Focus on the Process, Not the Product

I recently listened to the audiobook version of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, and I heard a line that made me sit up a little straighter. When I heard the line, I had been in the shower after a long day, letting the hot water relax my muscles and my mind. I had been doing what I often find myself doing, visualizing my life once I graduate college and move to Boston, where I will strengthen my writing career and becoming a famous, influential writer and have a wonderful life far from the South and required college courses.

It’s one of my favorite fantasies.

Well, anyway, I was soaking in the shower, my phone resting on the folded towel by the lip of the shower, when I heard Cameron, who had been narrating a passage discussing the creative practice, say, “You will discover the joy of practicing your creativity. The process, not the product, will become your focus.”

Usually, when I have an audiobook playing while I’m in the shower, I’m only partly listening; the motivational lessons and lyrical language serve more as a way to soothe my mind while the hot water does the same for my body. I work two jobs and go to school full-time. There’s a lot in me that needs soothing.

But this time, I perked up, and that line looped through my head even while Cameron continued her narration. I had been doing just the opposite of what she suggested: I had been focusing on what my writing would look like when I was done with it. I had been dreaming of the rewards, while my writing life had started shrinking in my day-to-day life.

Sure, I wrote a few pages of my thoughts in the morning, and I developed ideas for future pieces and ways to edit drafts. But I had neglected the process of serious creation. The writing I did create was never anything that had the intention or even the chance of reaching other people.

So, since hearing that line, I have tried to focus more on the process and less on the end result. I’ll never get to that result if I don’t engage with the process anyway. Now, I am working on a new short story, and I keep reminding myself to find joy in the act of putting words together, of creating surprising and interesting images, of telling stories that illuminate the different ways we, as humans, live in this world.

Doing this work is a privilege, something that I should take seriously, but it is also something that needs to be a source of joy and pleasure in my life, even it if sometimes makes me want to jump out of my second-floor dorm window.

I’m much less interested in the product of that particular process.

Through the Guard Rail (or Writing With Abandon)

Hesitate, and you are lost. These words can apply to most any action, and writing is one of them. When writers spend heaps of time (seconds, minutes, hours) laboring over the act of writing, they miss the more important thing: the fact of having written. They bite their nails, tear their hair out, generally worry themselves sick over whether or not what they’re writing is Good Enough. They do this, instead of actually writing the story they need to write. Rather than spending time tinkering with a single sentence during the first draft, a writer’s time is better spent writing furiously, through the guard rail, with abandon.

Leaving Your Inner Critic in the Dust

I like to imagine my Inner Critic as some scrawny, wheedling guy trailing behind me while I write. He peers over my shoulder, waiting for me to pause so he can jab a finger at my screen or page and say something like, “What are you thinking, writing that? That’s complete crap, and you know it. It’s trite, hackneyed, old news. No one’s going to want to read this. You need to fix this right now.”

But the truth is that I don’t need to fix it right now. It’s the first draft for a reason. I need to get the story belted out before I step back and fine-tune the details. But I can’t do that if I’ve got an Inner Critic hanging over me, whining about how my similes are lazy pieces of shit.

So what do I do? I kick the bastard in his kneecap and drive off in my Writer-Mobile while he rolls around in the dirt, crying about how my plot is choppy.

More specifically, I write fast. I set a timer (sometimes 30 minutes, sometimes 10) and just write. I don’t give myself the permission to keep checking my word count. I don’t let myself stop for more than a couple of seconds before I hit the keys again. I go until the timer runs out. (Sidenote: this tactic works especially well for me because, as someone with ADHD, an immediate deadline is just the ticket to get me to do my work.)

By pounding away at the keyboard, I step on the gas and speed off down the Literary Highway, paying no heed to where I’m going (except for the bits of the plot that I need to think about so I can write them). Only thinking about how I need to put one word in front of another.

If that means crashing through a guard rail into uncharted and sometimes dangerous territory, then so be it.