Years ago, I found a teeny, tiny book. I loved the title, A TECHNIQUE FOR PRODUCING IDEAS.
How cool is that? I’m a writer, I need loads of ideas.
Bring it on.
But then I read this teeny 48-page book. (Didn’t take me long.)
And my mind was blown.
For all of my creative life, I’ve thought that my work process, my creative process, how I got ideas, was haphazard and zany. I used to pose with a fresh notebook and pencil in my room at my desk, trying to “catch” a new idea.
My youngest memories of writing were done with my grandmother’s ancient typewriter. I loved that creative work so much (I was editor of my family’s newspaper, “The Family Flyer”) that I went right out and bought myself a typewriter as soon as I could afford it. This was in 1990 or so.
Before that I would hand write everything or even type it on my family’s Commodore 64 or Apple 2e (I now cannot remember which one we had), but buying my own typewriter (a Brother that I picked out mostly based on its appearance; I was such a teenager) was my pinnacle moment. It’s when I took control of my creative process, or at least I thought I had.
Little did I know that fifty years before I bought myself a typewriter (thinking foolishly that it would help me catch any and all ideas safely and securely), James Webb Young had come up with a creative process on paper, a list of five steps that encompassed what the vast majority of creatives go through when embarking on a creative project.
In a nutshell, Young’s five-step list is (gleaned from Maria Popova’s brilliant article on Young earlier this year):
1. Gather Materials
2. Digest Materials
3. Unconscious Processing
4. The A-Ha Moment
5. Taking Your Idea Into Reality
The A-ha moment for me?
This is me.
On paper, set out in a logical order, by someone who never knew me.
By someone who had no idea that there was a teenager coming of age in 1990 and that he knew me better than I knew myself.
I’m bummed I will never get to meet him. I would shake his hand and say thanks. And I would tell him how his steps often were exchanged, or often two steps would happen at the same time.
I think he would nod his head and then ask me for more information, and use me as his research guinea pig. I think people were fascinating to him.
I’m okay if my steps don’t always go in traditional order. Sometimes one step spills over into the next two steps or a previous one, but I could see myself on this list. And sometimes, in a different order of this list.
I found Young’s book in like 2004, 2005 and ever since than have breathed a bit easier, felt a bit more sure about my creative process, even sunk down into said creative process with a bit more flair and confidence.
I also almost immediately came up against massive blocks.
Namely, writer’s block, procrastination, and while these blocks were how I noticed I still was having issues with my creative process, I knew it had nothing to do with Young’s methodology. His process mirrors human nature, how we encounter the world and all of its wonders.
No, what I was encountering was much more sinister.
All in all, I was emotionally unable to grapple with Young’s five steps because, like all of us, I have issues.
But I loved having Young’s steps to guide me, and I adored the fact that I wasn’t as haphazard and zany as I thought (oh, the tortured creative syndrome is a siren call, isn’t it?), but why were Young’s steps just as difficult as before?
Why couldn’t I just march down his lovely list of steps and voila, out came a masterpiece?
I think Young would smile at me, nod in knowing wisdom, and reply, “It just doesn’t work that way.”
So, why do I think Young’s methodology is so great?
Because it made me aware.
This is half the battle, folks.
If you want to get better ideas, you’ve got to become self-aware.
If you want to write a book that sells, you have to know what you’re up against.
If you want to paint a picture that moves people, you have to be able to move yourself.
You have to know what moves you, what doesn’t, and why.
Self-awareness began so long ago for me, and it’s been a gradual uphill climb ever since.
I don’t know why I don’t like to stay self-aware and why I was so afraid of it for so long, but I was.
In fact, I was terrified of me. I was so afraid that if the real me ever got out, people would beat it with sticks.
I was so frightened that if the real me popped up in front of me while I was working, I would become instantly paralyzed, and unable to work any longer.
So, we creatives have a lovely creative way to deal with this.
We let it beat us.
I noticed that in step 1, for instance, my fear of failure stopped me from doing any productive work on my projects. I was still amassing materials, still reading and doing research on a book project. I often would find myself lost in side tangents, looking with jealousy at other writers and how they had already found success.
What if I couldn’t do it? What if I did all this research and I failed?
But this was, to me, how creative pursuits go.
You dabble here, you create a bit over here, then you walk away and do something else, right?
I had published (actually was paid to write) two series of books in 1998 and 1999, but here I was in 2006 and I was nowhere near writing anything that anyone would want to publish. What was going on here?
I call this now (almost 10 years later) a lack of existential scaffolding.
What do I mean by that?
Existential scaffolding is better self-talk.
It’s self-empathy, self-worth, belief in self-efficacy.
And back then, I had zero ability to self-talk my way through this paralyzing fear of failure.
I tortured my way through it, beating myself up right and left, and pitched a book to a publisher.
I forced it so much that the book was rejected almost instantly. Too many book ideas in one, the rejection said. I was dejected by this news. I put the proposal away in a desk drawer and tried not to think about it.
I really tried.
But it haunted me. All my ghosts and demons came out to play in my head (living there rent-free, you notice!), “See, we told you. This is you failing. You did a terrible job. You didn’t think it through. You didn’t research enough. You reached too high.”
They are not quite as nice when you give in to their siren call. Meanies!
I was tortured by this. I listened to them. I BELIEVED them. I couldn’t even begin to fight back.
Definitely a lack of existential scaffolding at play.
And I had no idea how to build any.
I read Anne Lamott’s BIRD BY BIRD again and again. I studied dozens of books on writing book proposals. I made money helping other people write their book proposals (and they sold them!) and I felt lost.
I just didn’t matter. My voice was just not strong enough to matter.
It’s so hard to believe anything good about you when everything fear of failure tells you is so loud and RIGHT IN YOUR FACE!
But I’m stubborn like that.
A few years later, I pitched another proposal and got great feedback on it from a top agent in the biz. Cool, right?
Without any support system to handle the criticism, and without any positive self-talk, I fell flat on my face even worse this time.
In fact, it was the same scenario even more times: a book accepted by a publisher and then the editor told my agent (at the time) that I was the worst writer she had ever encountered and she pulled the plug on the project.
Did that help my self-talk?
Hella no! A writing book publisher told my agent that was a terrible writer. It just helped me dig a deeper hole. So much deeper.
In fact, by the time I actually got a win (a deal that would change my life), I was so full of negative self-talk that nothing anyone would have said would really make much difference.
You, see I had zero existential scaffolding.
I gave myself:
1. ZERO support
2. ZERO kind words
3. ZERO pats on the back
4. ZERO percent in believing I could do what I most wanted
5. and on and on it went.