A Frosting-Centered Definition of Productivity
Resisting organization in your creative process and why that might be good..
I belong to several groups of writers, who meet to discuss the challenges of writing and to support each other in our work. A common theme is productivity; how to organize your writing projects and meet your writing goals. Whether they are setting word counts, or using the morning-three page throw-away writing, or lining their writing room walls with motivational charts, they graciously share what is working for them in this epic battle to accomplish.
These groups consist of many people who I like and admire. And in fairness to them, most of them don’t try to push their strategies on others; they are simply trying to find what works for them. Yet I find myself detaching from the narrative of organizational strategies and smiling and nodding on the outside, while a rebel force inside my brain is yelling, “Not in this house! I will never buy your so-called post-it-notes!”
It’s not because I resist organization, per se, but because I have a pathological conviction that my creative writing comes out of a beautiful but capricious wellspring and if I attempt to drill down and set a pipe, it might just drain down into the earth, escaping my desire to control it. Now, I recognize that this belief I am espousing about my own creativity is a tired trope of the ephemeral Muse, a metaphor which implies that the stories come from an unpredictable external source, sparing the writer from the responsibility to write when the Muse isn’t around. A classic rationalization for laziness.
But despite knowing that, I have experienced for myself both the joy of writing something from my imagination that seems to have a life of its own, and the dull disappointment for me of writing to a schedule and realizing that it is all re-hashed garbage from the back of my brain. And so the stubborn rebel in my head pushes back on organizational strategies to write. And they have good reasons for that push back. Or at least a handy new definition to fortify the castle with: my productivity as a creative writer is process-oriented, as opposed to product-oriented.
(Side note here. You might be thinking to yourself, but Laura, the word “product” is the base of the word productivity. It isn’t proccess-tivity. But I would say, couldn’t it be though? Isn’t that just the limitation of our language, and not our thoughts or experiences?)
Once it is on the page, I believe that stories require significant revision, rigorous structural analysis, and detailed editing to turn that writing into a good book- and that requires product-based organization. But the initial writing, for me, is an activity which is antithetical to accomplishment; it is a reaction to recognizing the truth of the story I am trying to tell. And that is a process, not a product.
It was August, and my brother Chuck, who was called Charlie at the time, was turning eleven, and he had a big birthday party with his friends at our house in Chichester. There were at least ten of his friends over and we had all been playing party games in the back yard; I swear that one of the party games I remember from that time was everyone ate a handful of saltines at the same time, and the first person to successfully whistle, won. That was the weird thing about 1979, it was just moments away from spending all your time at a birthday party in an Arcade playing Centipede and roller skating, but it seemed like just before that we were still rolling hoops and kicking cans for fun.
Anyway, it was time for the Birthday Cake, and my mom asked me to help her get the cake and plates from the house. As we walked in the kitchen door, we were greeted by the sight of our dog Muffin standing in the cake. For a brief moment we all just looked at each other. Muffin was a smaller dog, maybe 30 pounds, a mutt with a sweet disposition, and apparently the agility to climb onto tables and into cake. And though two of her paws were firmly in the cake, she had clearly not eaten any yet. My mother was the first to move, making it across the kitchen in seconds to lift our dog up and out of the cake, holding her in the air, passing her to me, “Get her in the bathroom and wash her paws. Then put her down in the basement and close the door tight.”
As I washed Muffins paws and hurried her into the basement, I could hear my mother’s hand mixer whirring. I had no idea what she could be doing- there was no time to make another cake. It was a disaster. As I closed the basement door, I turned to see my mother carefully cutting circles around the two paw prints in the cake. She popped them out, and then filled the holes with frosting. With a wink to me, she lifted up the cake, “Can you take the plates and forks and open the door for me…We don’t want anything bad happening to the Birthday Cake.”
I never said a word about it- which for me, is saying something. At first, I kept it to myself because it was a small secret between my mom and me. Later that night, it was a funny story my mother shared with my dad, and it became one of our family stories. But when I think of it now, in the context of trying to define productivity for myself in creative writing, I realize that it was my mom’s reaction to the unexpected that inspires me. She assessed the problem, and faced the truth of Muffin’s paws in the cake. She did not fixate on the cake itself, but what she could do with it. She leaned into her strengths to solve it- my mother’s frosting is legendary- and the party went on.
So while I have profound respect for the writers I know who are working structures and goal setting to be productive, I am trying on a new definition of productivity. I am using a productive process- by working with the thoughts in my head and staying open to where that carries me creatively. And if I encounter the unexpected, even if that means a stop in my writing- I won’t fixate on the stop, but look to how I might use my strengths to respond to the problem.
So if you find yourself like me, politely smiling and nodding when your peers are sharing their organized approaches to being creative, but inside you are screaming, “NO”- you are not alone. You might be process-oriented in your creativity. And it is not some elaborate rationalization for not “getting things done” but a different orientation that has its own value; an orientation that responds not to product goals, but process goals. Try your hand at re-orienting your goals along how you react, not what you accomplish, when you are writing.
And if you get stuck, it can’t hurt to have a tub of frosting on hand for emergencies.