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The Importance of Following Your Process

I had an experience a few months ago where I was convinced that I was going through writer’s block. I wasn’t, but I thought I was. Given that this taught me yet another lesson about persistence and process, I figured I’d talk about it a bit.

First, though, a little peek into my writing process. At any given moment, I have somewhere between 3 and 10 essays that are ready to go. When it comes time to set up the next one for publishing, I’m not actually doing any writing at all; I simply look through that list and pick the one that seems best at the time. I then give it a final look over to see if anything has come up that I want to add, and go through the mechanics of publishing.

In addition to the ones that are ready to go, I have another set of 5-10 that are close to ready but still need some work, and another 15+ that are in progress but need significant work. Finally, I have a list of 50 or more topics that are nothing more than a title and maybe a short incomplete outline.

So, on any given day, my writing process can involve any or all of the following things:

  • Take an essay that’s close to ready and finish it;
  • Take an essay that’s in progress and try to make it almost ready;
  • Take a topic that has an outline and start writing;
  • Take a topic that has just a title and start outlining.

Because I mostly don’t care when stuff gets published, I can do any of those things to any of the essays in the pile at any time. On any given day, I might touch only a single of the essays. On the day that I’m writing this particular paragraph, I’ve actually touched about a dozen; I made minor progress on several, and then made a lot of progress on this particular one.

A while back, for a few weeks in a row, I was struggling to find anything to write about. The things that I was trying to write weren’t flowing well. I didn’t feel like I was making progress. I couldn’t get into any of the things that I was trying to revisit. I didn’t have any new ideas for expanding outlines. I kept publishing, because I keep a stocked pipeline of things to publish, but I was eating into that pipeline in a way that made me uncomfortable.

So, I talked to my sponsor about it. One of the things that came out of that discussion was the reminder that I have a writing process that works for me, and I wasn’t following that process. So, rather than writer’s block, what was actually going on was just me not doing the work, and then blaming the lack of results on external factors instead of taking responsibility for what I was doing.

So, why does that matter? Because sometimes I’m thinking about the process wrong. It’s easier than I would like for me to get stuck in the idea that in order to do creative work, I have to be inspired. That I can only write when the muse is with me. That being creative is some mystical state that I’m either in or not. The natural implication of that idea is that in those moments when I’m not inspired, I’m at the mercy of the Muses, and all I can to is to wait for them to return.

However, in my experience, that’s not at all the case. Of course there are times when I’m more inspired than others. Of course there are times when the writing flows easily, and other times when it’s a grind to get anything that I think is worth publishing. Of course there are times when I stare at the screen for a while and can’t think of anything to say.
But, I have a process. When I’m less inspired, I can spend more time in the editing/revision parts of the process. When I’m more inspired, I can spend more time in the creating things from scratch parts of the process.

Instead, I let myself stay stuck in the “creativity as a mystical state” idea. I was still sitting down to write regularly. But, after 5-10 minutes I would find that I was not inspired, and I would use that as an excuse to give up for the day.

But, it’s important to just show up and follow the process. Everyone has their own process, of course, but what works for me is to spend an hour or so every day writing. Because I have a bunch of different things I can do in the writing process, there’s always something to do. And, because I know that first drafts are supposed to suck, it doesn’t actually matter if the thing I’m writing is great or not.

The only critical part of that process is to write. Sometimes, the stuff that I write will be junk. Sometimes, I’ll throw it out later. Sometimes, it will need massive revision before I’m comfortable with it. But, I’ve got to write it. Once it’s started, I can make it better, and then publish.

When I thought I was suffering from writer’s block, I was actually just suffering from laziness. That’s actually really good news, because laziness is easily cured with application of sufficient grit. By reminding myself about my process, and about why I’m doing this in the first place, I was able to get back on track and start writing productively again.

If you’re struggling with making progress on something, maybe some of these questions can help. Do you have a process? Are you following it? Are you stuck in a perspective that isn’t helpful? Try asking yourself these and see what happens.

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