Hello from Jordan Castillo Price! It’s that time again—time for another sip of Notion Potion. Hopefully you’ve dissuaded your inner creativity-bully (like we talked about last month in Don’t Make Yourself Hurl) and you’re ready to ramp up your creative endeavors. To take your projects to a higher level, consider shifting your focus to quality.
Imagine the following scenario: you sit down to a dinner that’s been lovingly prepared for you. All the cooking’s been done. All the cleanup will be handled. Your host emerges from the kitchen with a silver dome-covered platter. It smells like food, and though you can’t quite place the aroma, given the surroundings, it’s almost sure to be something completely fabulous. Your host places the platter in front of you—and up close, it’s even bigger than you imagined. Your stomach growls. You’re salivating. You can’t wait.
The dome is lifted, and you behold….
Yes, you could choke some down—and really, since it’s free, and the cleanup is being handled, and you’re pretty darned hungry, if you’re not a vegetarian you might swallow a few bites to tide you over until you can stop for a milkshake on the way home. But what would you remember about this meal, other than its freakishness, and your utter disappointment in the whole experience?
Now imagine the dome had been lifted to reveal an exquisite medallion of tender filet, pink in the center and crusted with peppercorns, perched on a crispy triangle of fried polenta, garnished with fresh sprigs of herbs. (Or a tiny little artsy fartsy portion of whatever it is that really makes your tastebuds go “hooray!”) You might finish it and be hungry for more…but at least your evening wouldn’t be a disappointing exercise in blandness.
I was journaling the other day in preparation for my writing time, and I was just about to jot down that I wanted high wordcount that day…but then I stopped myself. What I realized in a brief but intense “a-ha moment” was that I actually didn’t want to produce a large quantity of work. What I wanted was to write a really memorable piece of story.
Not words. Story.
So how did I go about shifting my focus from writing lots of words to writing a really cool scene?
It’s surprising how many creatives show up without a plan. (Have you ever been in a band and heard the dreaded words, “Let’s just jam!” Ugh. I hated that.) Think about setting an intention for your next bout of work. There must be a few things you need to accomplish to get that project to its next stage—what might that thing be? To move the current scene forward in your novel? Get better at a certain passage in the music where the song usually falls apart? Figure out why the foreground of your painting doesn’t quite work with your background?
Having a specific plan about which element you’d like to handle right now helps you utilize your time much better than simply showing up at the computer, guitar or canvas and telling yourself to “just jam.”
The subconscious mind will come up with new routes for you to get around your creative impasses, but you need to stop forcing a project that’s not working and switch to another activity that doesn’t hijack your brain. A shower, a nap, exercise, and mindless housework are all good ways to let your brain keep chewing on your project while you do something else. (Watching TV does not work for this.)
Here’s another technique to try. Set the intention, “Tonight I’ll figure out how to solve ___.” In the morning, think or journal about the solution to your creative problem. For me, often it seems either very obvious, or very at least very different, first thing in the morning with a fresh brain.
Many people brag about being able to “multitask” as if that’s a good thing. According to researchers at MIT, what they are doing is not performing tasks simultaneously, but rather switching back and forth between tasks rapidly. With all this rapid switching, you open yourself up to a greater margin of error. So when you’re doing your creative thing, turn off the phone, TV and the email and see if you can zero in on only your task. Go somewhere else to work if your family is always pestering you. (Families tend to do this for a variety of reasons. The minute they see you’re engaged with something they try to pull you away.) You’ve set aside the time to do this project, so don’t sabotage yourself by depriving it of the focus it deserves.
Going back to the food analogy, can you imagine that perfect little filet charred like a hockey puck rather than cooked to perfection? Or how about seeing it strewn on a dirty plate? Sometimes in the flow of a creative project, it’s tempting to ignore a stray, sketchy line, or a clunky sentence, or a sour note. In getting your initial project started, that’s fine. But when it comes to the point where you’re honing it down in preparation of presenting it, make sure you’re not sloppy with your final touches. Don’t gloss over those clunkers and tell yourself they’re “good enough.” Ask yourself, “How can this be fabulous?” It’s phenomenally gratifying to take something that sorta-worked and tweak it until it’s amazing.
Quantity is not an inherently bad thing. Sometimes cranking out big volumes of creative stuff is useful, especially when you’re in a practicing stage, or you’re working through a rut, or you’re doing something for fun. But ultimately, quantity is not a useful focus in every stage of a creative endeavor.
Many artists fill with anxiety at the thought of the writers who write 5000 more words per day than they do, or the bands with more gigs, or the painters who can squeeze out a painting a night. But which would you rather write—the 100,000 words that your audience read and promptly forgot, or the chilling (or romantic or epic) story opener that was so vivid, your readers are visiting that mental image for the rest of the week, highlighting the passage in their ereader, and seeing the scene play out behind their closed eyelids as they drift off to sleep?
I’d love to hear what sorts of things you tell yourself to encourage quality in your creative process! How do you keep yourself reaching for the steak instead of caving in to the temptation of serving up a bunch of hamburger?