Trust the (Creative) Process

Creativity is a mysterious process. An artist or inventor or scientist takes existing elements—ideas, materials, words—throws them into a pot, stirs them around for a while, and ultimately produces a completely original product. You can study and analyze these steps up one side and down the other and still never completely grasp how that product is unlike anything that went into that pot or like anything else in the world. It doesn’t matter what goes in the mix; what comes out is always unique.

It is a leap of faith to sit down at a computer or drawing board or potter’s wheel and know that, somehow, this process will work, even if you have no idea how. The secret of writing and every other form of creativity is to trust the process. In this, as in all of life, trust is forged over time.

When I first began to write, the miracle of starting with nothing and ending up with pages of coherent copy were a mystery to me. I knew only that, when I sat down at my little electric portable, something magical happened; but I didn’t know where the magic came from. It seemed to have a life of its own over which I had no control. I became fascinated with the process, which never seemed to fail me. Eventually, however, I was able to break it down into five critical steps:

Get the facts.

Whether you are writing an article, a brochure, a presentation, an annual report, or a book, this is the time to gather information. Your sources can be virtually anything: experts, newspapers, scientific journals, or the Internet. You can capture it by taking notes, using a tape recorder, photocopying, or committing it to memory. The important thing is to find out as much as possible about your subject. Even if you don’t have a deadline, you will know intuitively when it is time to stop researching. This is your first test of trust. Before you get to overload, stop.

Absorb the information.

Sift through everything you have accumulated. It is a very important step, but, strangely, it is also one many writers do in a cursory manner or ignore completely. Chances are you have a mountain of material; so give yourself plenty of time to read, analyze, organize, and absorb all of it, even if that seems overwhelming. The process is a little like cramming for an exam in that you must focus and concentrate. Like the research stage, you will know when you’ve had enough. Once again, when you feel full to the brim, stop.

Let it percolate.

This is the most difficult step for most writers because it involves consciously, intentionally not writing. In fact, do anything but write—take a walk, watch TV, make dinner, curl up with a novel, or go to sleep. Don’t review your notes. Don’t try to organize your thoughts. Don’t even think about the project. I have always been a bit fanatic about this step because it is the heart of the creative process. Let your subconscious do what it was designed to do, which is to process the information you have given it. This is just one more step in trusting the process.

Write.

What separates the pros from the amateurs is knowing when to write. This step builds quite naturally on the first three; and, if you’ve done them in order, you are ready to write. When I plan my time well, I can wait a day between steps 3 and 4. A good night’s sleep does wonders for sorting out even the most daunting pile of data. We all approach writing in our own ways. Though most of us now use computers, there are still diehards who pound away on manual typewriters or fill multiple legal pads with longhand prose. Whatever your style may be, as they say, “If it works, don’t break it.” This is no time to change.

That rule applies to all of the idiosyncrasies writers develop over time. Are you a stream-of-consciousness writer, who gets it all out as fast as you can and fixes it later; or are you more deliberate—rereading, editing, and perfecting every page or paragraph as you go? Do you do it all in one sitting or break your writing time into chunks? Do you listen to music or insist on total silence? Do you snack all day or forget to eat?

However you feel about writing—whether you love or hate, do it in a timeless trance, or suffer through every agonizing moment—you must trust that, when you’re finished, what you have written will be accurate, articulate, and acceptable. How do you know when you’re finished? Just like every other step, trust that you will know.

Prune and polish.

Whether you wrote like a person possessed or stopped to manicure every sentence, you will still have to look at your work with a critical eye—to edit, cut, refine—as many times as it takes to meet your own standard of excellence. This is the time for spell check, grammar and punctuation rules, stylebooks, and a good thesaurus. The don’t-overdo rule certainly applies here, as in don’t over-research, over-write, or over-edit. Nothing you write will ever be perfect, but you’ll know when it is as good as it will ever be. That’s when you put it in an envelope and send it off. Finis.

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