For years, my writing process formed itself around the notion of ponderous preciousness. I distrusted the idea that anything of quality could be written quickly. A story, a novel, a script had to be as finely aged as a good bottle of wine in order for all of the nuanced tannins and rich aromas to fully develop.
I’d conceive of an idea for a story and then burrow into it. I’d write one draft, usually in a somewhat plodding fashion, and then I refined and refined, and then refined some more, sometimes over the course of years. It was as if I held a very tiny chisel and carefully maneuvered it again and again through the practically microscopic contours of my story world.
Steeping a story in deep and obsessive ruminations has a place, but I’m becoming more interested in the benefits of hastening my creative process after reading an interesting study that counters my “a fine wine takes time” approach.
The book Art & Fear recounts the story of a ceramics instructor who did an experiment in his classroom. He divided the class into two groups. The first group was graded on quality, represented by a single ceramic piece due at the end of the class. The second group was graded on quantity, literally the amount of work they produced.
Who produced the highest quality work? Not the group that practiced my refine, refine, refine approach. Those who threw pots “with abandon” (as we might put it at NaNoWriMo) created the highest quality pots.
Why? Because they tried more ideas. Instead of creating one overwrought pot, they produced pots that held more verve because of the creative pressure put on them and the loose structure of banishing the restricting limitations of “quality.” They might have encountered more botched pots, but they were astute enough to learn from those failures and build on them.
As Thomas Edison said, “The real measure of success is the number of experiments that can be crowded into twenty-four hours.”
Yesterday, I spoke to the Sacramento Writers Club. As part of my presentation, I had everyone do a five-minute automatic writing exercise, to just choose a subject and write as fast and loosely as possible.
Honestly, even though I’ve done this several times with groups, I never know how it will turn out. I always expect to be challenged by a naysayer from the “ponderous precious” camp. I was so gratified to feel the risk-taking energy in the room and see the deep immersion in writers’ eyes. Afterward, people told stories of newly found character insights, wild plot discoveries—and in just five minutes of writing like a dervish.
I felt the same. I jumped in and wrote to this prompt: “When I was five, I ____ .” “When I was nine, I _____ .” And so on. I somehow struck upon a recurring vision that a character in a my novel has, a vision that guides, taunts, and troubles him throughout life.
The dangers of such free-flowing expansion is that you’ll encounter too many “plot bunnies”—that a story can bound out of control when you get too many ideas, because one idea breeds with another like rabbits.
I think that’s a good problem to have, though. In fact, I’ll take that problem any time because I can slow down in revision and choose the bunnies I like.
So here’s to writing more—and doing so with alacrity.