (read: complaining), and she looked at me with only a marginal amount of sympathy and said, "Just play."

Take the pressure out of it. Stop trying to be brilliant. Make some nonsense. Write whatever comes to mind. Just write.

A couple months ago, with her words ringing in the back of my mind, I made a commitment to start writing every day.

Failure commenced the very next day when I wrote a sum total of nothing.

But the experiment hasn’t been an all-out disaster. Most days I do write. Some days I don’t. I’m trying not to beat myself up about it, trying to extend myself a little grace. And trying to play, to have fun, but also finding that I might have forgotten how.

I started small. I would try to write a paragraph at the very least, and I was doing okay. Then Anne Lamott and her lovely little bird book conspired with my inner-Achiever, and I found myself whispering to myself, saying thing like, "If you were really serious about this writing-everyday-thing you'd be writing at least three hundred words a day."

Cue the musical montage depicting my five days of discipline and self-satisfaction. Smash cut to me brooding in the mirror as I brush my teeth at the end of another day in a long line of not typing a word.

What this experiment continues to reveal is that I’m all for discipline, but I also need to allow for a natural ebb and flow. Without that little bit of give, healthy discipline quickly erodes into resentment, stress, and other downward-spiraling nonsense.

I’ve been in a bit of a busy stretch the last week or so that’s kept me from writing for any regular block of time, so I’ve been trying something new. I just finished the book Accidental Creative (highly recommended), and it talks about doing a better job of noticing the fly-away thoughts we have throughout the day, those momentary flashes of insight or pangs of emotion that rise up in the course of ordinary conversations, commutes, and correspondence. Todd Henry (he’s the author) recommends carrying a few index cards at all times to capture these thoughts before they disappear into the ether.

(In her book Bird by Bird Anne Lamott suggests the same technique, but I’m already feeling a bit abused by her genius so I’m giving credit to Todd.)

Well, I emphatically will not carry note cards. They remind me of homework and flash cards and public speaking, and I’ll have none of that. But I will carry my phone, and for the last week or so I’ve been capturing these fragments of thought every time I can remember to do so.

And it feels like play.

Out of necessity these rapid-fire snippets are often captured without a filter, a result of needing to get them down as quick as I can in the bitty breaks between meetings or stoplights. No filter means they’re rife with misspellings and non-sequiturs, but they’re also full of reality and raw originality. I look back and I see moments that would have passed by with a half-smile only to be forever forgotten. A single rhyme or instance of alliteration will materialize in my head, and in the course of writing it down it will suddenly bloom into a whole stanza (a whole stanza of really awful poetry, mind you, but a memento of a beautiful moment nonetheless, written in ugly sentence structure… like this).

I’m easily topping three hundred words a day now (take that Anne!) and having a lot of fun. I feel as if I’m casting seeds, little insignificant fragments of things that just might become something really beautiful when I have the chance to coax more out of them with a little care.

I'm playing.

Sometimes making things can start to feel like a burden rather than a privilege. Or the immensity of touching the untouchable can suddenly seem too much. Or as our eyes cross with the complexity of it, the masterpiece at hand can begin to look like a paint-by-numbers. And maybe, sometimes, it is. When I'm in these dark, confining rooms called fear, worry, and complacency I sometimes need to burst out the front door. I need to feel my feet running down the street. I need to start ringing the doorbells of every neighbor with the surnames of Wonder, Laughter, and Discovery painted on their mailbox to ask if any of them might come out and play with me. We each need a place where we can experiment, and try, and fail, and withhold judgment, and maybe find a way out of these very dark rooms. We all need a way to just play.

A Forced Habit

I have been out of practice. Any and all practice of any kind. And practice is important. Without practice we have a snowball's chance at perfect.

Many of the things that have been most important—to my soul, my marriage, my parenting, my work, my everything—have become conspicuously absent.

Space.

Word.

Reflection.

Health.

Writing.

These were habits of mine. I want these habits back because the force of them once shaped me into the me I recognize.

Have you ever sat in your car and turned the key only to find that the battery is dead? You always turn the key again. And again. And then again. There's this little noise, this clicking and whirring, an indefinite sound that—in my personification of all automobiles—I assume is a feeble yet determined effort to spark some life. A mechanical, "I can do it!" I find myself turning the key again because, well, that last time sounded a little more resolute.

The last few months have been like this, little sparks but too little.

What the car needs is a jump start.

For the next week and a half the calendar is cleared. There will be no alarms, only the sun shining through the window to wake me. No meetings or strategy sessions unless they include board games at the kitchen table with the kids. And no Netflix.

My only constraint is that I need to establish some constraints. Over the next week and a half it is my mission to intentionally form the habits that wrangle the rest of my time and priorities into rightness.

Because for something to become a force of habit I suppose one must begin by forcing the habit.