The fourth stage of the creative process is WORKING – the hard slog of getting the writing done. You’ve got your story and done the research, shaped your character arcs and structured the plot. Now you write.
This might seem straightforward, but there are many issues that come up while you’re writing that you’ll have to deal with. Whether you work from an outline or by the skin of your teeth, while you write it’s impossible not to think about how it’s going. Writing isn’t a mechanical process where all you have to worry about is putting the words in the right order. Once you’ve worked out what you want to say, there are countless ways of saying it and you have to find the way that works for this particular story. The possibilities are endless and it’s easy to get lost in a maze of doubt.
On top of that, there are the issues you have with the story itself, as well as meta-work issues of how well you think you’re working: is the story turning out as you expected, are you meeting your target number of words or pages, is the project coming along well, are you progressing, are you writing well, and so on.
There are two different processes happening here. One is the actual writing, and the other is the appraisal of the writing. But here’s the problem: you can’t think about all these questions while you’re actually writing. It’s distracting and off-putting. But you have to appraise as you go, even if it opens up a flurry of self-doubt. So you need to find a way to balance working and appraising.
The Trance of Working
When you sit down to write there’s always a period of struggle. Even if you want to write, you’ve said Yes! to writing, and you’ve chosen to be there, distractions and doubts will pull you away if you’re not careful. But if you stick at it there comes a moment when something suddenly clicks. You might not even notice when it happens. One minute you’re thinking about making another cup of tea, despite having drunk three in the last hour, and then the next – you’re writing.
The struggle dissolves and the words flow and you’ve entered the trance of working.
This is also called Entering the Zone, and is when the best writing gets done. You stop second guessing yourself and the story flies from your fingers. The trick at this stage of the creative process is to maintain the trance of working for as long as possible. If you stop to look at what you’re writing and start to think about it, the trance is broken.
Aim to stay in the zone long enough to get some writing done, then you can pull back and look at what you’ve got. If you pull back to question every other word or sentence, you’ll be stopping and starting and will never settle into a rhythm of work. This is an exhausting way to write and the results are rarely worth the effort.
Trust the Process
The key is to trust yourself. Just write and see what happens. Try not to be too attached to the outcome – if the story doesn’t work, you can rewrite it. You’ll be rewriting it anyway, so why worry. Don’t allow yourself to be distracted by unwanted thoughts and distractions – try the Puppy Technique to keep your mind focused.
As you write, the story will evolve and you’ll need to change with it. You may find yourself balanced, Man On Wire style, suspended between staying true to your original idea and following wherever it wants to take you.
To do this you must trust yourself and the process. You will need to stay present: be there for your characters, be willing to take risks, be willing to be wrong, and be willing to write garbage.
I’ve written scenes that have gone wandering off in another direction only to discover this new, ‘wrong’ direction was right all along. It might not be what I have in my outline, but it feels right. It’s more true to the story than my original plan. There are just as many scenes that have gone off at a tangent and ended up in a ditch with their skirts over their heads, screeching. But that’s okay too – I’ll just rewrite it. It’s not a disaster.
They’re just words.
Creativity is inherently chaotic. You are literally making this stuff up as you go along and you don’t know what will happen. Even if you’ve got a detailed outline with every story beat plotted with confident precision, the process of writing the story changes it. You might know what happens in your story in a general kind of way, but until it’s written down, anything could happen.
The anxiety of this stage of the creative process is Chaotic Mind anxiety. You know you’re not in control and you don’t really know what you’re doing, but you have to write anyway. The process will carry you along and you don’t know where you’ll end up. You have to trust the process – but how?
You might react to the natural chaos of creativity, and the fear it can cause, by becoming defensive. In the face of uncertainty you suddenly feel blank and empty and convinced that you don’t want to write at all. It was a stupid idea to even try, what was I thinking?!
There are many ways you can react to the chaos of creativity, but they’re all ways of trying to impose some sort of order:
Throw it away: You give up on the project and pretend it never existed. Shred the manuscript, burn your notes, and trash your files. This is a nice clean break. It’s safe and deadening.
Wall it off: You hide the project away – out of sight, out of mind. This is similar to throwing it away, but in this case you put your story in a drawer and try to ignore it, but it taunts you every time you see it.
Act ‘as if’: You distract yourself from the real writing by messing about with ‘related tasks’. You organise your work files, create research notes, get everything sorted in neat boxes and files. You act ‘as if’ you’re writing, but you’re not.
Work obsessively: You endlessly rewrite one chapter, one sequence, or one scene. You think you’re writing, but really you’re just avoiding moving onto the next bit.
Suffocate it: You lean too heavily on ‘technique’. You wrap the work up in a neat formula, nail the structure to a tree and hang yourself, and the story, from it.
Work defensively: You’re too scared to create fully so you put up barriers and make rationalisations. You may manage to write, but because you’re scared of yourself as well as the chaos, your work becomes rigid and lifeless.
These ways of imposing order ultimately fail to help – they don’t make the chaos go away and they don’t make you feel better about it. All they do is stop you from creating fully.
To deal with Chaotic Mind anxiety you need to apply ‘appropriate order’, and since the chaos of creativity is totally normal, you can’t stop it. There is no way of knowing what is unknowable. The only thing you can do is surrender to the process and do what is necessary in order for the work to get done. The key word here is: do. You must act. In other words: write!
One word at a time.
One line at a time.
Whatever it takes. Accept the chaos and the unknown, and just write. Familiarise yourself with your rhythms of work. When do you work best? How long can you write productively before your mind gives out? Try to get into a routine that supports the process of writing and stick to it.
You might have to rearrange some of the other responsibilities in your life to make room for your new creative zeal. Even so, there’ll be times when you have to write during less than perfect moments, or when you feel lousy, like your brain has been abducted and replaced by a turnip (and a particularly obtuse turnip, at that), and the last thing you want to do is write your damn novel.
Don’t be too hard on yourself. If you really are ill and you can’t focus, give yourself a day off. But don’t fool yourself about this. You can usually manage to write if you try. Aside from a bad case of dysentery or death, the real distractions that stop you working are internal. Practise letting go and allow your mind to be quiet, and you’ll fall into the trance of working before you know it.
In Part 5 we’ll look at COMPLETING.