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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.

Do Writers Have to Polish the Occasional Turd?


25337109 - distraught writer or businesswoman with her head lying on her desk in a pile of crumpled paper as she suffers from writers block or a total inability to come up with a solution to a problem“I’ve been polishing turds,” I confessed to my co-coach Laura. “I spent weeks revising and tweaking and polishing the last five chapters. Then I realized I don’t even need two of them.”

“Could you have gotten here without polishing those chapters?” Laura asked.

I didn’t answer right away. I grudgingly admitted that I probably could not have seen what could go without messing around in those chapters for so long.

Didn’t just I post about killing darlings? I even wrote a neat step-by-step guide for finding darlings. I actually did the first three steps without realizing that was what I was doing. (Oh, that’s why I keep writing this blog and books, and teaching and coaching!)

Perhaps my unconscious mind recognized not only that those scenes could be deleted, but also that a full frontal attack on those darlings would put my conscious ego on the defense. I would have insisted the existing scenes were essential and fine just the way they were. Messing around, tweaking the chapters before and after those darling scenes for weeks created space for my unconscious mind to finally get the message through to my conscious awareness.

“I just wish I could have seen it sooner,” I said. Alright, I whined.

“I know the feeling,” Laura commiserated.

That’s Okay for You to Say…

I see the trap so clearly for other writers. I see it when 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.

I see it when writers resist making time for Process (aka creative play for the sake of play) because they simply don’t have the time to waste playing around. They think they need to be efficient.

You can be efficient or you can be creative

You can be efficient or you can be creative

The creative process 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.”

Surrender Efficiency at the Lab 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.

Unwillingness to be inefficient in your creativity dooms you to either censoring yourself into a painful block or being disappointed in yourself.

My latest riff on being disappointed in myself was judging the Product Time I’d done as “polishing turds.” Henceforth, I recognize “polishing turds” as an essential part of the real work of creating. (And weirdly funny as it is, MythBusters proves you can polish a turd.)

The Real Work Begins

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

There are no guarantees. We may spend months, even years, on a writing project that “never goes anywhere.” Or it might take weeks to realize that the writing has gone somewhere, it’s just somewhere unexpected. We might never figure it out. We never know if one more hour, one more day, one more year, will spark the insight.

waterslide-mysteryCreative mystery is not for sissies. Or for efficiency freaks. It for those of us willing to risk the ride.

But it is 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 source of creative satisfaction and 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 polishing turds and I have a whee of a time! I hope you do, too!

This post has been brought to you through the wisdom of my co-coach Laura Sommers of Whole-Brained Creative. Thank you Laura! 

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