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The Most Important Step in the Creative Process

I liken the steps of creative insight to an image of a creator and a room. There is a room: at first the creator opens the door to the room a crack. They are very curious about what is in that room. They can see visually very little that is in Door slightlin openit, but they feel “there may be something there.” Then they open the door a little wider and can see more, and then wider, and wider, and many things in the room appear in their field of vision and become clearer.

Then the creator pushes the door open wide. They step boldly into the room , and  sensing there is something significant that will be revealed, explore every nook and cranny–the closet, the ceiling, under the bed, under the chairs, the floor, the light fixtures, the windows,  the window shades and curtains, the molding, the crack in the wall–until even the smallest detail of the room is known.

Excited now, feeling an urge, they get to work and sweat over their project, entering that room at will a hundred times, a thousand, five thousand, and whether they feel up to it or not, are happy or sad, healthy or sick, they go back to that room again and again. Then with a mixture of luck, timing, and skill the novel is acclaimed across the country, the etching is featured in a show, or the play is in a theatre where people applaud it. The creator is fulfilled.

 None of those things would have happened had the person not begun by thinking with an open mind, “Oh, I wonder very much what is in that room.”

I

If you are creative, I think you and I are very much alike because I am creative too, and the mystery I call my mental life is probably not very different from yours.  In my mid-twenties I was hired to work with a think tank of college professors at the University of Michigan–psychologists, economists, and sociologists, and their graduate assistants.  University buildingThey had been conducting research projects having to do with what were then in the sixties called “anti-poverty programs.”

I had written articles and speeches on that subject, and the institute contacted me to “do some writing” for them and to “put myself into the writing.”  I took the hour flight from my home in Chicago to Ann Arbor by way of Detroit to meet the directors. Specifically, they had written books that neither the government funders of the projects nor the target readers could understand because the writing was what they admitted to be a lot of academic mumbo-jumbo.

They wanted me to “clean it up”–something like a Hollywood script doctor–because I had a talent for turning difficult to understand academic textual concepts and badly written prose into clearly-written, understandable, serviceable, every day Anglo Saxon English. Most of my writing could be done at home–always a pleasure for me to be at home with my wife and children.

But I thought that it would be beneficial to start my project by working at the institute–studying their writing, meeting with staff, getting settled in a good work space. So I spent considerable time in Ann Arbor. I like college towns–like the bookstores, the activities, the restaurants, and the comfort of being where learning is occurring. The institute’s chief writer was out of commission with writer’s block, so I would be writing on my own.

The first week I was walking down the street on the way to dinner with a prominent economist and he called out “Congratulations” to a man across the street. Then he said to me,” He just won the Nobel Prize.” I very much like and feel most comfortable working with very intelligent people. With my mind filled with what I had read and gotten from discussions with staff, I began the writing stage by doing no writing at all, not even doodling.

Just sitting in my office at the institute, being imaginative, I let information I had acquired free-float in my brain, holding off committing my fingers to a pad of paper or a keyboard till I was ready and eager to start. I looked out the window at a pond where mallard ducks were floating, a peaceful, lovely little scene. In the background I could hear cricketpeople coming and going, talking, and laughing, and one day couldn’t help but hear the chirping of thousands of leaping crickets that had escaped from their cage where they were being kept for someone’s scientific project. I have no fear of chaos and disorder and thought the crickets were fun. (A major characteristic of creative people is physical and mental messiness, a mind cluttered with ideas, and a disorganized environment which can frustrate to no-end neat freaks they may be working with).

The directors would visit me from time to time and ask how the writing was going, reminding me not to forget the deadline I was working under. I said the writing was going fine. Though I hadn’t written a word, I knew without a doubt I would meet the deadline because I always meet deadlines. I like deadlines. I knew that time pressure, though it can be an impediment to creativity at times, usually facilitates it. For example, I have a writer friend named Stu who is able to produce what he has been procrastinating over when he knows that friends are coming over in an hour,

When I did not turn in a word of copy, the directors got nervous. They had had enough experience working with people in the act of creation (most of the people involved in the projects) to know that creative people are lousy with details and pay little attention to them. But I said everything was under control, and they gave me leeway because they were used to the eccentricities of creative people.

II

My mind then began the vital and intriguing process of what I have named “Pre-Compositional Lilt,” which I believe is the most important step in the creative process. I think you too know it well. It is semi-dreamy aimless state when ideas bubbles floating on colorful backgroundfloat lightly as bubbles through the mind, coming and going,  bursting and dissolving, some more promising and useful than others, a few sticking that will became a permanent part of your thoughts about the thing you are about to create–the painting, the essay, or story, or symphony.

It has been known for a long time that there are two types of thoughts, one of which is creative. The less creative type is under active control of your conscious mind, and the other is involuntary. The involuntary type is called Primary Process Thinking. It is the source of your creative inspirations. It is my Pre-Compositional Lilt: a disorganized drifting and succession of fragments of images and ideas in which a number of ideas fuse themselves with other ideas so that sometimes strange or extraordinary links are made between images and ideas that are not usually linked, but are unrelated. That’s when you have something original, or, in other words, creative–a practical, useful product of a wild ranging of the creative mind. (A creative idea–if it is truly creative–must have a practical use).

Almost all accounts of creativity by scientists, mathematicians, artists, and writers indicate that they feel that unconscious processes are passively revealed to them rather than delivered up to them by conscious thought. For example, novelist William Makepeace Thackeray said, “I don’t control my characters. I am in their hands and they take me where they please.” A common phrase of artists is, “It came to me; I hadn’t planned it.”

It comes at the conclusion of Pre-Compositional Lilt.  Walking alone often seems to spring creative ideas from the splashing water with floating bubblessubconscious. Poet Wallace Stevens composed his poems in his mind on the long walks between his home and his office. For me, a single word I may see in a book or on a sign on a store front, or in my notes, a word that has a special relevance for that text, may pop into mind and straighten out all my thinking about a text. And I know that once I get the first sentence right–and I can always tell l if ii is right–basically the whole thing, however long it will be, is as good as written.

Creative intuition, which works in a non-logical realm, is not simply in-born as it is often thought to be, but is developed and made stronger, beginning with “Lilts” and then enhancing your ability to bring together a wide range of relevant information without even being aware of what items of information you have used or how you have integrated them. Knowledge of your art or discipline is essential. In fact knowledge is not everything in creativity, but it is almost everything.

III

Creators typically have an obsessive side and often have few concerns other than their creative work. Most of their Door opening onto a colorful sceneconscious and subconscious thoughts are directed toward that work. Creators keep the subject of their work consistently before them and wait patiently or impatiently till the work opens slowly, little by little, into full and clear awareness.

The creative artist’s mind (like the inventor’s and mathematician’s) even during a day at the beach, even during a vacation in the mountains or a night at the theatre, is immersed in her art and consciously or subconsciously is always working on it and never takes a break. A sentence or paragraph that will convey exactly the mood she is seeking to communicate may elude a writer for days or months, only to suddenly appear when she is having sex or petting a dog because she is an artist and her mind never rests. Mozart jotted down pages of notes while waiting his turn at billiards. It couldn’t be otherwise.

I wanted my work to be as elegant as highly creative works such as paintings, musical compositions, and literary works. One test of a scientific theorem is: “Is it elegant?” I talked to my wife, who is also my editor, about that, and she was in agreement that having that goal would make the work more fulfilling for both of us and a bigger challenge. Why not always aim for beauty, so you may pause over a sentence or paragraph or musical phrase you’ve written or a painter’s right brush stroke and say, “That’s just beautiful, if I do say so myself.”

 

IV

I finished the books on time. They were published, distributed, and highly regarded. The material was put to use by people fighting poverty in many places in the world, and I was hired to work with the institute again on another project, and then others. I developed strong friendships with the people I met.

 

 

© 2018 David J. Rogers

For my interview from the international teleconference with Ben Dean about Fighting to Win, click on the following link:

http://www.mentorcoach.com/positive-psychology-coaching/interviews/interview-david-j-rogers/

 

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Filed under Creativity, Personal Stories, Pre-Compositional Lilt, The Creative Process, The Nature of Artists, Writers, Writing

Writers’ and Artists’ Deadline Problems and What To Do About Them

vincent-van-gogh-74018_640Writers and artists are almost always marvelously productive human beings able to generate huge quantities of work, amounts of work which put people in other walks of life to shame. They are concerned with their production and pay close attention to it—did you write your 500 words today; did you finish painting that corner of the canvas before quitting for dinner? If production falls off, they want to know why, and if good work pours out of them fluently, they want to know why that is happening too.

Hard as I try, I find it difficult to imagine any writer or artist—amateur or professional, novice or expert–who hasn’t had  production deadlines to meet, and it’s not unusual for them to have had problems meeting them at least once or twice, and possibly more frequently than that. You’ve heard it said, and maybe you’ve said it yourself when you’ve been under the pressure of a tight deadline and are having trouble meeting it: “This deadline is important. It’s in the contract, and it’s very clear.”  Think how ominous the word is. It’s not a “lifeline,” but a “dead” line, as though if you exceed it you’re a goner.

You have a task that you’re supposed to finish by 2:00. Or it may be by next Tuesday, or one year from Tuesday. There’s some kind of principle or another—Murphy’s Law–that goes, “If something can go wrong, it will go wrong.” Let’s say you start to work and encounter a setback. You begin thinking, “I’m falling behind.” You’re not worried and you continue on, but you run up against another snag or block that slows you down more. More work, another snag; the ideas just won’t come, or you can’t find a concept for the drawing, or your computer crashes, and it will be a long time before it’s fixed. (I had that problem once and was told there was a backlog and that I’d have to shut down for ten days while I waited for a repair person. But I had a deadline to meet, and I really couldn’t wait ten days. So I called the national president of my internet service provider at that time, calendar-148598_640 (1) AT&T, and had a nice conversation with his personal assistant. I explained to her that I was an author and had a book to get out to the publisher right away, so I needed my computer to work. She was an avid reader which I think helped. A repairman was ringing my doorbell at 8:00 the next morning. By 8:20 I was back at work, everything copacetic, things under control.) Or you move out of your old place into a new place or have a baby, and your work comes to a standstill.  A crack in your confidence then appears. You soon begin to conjure up a grim chain of possible events: “If I don’t finish this assignment-story-novel-report-painting-lithograph on time, this might happen and that and that, and that would be very bad.” And then there are other slowdowns and still more. Eventually you think, “Oh, God, no matter what, I can’t possibly finish on time. My butt’s in a sling. What a predicament.”

Strategies for Freeing Yourself from Deadline Difficulties

  1. Pay not the slightest attention to the deadline. You have only so much attention. It’s not divisible. If it’s on one thing, it can’t be on another. Resist any inclination to worry about the deadline. Fix it in your mind once, enter it on a calendar, then get to work immediately. Whatever attention you devote to fretting about it is that much less you can devote to the job at hand. Yet that’s where your mind should be totally focused. It will be helpful if you are able to be dispassionate and non-attached. Perfectly unworried.

archer-160389_640Archery contests are held at a temple in Japan and the best archers compete. The object of the contest is to see how many arrows the marksmen can shoot from one end of a 128 yard long veranda into a target on the other end in one day. The ceiling of the veranda is very low, and the archer has to shoot without much arch. That requires considerable strength and is exhausting. The record is 8,133, or about five arrows every minute for twenty-four consecutive grueling hours. Now how many arrows would the archer have shot if he stopped to fret about the deadline? Certainly not 8,133.

No matter what, we must refuse to let our mind waver from the job at hand, agonizing less about the deadline, absorbing ourselves in tasks, just shooting our arrows, just punching away at the keyboard, just drawing lines. The more we remain firm and focused, shifting our minds again and again persistently to what is in front of us that needs doing, the higher the quality of the work we produce will be and the sooner the work will be accomplished.

  1. Remember that some time pressure actually enhances performance. There are many things we would never have completed if we hadn’t had a deadline to prod us. In school you had papers to write or a drawing to do. You were forewarned: it was due in four weeks. If you were like most students, you put it off for three weeks, six days and 19 hours. You stayed up the night before and, bleary-eyed and rendered useless the rest of the day, turned it in on time. There you are; you obeyed another principle: work tends to expand to fill the time available for its completion. So had you just one week, you would have finished it in one week, and would have finished it on time had you had only five hours.
  2. Bear in mind, however,  that unrealistic deadlines create too much pressure, and too much pressure interferes with performance. You worry. You tighten up. You lose focus. After a while when you’ve fallen behind, you find yourself beginning to pay more attention to the deadline than to doing well what needs doing. The need to finish on time gets more urgent and you start taking shortcuts. You really don’t want to, but you’re lowering your usually high standards and getting sloppy and the work’s quality is falling off.
  3. If you have any say in the matter make the deadline reasonable. Realistic deadlines motivate performance. I’ll confess: I’m a naturally excitable person, and I used to get very stirred up and to be too optimistic about reaching any deadline that I set. At times my staff had to work ridiculously long hours and on weekends and holidays and even while they were sick to meet them. So I devised a simple precaution which I called “the kick.” When I was asked by a client to estimate how long a job would take, an associate would kick me under the table. That was the signal to increase my estimate by 30%. Never let your enthusiasm exceed your better judgment. Can you use some version of the kick?
  4. Choose deadline-beating thoughts, not worry-creators. You are inwardly free to replace one thought with another whenever you want. Instead of, “I’m losing ground,” replace it with, “I’m making progress. I’m whittling this baby down,” or “Every time I stop to look at the clock (or the calendar) I’m wasting time.” “I’m going to have the focus of those archers.”
  5. Accept the deadline as an exciting challenge. When I was working on a particular book, as I turned in one chapter after another, the editor thought, “This is pretty good stuff, and it’s getting better and better. This book is going to make money.” She told the publisher, “I think we have something.” The publisher then said to her, “The longer his book, the larger the cover price we can charge. Have him double the number of words we contracted for (from 60,000 to 120,000 words). And let him know since the book is so good, we’ll want an earlier pub date. Finish with it as soon as possible.” So the length was doubled and time pressure increased. Rather than the usual “cut, cut, cut” I had to think “add, add, add.” I could have renegotiated, but accepted the new terms as a challenge and didn’t ask for any more time. I just worked longer hours (an extra writing shift every night), and everything went well.
  6. In some cases, renegotiate the deadline. When you do not see the time constraint as challenging, but rather as completely unrealistic, renegotiation makes sense. No one wants you not to meet the deadline.
  7. Overcome the causes of the snags and slowdowns. For example, often a person’s failure to meet a deadline isn’t that person’s fault at all, but of someone else’s failure to meet their deadline. If you can help them overcome their snags it will help you overcome yours.

I don’t think American novelist Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938)—that master of language–ever met a single deadline his entire career. When you’re as talented as Wolfe, you can get away with murder. Until you can get away with murder too, you will have to find effective ways to handle your deadlines, striving never to be late.

© 2015 David J. Rogers

For my interview from the international teleconference with Ben Dean about Fighting to Win, click on the following link:

www.mentorcoach.com/rogershttp://www.mentorcoach.com/positive-psychology-coaching/interviews/interview-david-j-rogers/

Order Fighting to Win: Samurai Techniques for Your Work and Life eBook by David J. Rogers

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