The Creation Cycle

I recently found myself giving writerly advice to a friend, and two things occurred to me. The first was that I had given this same advice at least twice before, and so it would be worth recording it in written form. The second was that my friend currently found himself at one extreme, and it would be possible to take my advice and run with it directly to the opposite, equally unhealthy extreme. I made sure to follow up with him and clarify that.

Aristotle purported understanding good behavior by what he called “the mean” (Nichomachean Ethics). By this, Aristotle meant that the ethically sound behavior for a given context was almost always somewhere in the middle of two extreme courses of action. For example, if you are too prone to respond to a situation with anger, it can lead the bad consequences of unwarranted aggression, but if you are prone to feelings of docility, this can make you the victim of bad actors. Neither stance in the extreme is good. The best solution for most situations will be one of moderation between the two.

The problem my friend struggled with was the feeling of paralysis upon seeing the cursor blink on the empty word processor page. He had many ideas for stories and characters and he badly wanted to express them, but he had no idea how to start writing.

My advice was to forget, for a moment, about the end goal. Don’t worry so much about producing a complex novel-length work or even a structurally sound short story. Start with a single situation you want to describe, and describe it. Or make a place and detail its features. Or make a character and have them do something—anything—anywhere. It doesn’t matter. The goal, at least in this moment, to get over the inhibition that the story needs to succeed at anything at all, to tell oneself that a lot of practice is needed before you’ll write the story, and that the practice itself is okay. It is valuable in and of itself. It doesn’t need to be shown to anyone. It doesn’t even need to be good by any metric whatsoever. What’s important is that it is writing you wrote, a product of your imagination.

I have met other writers who find themselves in this same predicament. The idea of where they want to be as a writer, what kind of writing they want to produce, is so far removed from their current skill set, that the fear of writing something “bad” is paralyzing. But no one has ever run before they could crawl, and no one’s very first novel will ever be their magnum opus. Sure, there are writers whose bibliography will make it appear that way, but preceding that bibliography was a long, long history of notes, narrative chunks, half-finished stories, a veritable narrative mish-mash graveyard, the bits and bobs of numerous attempts at narrative that either went nowhere at all or went somewhere the author discovered wasn’t really expressing what they wanted to express. This stuff never gets published, and it doesn’t need to. (Okay, it usually never gets published. More on that in a bit.) The trick is to remember that it informs that stuff that does make it. It is part of who we are as writers. We need that fumbling through literary immaturity in order to get good, the same way that anyone gets good at any other skill.

I advised my friend to start writing using simple prompts, or to develop detailed character outlines and use them as the setting for a scene involving that character with no plot at all. The goal was to reduce the perceived difficulty of the task down to the level where he could simply start writing.

What I realized, after giving this advice, is the dark path it could lead down if taken to the opposite extreme. It is one thing to abandon inhibition when feeling particularly inhibited. It is another to abandon it when faced with stark feedback that passes of tests of logical coherence and empathy on the part of the giver. It is all too easy to meander from, “I am going to set my worry aside and just write whatever comes to mind for a while and see what that teaches me,” to, “Whatever words I slop out onto the page are wonderful and amazing, and I’m not beholden to anyone else’s sensibilities of plot, character believability, idea, theme, or narrative structure.” The former is a writer overcoming an inhibition. The latter is writer who should perhaps be a bit more inhibited.

There’s a cycle of creation that has two stages. In the first stage, the goal is to write. You want this stage to be inhibition-free. During the writing itself, doubt and fear of one’s abilities are (to butcher a line from Dune) mind-killers. Best to turn them off. There is a second stage, however, that of carefully reading, editing, and revising—critical skills for a writer. During this stage, it is important to turn that inhibition back on, to come at your work critically, and with your entire scrutiny searching the text for things that could be better. At this point, the text is done, at least in the sense that it is a completed draft. Inhibition won’t prevent you from completing it, as it is already largely complete. This is the stage where you learn what you want to do differently in the future, how you take the elements of your writing that you like and make them even better, how you take the stuff that’s rough and smooth it over. You can’t do this if you can’t be critical of yourself.

My analysis of some professionally published authors is that they are churning out story after story without realizing that they are largely treading water, rehashing the same thing over and over again because they had no faculty of self-awareness, no inhibition during the phases of editing and revision. A good writer will want to develop that critical awareness, because it benefits not just the current work, but all future works. When the writer returns to the first phase and turns off inhibition, those lessons from the editing phase remain and the writer is able to enact them intuitively, even build on them over time as the cycles continue.

Our society is particularly destructive to this second phase of critical awareness. I think many writers these days fail to ever turn on inhibition and self-awareness at all because our business culture has taught them that monetization is an adequate proxy for thought. Why bother expending a lot of mental energy learning what you like and don’t like about your writing when you can let raw profit numbers or Amazon rankings decide that for you? In my opinion, such thinking leads inevitably to canned, processed, soulless prose. Such stories, to my mind, lack a subjective something that cannot be quantified—an author’s unique, individual take on people and the world. No algorithm will ever be able to quantify that.