I struggle a lot with writing. Articles, reviews, and essays are okay. They’re not easy, and I end up publishing very few, but they’re not an impossible struggle. Fiction, on the other hand, is.
I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve gotten into an extended flow when writing fiction. It’s too much of a conscious exercise for me and has been forever.
There’s a problem with being conscious of what you’re doing.
Have you ever watched someone consciously trying to drive a car? It’s terrible. They inevitably end up as a pumper and a jerker, pumping the pedals trying to maintain a certain speed or constantly jerking the wheel trying to keep the car in the lane.
In order to become a decent driver, you have to offload all of those basic functions into your unconscious. That stuff has to become muscle memory so that you can do it fluidly. Then your conscious mind is free to watch for changing road conditions or send text messages or sing Justin Bieber. (I’m not encouraging the last two.)
This is how you get good at things. “Practice” is the act of drilling the fundamentals of whatever you’re doing (driving, playing basketball, walking) into your brain so that they become automatic.
But before the basics start to become automatic, it’s really, really frustrating. You have no choice but to consciously think about the way you’re dribbling. And your conscious mind is clumsy, really clumsy. It’s almost impossible to consciously be aware of all the tiny factors that go into dribbling. There are just too many variables for us to manually track and adjust. So when you try you end up being clumsy and awkward and terrible. This is what people call “over-thinking it,” a term I hate for more than a few reasons.
The problem is there are no alternatives. You have to go through this region of pain. Dribbling isn’t natural yet, just like walking wasn’t natural when you were a baby. You consciously had to put one foot in front of the other and stumble around in a weird imitation of real walking. The idea is that if you do this enough, it will become natural. Eventually your brain will learn to keep track of all of the variables and how to make the tiny micro-adjustments to keep everything moving fluidly. And then you’ll forget what it was ever like not being able to dribble or walk or drive.
Like I said, this can be a really frustrating process, especially when you’re aware of how bad your conscious efforts are. When you’re fourteen months old, you probably don’t realize how much you suck at walking. But when you’re sixteen, it’s way more obvious how awful you are at dribbling. Having some taste and a sense of quality when you’re still an amateur is both a gift and a curse.
This well-loved quote from Ira Glass puts it well:
What nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish someone had told this to me… is that all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, and it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not.
But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work.
I had a lot of the same hang-ups about design that I still have about writing. I was writing HTML and drawing things in Macromedia’s Fireworks as early as 1997. But for years, I was stuck in an amateur fail-loop.
This is what would happen: I would create something, then I would look at it and say to myself, “Hmm, this isn’t bad. It was really fun and you learned a lot. You should keep doing this. If you kept coding webpages I bet you’d be awesome.” And then I’d let six months go by without writing another line of HTML or opening an image editor.
Every time that I completed that loop, I would be more and more frustrated. I would feel angry at myself because I hadn’t improved much, that I had to re-learn things I’d learned previously, that I couldn’t make myself work at it consistently. I’d pledge to do better. Then I’d let months go by again. Rinse, repeat.
“You’ve been doing this randomly, on and off, for the past two years. If you would have just done it consistently you would be great by now. But instead you’re two years in and you’re still stuck re-learning shit you used to know.”
This is a torturous loop. It’s easy to see the problem. I’m trapping myself in the conscious region of pain, and never training my unconscious in the fundamentals, rules, standards, and basics of what I’m doing. It’s a life sentence in the noob penal colony.
Expectations can be blamed for a lot of this. If you don’t think that you should get better, it doesn’t really matter if you stay an amateur forever. If other people don’t have expectations about what you should know or how good you should be at something, it wouldn’t be a big deal.
Expectations can also make us be pretty cruel to each other, or to ourselves. “You’re a sixteen year old boy who doesn’t know how to dribble? What’re you, a girl?” “It’s the twenty-first century and you don’t know how to save a document as a PDF? What’re you, an idiot?” “You can’t French braid your hair? What’re you, a Martian?”
These might be internal or external voices, but once they start getting harsh, it makes it even harder to break the cycle. The stakes get higher and higher. It’s not just learning how to drive a car well, it’s some test in front of all your friends. What if they see how much you suck? What if they start picking on you while you’re driving?
Thoughts like that only make you more nervous and more self-conscious. When that happens, you start relying on your conscious mind to make more and more of the decisions. You try harder and harder to be aware of every little thing that you’re doing so you don’t make a mistake and embarrass yourself. It’s not just about bouncing a ball anymore, it’s about managing the reactions of your teammates, and the crowd, and the girl you like.
If the never-getting-better loop is a penal colony, the crushing embarrassment and self-loathing is solitary confinement.
Internal or external expectations aren’t all bad though. Just because we use them to beat ourselves up, it doesn’t mean they should be discarded.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to become good at something and holding yourself to a standard of improvement. And getting tough with yourself about staying focused or keeping a regular schedule isn’t the same thing as torturing yourself.
Once I had external expectations for my design work, I improved far more than ever before. When I first took some design jobs on the side, small projects for friends or acquaintances, I had other people’s expectations to live up to. It was way scarier than before, and the stakes felt very high, but it also pressured me to work harder and more consistently.
What also helped with the design work was having a large body of standards and fundamentals to learn and practice. It’s a huge relief when you start reading books about typography and realize that there are rules for things like the width of a paragraph or the spacing between lines. And not arbitrary rules but guidelines based on human psychology and physiology. The same goes for color theory, or page layout, or user interfaces.
Sometimes people find the idea of rules stifling or limiting, but they’re not. You don’t have to follow any typographic rules if you don’t want to. Following them won’t guarantee that you’ll end up with something amazing anyway. But they are helpful ideas that can get you closer to quality than you would on your own. They are a drink of cold water for the amateur lost in the desert. They’re sign posts that you can follow to improvement.
As I said before, the idea is to internalize these rules. Get your unconscious mind to automatically follow them. Then, your conscious mind is free to improvise and innovate and even break them. That’s when the jazz happens.
But with art, it’s harder. There are far fewer external expectations and there’s usually fewer agreed-upon standards.
When I sat down in front of a blank screen and tried to write fiction, I had no idea what to do. I wasn’t on deadline. I could set some internal expectation like “write five-hundred words a day” but so what? That’s easily breakable with very little accountability or repercussions.
And I don’t have some set standard saying “this is how you tell a story.” I’ve taken creative writing classes, read a lot of books and websites, and have some pretty strong opinions about what makes good story-telling. But it’s not the same as having some basic guide to follow.
A lot of people who write creatively don’t approach things the way I do. They don’t look for underlying rules or structures to follow. They do some weird creative thing and sit down and let the story flow. (I’m not convinced this process works as well as those people claim. After all, most creative writing isn’t very good.)
Even though I can come up with interesting characters and plot ideas, I never had enough of a fundamental structure to follow. As a result I felt very, very lost.
Dan Harmon is the creator of NBC’s Community, which was probably the best half-hour comedy on TV for the past 3 years. (He’s no longer running the show so year four is up in the air.)
About five months ago, I read an article in Wired about Harmon and his creative process. In it, the author briefly describes Harmon’s writing process and the use of “Harmon circles” to map out the structure of the storytelling.
Harmon calls his circles embryos–they contain all the elements needed for a satisfying story—and he uses them to map out nearly every turn on Community, from throwaway gags to entire seasons.
The basic idea is a stripped down version of the hero’s journey. But it’s less specific and less complicated. It’s a circle, a journey and a return, with two distinct halves and eight stages:
It’s specific enough to give you something solid to work with, but vague enough that you’re not boxed into something cliche.
For the first time, I’ve actually found an underlying structure that I can lean on. My notebook is filling up with story circles. When I sit down in front of the blank screen, I don’t feel tendrils of panic reaching for me. I’m starting to see where and how my existing stories were flawed. And I have a blueprint that can help fix them.
There are still the problems of expectations and taste. It’s easy for me to procrastinate and I still think most of what I write is garbage. I wouldn’t dare to declare myself saved or my problems with writing over. They’re not.
There’s no pardon from the governor that can get you out of the penal colony. But I am out of solitary and running around the yard. And a lot of that is thanks to Dan Harmon.
Published on February 17, 2013