Recently, while tapping away at a work-in-progress, I hit the buffers. The ideas that once seemed fresh and exciting began to look dull, and the words that once seemed so alive suddenly became leaden, lifeless artefacts. Matters weren’t helped by the fact that I was beginning to sense a looming deadline – not, I should stress, a deadline that had been imposed on me, but one that I had imposed on myself. Feeling that time was running out, I forced myself to sit down and write for a certain number of hours every day; yet during those hours, I often found, I actually managed to achieve very little. I was putting in the hours, all right, but I wasn’t seeing the results.
Eventually, I did what I often do when things get tough: I quit. I closed the laptop, walked away, and spent the next few hours doing domestic chores. I went for a walk, and cooked the dinner. The next day, I decided not to write at all. I spent a few hours wandering around a market in the village instead.
During this time, I wasn’t consciously trying to “think things over”. But the subconscious is a wonderful thing, and at some point during the second day one of the knotty problems that had been bothering me suddenly came into focus and unravelled before my eyes. I saw the way forward – and I rushed home, opened the laptop, and spent four of the most productive hours writing that I’ve enjoyed for a long time.
The pressure to write quickly, to write more, to “be a brand” – that was actual advice that I once saw being handed out to authors, though I can’t now find a link – can be deadly to creativity. This linear way of thinking, while good perhaps for business, can be eminently unsuitable for creative, imaginative activities. When I’m writing, I often find that I’m delving around in a largely subconscious stew of images, ideas, emotions and connections. This, obviously, is not a linear process. It isn’t responsive to deadlines. It can’t be packaged and sold like Persil or Coca-Cola.
It is, in fact, a little bit like play.
I’ve often found that the same is true in my day job, which at its simplest involves chatting to Italian teenagers. Attempts to follow lesson plans too narrowly often lead to dull, boring lessons, in which – crucially – students are reluctant to say a word. Departing from the script, however, can on occasion be like a shot in the arm. During a recent lesson, a student raised a question about the best way to give to charity. It wasn’t part of the lesson plan, but it interested the class, and soon they were all weighing in with ideas – and they were talking, and in English, which is what it’s all about. They weren’t consciously aware of working; they were playing.
Being creative and “thinking outside the box” are often lauded today, not least in the worlds of business and education, but the distressing fact is that creativity is not really highly valued in these spheres. How can it be, when they are focussed on certain, narrowly defined results (profits or exam results), and on the best and most efficient ways to achieve these? More to the point, this results-oriented thinking influences authors too, including (or perhaps especially) authors who are their own publishers. Commonly desired results – more books published, more sales, more readers – have an influence, and often a deleterious one, on the writing process. This book has to be ready by the end of the year, we tell ourselves; I have to write something that will sell, something that will, in the eyes of the world, justify what I’m doing.
“Get it right, or get it out there?” was a question I once saw posed on a forum frequented by self-publishers. I’d have thought the answer was obvious. Get it out there before it’s ready, and no one will regret it more than you. But the author in question appeared to have been browbeaten by the constant messages conveyed to us about the importance of being prolific and popular. A steady stream of mediocre books, he seemed to think, was better than the measured, painstaking creation of good books. In the short term, and from a purely commercial point of view, he might even have been right. But in the long term?
I’m a believer in taking your time, getting it right, and in taking time off and playing. Writing isn’t heart surgery, or even insurance banking. It probably won’t make much difference whether your book is ready this year or next year. Tune out the annoying little voices that tell you otherwise. Don’t worry about ticking boxes.
Enjoy yourself, and enjoy the lack of pressure. Mess about a bit. It’s playtime.