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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

Writers Must Abandon Efficiency

With actual light bulbs, choose efficiency; for metaphorical light bulbs, choose creativity

With actual light bulbs, choose efficiency; for metaphorical light bulbs, choose creativity

Some of my students and clients fret about investing time and energy in an idea that might not develop. They worry that it’ll take too long to finish a piece. They want to be efficient.

Other students and clients resist making time for Process because they don’t want to waste time playing around. They want to be efficient.

The truth is creativity is NEVER efficient.

Creativity is, by definition, exploring the new, seeking the unexpected, discovering the novel association. Efficiency is repeating a learned behavior to achieve the same result again and again with minimum investment of time and energy. The two are mutually exclusive.

As Seth Godin says, you either work in the lab or the factory:

“To work in the lab is to embrace the idea that what you’re working on might not work. Not to merely tolerate this feeling, but to seek it out.

The factory, on the other hand, prizes reliability and productivity. The factory wants no surprises, it wants what it did yesterday, but faster and cheaper.”

Leave Efficiency at the Door

The question was “To be or not to be”
Not “How to maximize output”

You simply can’t have assembly line efficiency when you’re doing something you’ve never done before.

Oh, you can be efficient in how you prepare your workspace and materials, in how you get started and how you finish, but at some point you leave the familiar behind to enter the mystery of creativity.

At that point, expectations of efficiency have to be left behind as well. Exploring mystery is NOT going to be efficient.

If you’re not willing to be inefficient, you’re doomed to either censor yourself into an enormous and painful block, or be perpetually disappointed in yourself.

The Real Work Begins

When you enter that mystery, the real work begins. Before that, it’s just preparation and maybe a little procrastination and posturing.

There are no guarantees. You may spend months, even years, on a writing project that “never goes anywhere.” You might never figure it out. Creative mystery is not for sissies. Or for efficiency freaks.

waterslide mysteryThe mystery is also where the real fun begins. Your willingness to surrender to the mystery and uncertainty, to not know exactly where your writing is taking you, how you’ll get there, or even if you will get anywhere at all, that willingness is the wellspring of your joy.

You throw yourself on the water slide and let the current carry you through the tunnel to who knows where, screaming “Whee!” all the way.

When I remember that I write because I need to surrender to the mystery that will lead me to joy, I stop worrying about whether I’m wasting time and I have a whee of a time! I hope you do, too!

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3 Comments on “Writers Must Abandon Efficiency”

  1. Theresa September 7, 2016 at 10:42 am #

    I agree, to a point. If I have time, I don’t mind playing around and seeing where the writing takes me. Unfortunately, it often takes me to unfinished pieces. I have plenty of those :(.
    I’m trying to clean up/finish some of these, and failing miserably.

    I need the structure of structure and deadlines; I need to be efficient, and I’m trying to learn to be so.

    Seth also suggests that you bite off more than you can chew when it comes to writing. Great idea, but I don’t see how you can not learn efficiency in order to get it all accomplished on time.

    Maybe I’m not seeing the forest for the trees?


    • rosannebane September 13, 2016 at 5:00 pm #

      Thanks for your perspective Theresa. I wonder if what you describe as “failing miserably” is getting lost in the Incubation stage of the creative process. Incubation is one of the stages where efficiency just doesn’t compute, where the only way out is to fumble around while your unconscious puts the pieces together, where the more you try to be efficient, the less effective you are. What do you do before you feel stuck (freewriting about an idea, research, etc.)?
      All writers need structure; structure is essential to effectiveness. But there is a huge difference between effective and efficient…
      The other observation I have is that “getting it all accomplished” is impossible, especially when you’re doing creative work.



  1. Why It Doesn’t Matter If Your Writing Is Any Good | Bane of Your Resistance - June 30, 2017

    […] Don’t worry your writing might not be “good enough” or isn’t “going anywhere.” Postponing until you’re sure you can write “good stuff” and “make progress” means you’ll stay stuck in crap and uncertainty. Surrender to the certainty that creativity is never certain and never efficient. […]


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