“Are you going to write a book about your trip?” asked a German woman wearing a tie-dye shirt. We were at a hostel in remote northern Laos, sipping Beerlao and chatting about travel literature. I was nearing the end of a one-year trip around the world, a journey that had been simultaneously marvellous and exhausting.
“Yes, I’d like to.” I envisioned a memoir that would serve as a type of case study for those looking for meaningful travel.
“How long will it take to write?”
“Dunno — four months?”
I had never written a book before. But I figured that with a bit of focus I could swiftly pump out a manuscript.
“Really?” She frowned her lips and scrunched her forehead. “I heard that Jack Kerouac wrote On The Road in three weeks.”
“Oh.” I looked to the side, feeling mildly deflated. “Well, perhaps I’ll be struck with some type of creative genius.”
Our conversation meandered to more mundane subjects: where our next destination would be, which buses we’d ride, the best hostels. But the interaction — and an uncertainty around creativity and timelines — lingered.
Flash forward and I ended up writing a book about my journey. But it didn’t take me four months; it took me nearly two years. In fact, most everything I create seems to take longer than I want. Why is that? Why do I continually feel inefficient in my process? Is inefficiency simply an inevitable part of the creative process?
In his On Being conversation, WIRED magazine co-founder Kevin Kelly talks about Artificial Intelligence, and how machines are excellent at tasks where efficiency counts. But machines, he states, are not good at innovation. Why? Because innovation is inherently not efficient.
“If you are 100 percent efficient as a scientist,” Kelly says, “you’re just not learning anything new. So, trial and error, there’s the error part. There’s the failure. There’s the dead ends. There’s trying prototypes. All these things are the essential part of exploring, trying, discovering, which are all inherently inefficient. And so are human relationships.”
As I listened to these words, I felt a sort of relief. Like an internal Russian drill sergeant had momentarily stopped blowing his whistle and yelling at me to hurry the fuck up. My shoulders relaxed.
Like the German woman in the tie-dye shirt, many of us have a notion that great art happens quickly, often in a fit of creative inspiration. Perhaps this is from watching too many films where protagonists passionately “make art” in a type of Jackson Pollock fury. Or from hearing about these rare legends, such as Kerouac, who seem to channel a higher power. The writer sits and the novel flows from the finger tips. The sculptor simply grabs a hammer and effortlessly frees the sculpture from the marble. The rock band writes and records a hit song in 30 minutes. Easy peasy.
Sure, this type of artistic lightning happens some of the time. But the creative process, from what I’ve personally experienced, is much less “stroke of brilliance” and much more “test of stamina.” Less grace and a shit-ton of grit.
After hearing Kelly’s interview, I thought more about inefficiency in the creative process, and two other important variables began to surface. I wonder if we can’t address inefficiency without talking about a couple of bedfellows: productivity and expectation.
In the west, we love productivity. The Internet is saturated with articles on How To Be More Productive. We extol business managers who increase productivity. We adore the dopamine hits that come from scratching items off “To Do” lists. We focus on task achievement. And it makes sense, productivity brings dollars — and who doesn’t love dollars?
But our collective industrial complex (read: an obsession with “industriousness”) does not necessarily lend itself well to the murky process of making art. If we implement the same productivity standards from our professional worlds to our creative lives, we seem doomed to suffer, fated to frustration.
The other element that influences our understanding of the relationship between efficiency and creativity is expectation. Most of us make art specifically because we have some type of murky vision of a final product. For instance, I don’t sit down at the pottery wheel to write a requiem for a string quartet. I have an expectation of a process and its outcome.
When it comes to creativity — and life in general — it’s really hard to be free of expectations. How efficient I am in my creative process relates greatly to my expectation of how that process will unfold. If I expect the route to be relatively linear, then anything that deviates from A to B will subsequently feel inefficient.
All this said, expectations are reasonable. An appreciation for productivity is also reasonable. Perhaps it’s our ability to navigate our relationship with productivity and expectations that will impact our perceptions of the creative process. If this is the case, then it is helpful to explore a couple of questions: What does productivity look like to me? And what are my expectations of this process?
The answers to these questions could help shift the mood of any creative project.
I am not Jack Kerouac. And that’s okay. For every urban legend of unhinged artistic brilliance there is a counterexample of tediousness. Leonard Cohen was famous for taking years to work on his songs. What I need to keep in mind is that I am neither of these people. I am me. And you are you. We’re all going to move at the pace that we know how to move at.
(Case in point: it took several drafts to figure out what I wanted to express in this essay, and how to do it.)
The big trick I’ve learned is that beating oneself up has never proven to be helpful. Perhaps efficiency in creativity is simply returning to the work — time and time again. It’s picking up the violin to practice. It’s putting another blank canvas on the easel. It’s writing another poem even when you didn’t love the last one you wrote. It’s doing what is essential to move your project forward. And maybe that means going for a walk, or cooking soup, or sitting in a café to stare at strangers. If this is the case, then anything you do that moves the work forward is not inefficient, and nothing is truly a “waste.”
Unlearning productivity is not easy. Letting go of expectation is also not easy. While you’re doing that work, placate those Russian drill sergeant voices with the delicacy that you would treat an abandoned baby bird. And then keep going.
“I’d teach my younger self to stare off into space more often. I would tell her to waste more paper. I would tell her she doesn’t need to stick to a decision; she can change her mind.”
– Anne Lamotte
Lead photo: Ryan Wong via Unsplash
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