Even in just the last one hundred years, the pace of modern society has zoomed forward astronomically. We jump online and talk to friends instantly, or we jump on a plane and travel a distance in one day that would have taken months using an old-fashioned horse and carriage. We get information where and when and how we need it, and it seems like every kind of commodity we could ever want or need is available at our mega-superstores.
Because we’re surrounded by excess and convenience, our brains tend to fall into the pattern of assuming this is the natural state of the world. We mostly get what we want, when we want it, and it usually looks and behaves in the way we expected.
Writing is not like this.
Writing is born out of the realm of creativity. It’s made up of the elements of intuition, magic, emotion, soul, rhythm, passion, and love. The kind of writing that incorporates these key ingredients dazzles us and draws us into its imaginary world. In contrast, the kind of writing that reads as predictable and rigid feels dry to us, or flat. No fizz. No spark.
So how do you find the spark in your writing? How do you let it fizz instead of hammering it out flat?
One way is to shift our mentality from on-demand expectation to open and curious patience. We can do this by choosing to view our writing like a baby. First it’s a fetus, then an infant, and finally it’s a child we’re raising, with the ultimate goal of making it ready to live out there in the world without us.
The first stage is when the idea for our book is still in the womb. We need this period during which the idea is totally private and growing within us. It might be a few weeks or even months, but during this time the idea should be kept close and allowed to expand within, guarded and safe from any external environmental stress.
In my personal experience, I’ve found in the past that if I talk about my idea while it’s still just a seed it can cause the idea to contract and even stunt its growth. It’s like showing someone a picture of a fetus that’s only a couple of months along, saying, “This is my son, Bob. I’m pretty sure he’s going to be six feet tall and a brilliant criminal prosecutor for the city of Boston one day.” And then the person squints at the grainy picture and says, “It looks like a blob.”
That’s how it feels to me to share my idea too soon. Yes, I KNOW it’s currently a blob. But it’s going to be something really cool someday, and the potential is what I can feel nesting inside of me. If I try to pull the blob out of me before it’s ready to be born so I can show it to others, it’s not going to make it. In the very first stages of growth, your creative idea is not yet ready to live outside of your body. Keep it safe and warm until birthing time.
The next stage is writing the first sloppy draft of the book. This is the birth. We push and push and PUSH for what seems like an eternity and out pops this slimy, bloody, wailing thing that looks like it might be an alien. But even so, it’s ours and we love it more than anything. Yes, it can live outside our body now, it can make it in an external environment. But that doesn’t mean we’re going to invite the whole world into the delivery room to pass around our newborn. The baby book is still an infant, and it’s tiny and fragile. Only certain, trusted people get to carefully hold it.
As we revise our book and that first draft turns into second and third drafts, we watch our baby grow into a toddler and then a young child. It’s learning more every day, and now it’s running around with other children, gaining knowledge about how to interact in the world and how to be a successful human. Our series of revised drafts show the process of our book learning how to be a successful story, gaining knowledge about how to interact with readers. We’re still there to hold its hand, but it can do more and more on its own with every day that passes.
You can follow this metaphor all the way into adulthood. One of the writers in my writing group always jokes with me about how our “kids” are now grown and still living in the basement. That’s the stage when your manuscript has been extensively revised and polished, and you’re ready for your book to find an agent or publisher and live happily ever after— and out of your house.
I find this perspective incredibly helpful in my own writing because it reminds me that creativity doesn’t function like most other things in our society. It’s not on tap whenever you want it. You don’t control it at the click of a button. Instead, it’s like the seasons of the earth. It keeps its own time and slowly grows into the form it’s destined to take, the essence it’s destined to be.
If you start thinking of your writing as a child in any one of dozens of different stages of growth, you can see how sometimes your expectations can be detrimental to your creative process. Imagine a six-year-old kid struggling to learn how to add single digits and you come along and yell at that kid because they haven’t mastered algebra. Or picture yourself holding your slimy, bloody newborn baby and feeling disappointed because it can’t speak in full sentences yet. Not only are these expectations unrealistic, but they block you from bringing your complete presence to the particular current moment that you are experiencing with your story, and prevent you from enjoying that stage.
When I was working on the very first sloppy draft of my very first novel, I was frustrated and upset with it almost all of the time. I judged it as ugly, clumsy, and inadequate. And now that I’m many more years down the road in my writing process, I regret that attitude. I’ll never get to re-experience that period of time in which my very first novel was a newborn. I had so many expectations about what it wasn’t doing right that I never paused to see how beautiful it was, slimy blood and all. I never realized what a miracle I was in the middle of experiencing.
Wherever you are in your creative process, whatever stage your book is in, pause now and drop your expectations. Summon your inner clarity and look at your work again, with the proud compassionate eyes of a loving parent instead of a critic.
The perspective you choose to take toward your creative work can change everything.