HOW LONG SHOULD YOU SPEND ON SPEND ON SOLVING A CREATIVE PROBLEM?
OR IS ‘’CHALLENGE THE RIGHT WORD?
The commercial principle is that time is money—and, as a consequence, you should spend the minimum time necessary on a task to get it done. The word for that is ‘efficiency.’It’s a common expression in business circles. It’s a clinical kind of word—short on heart, but practical. Or apparently. Short-term gain, all too often, has unintended consequences.
I understand this mentality, but even before I became a full-time writer, I never accepted it. It seemed to me that time was entirely different to money. Just for starters, you couldn’t buy it—and it was in decidedly limited supply. And, it seemed to run out unpredictably.
All in all, it struck me that time was vastly more important than money—which was one reason why I wanted to spend it doing something I was passionate about—and loved—rather than something I was paid to do, but didn’t particularly care about (even though I liked the people I worked both for, and with). Accordingly, though I was offered the prospect of a great deal of money if I stayed with the company—and by the president, at that (He flew over from California to the UK to try and persuade me to change my mind). His name was John Clary. He was a good man—and the gesture was much appreciated—but I left.
It was a major decision in all the ways that matter—life-changing in its consequences—but not a difficult decision. The imperative to live a creative life—rather than hold down a well-paid job—was extraordinarily strong.
I have never regretted the decision. Indeed, the decision to become a writer was one of the best decisions of my life—perhaps the best. Though I admire the notion that all work has dignity, and respect its sentiments, I think doing something merely to get paid for it—a job—kills something important and valuable inside you. In particular, even though that may not be the intention, the relentless pressure to conform corrodes both creativity and self-worth.
As always there are exceptions, but they are few—and tend to be at the top, where, by definition, you have much more control over your own destiny. The paradox of the human condition is that many of us crave autonomy, but if we are to achieve most things, we need to cooperate—or, at least, work with, and for, other people, to common purpose.
The form of that cooperation is the central issue. Work should be cooperative and enjoyable—and it can be—but it can also be depressingly similar to paid servitude.
I have read various figures about the percentage of people who are actually engaged at work—in the sense that they care about it, and are emotionally committed to some degree—and they varied from the low teens to the high twenties. That means that over 70% of people aren’t engaged—and a not insignificant percentage actively dislike what they have to do all day, every day, five days a week.
It strikes me that such is an indictment of how we structure employment. We certainly need it—everyone certainly doesn’t want to be self-employed—and robots can’t do everything! But there is a whole host of ways in which we could motivate people—but don’t. In fact, many American employers seem almost to take pride in treating those who work for them as if they are disposable commodities. Others are commendably enlightened—some are successfully pioneering whole new ways of working—but, so far, they remain a minority.
Overall, the U.S. has the worst labor relations in the developed world—earnings, in real terms are in decline—and management is now wondering why productivity is so poor!
Good grief! Could there be a relationship between how employers treat their people and productivity? What an amazing insight!
But let me return to the issue of time and creativity.
I had better start with a caveat. I have been told many times that I don’t think about time ‘normally—with the strong implication being that such is a bad thing. Frankly, I don’t see it as bad, at all—or, good. I just see it as different, and appropriate to what I do. If I controlled airline schedules for a living—well, that would be another matter.
I know many people who tick off tasks as they tick off days—and primarily live in the present and the future. They make lists, get great satisfaction out of getting things done, make plans, execute those plans, hit deadlines, and generally do what has to be done to make the world go round—as they see it. They are essential to the conduct of the world as we have made it today—and seem to have no doubt that their approach is both correct, and the only one.
I don’t judge such people (though they seem more than happy to judge me). I am glad they exist because otherwise the world—as I know it—would probably not work too well. I rather enjoy transportation to be on time, the items I normally buy to be predictably available, and it is reassuring to know that if I have a heart attack, an ambulance will try and reach me as fast as possible. I’m not sure I would be too happy if the ambulance driver opted to finish his book first (even if it was one of my books).
Nonetheless, I see and treat time very differently—not because I deliberately want to be difficult (though it has been known to happen), but because what I am driven to accomplish requires a different mindset, and vastly more flexibility.
The fundamental point is that mostly I am dealing with the unknown—and, therefore, unpredictable. Creativity, by definition, involves breaking new ground—without knowing the nature of that ground, or what you will find under it.
If a mine (of the exploding variety) is buried there, then matters may evolve rather differently than anticipated. Mines are comparatively rare in most of the countries where I write, but the human tendency to explode, and be otherwise unpredictable—can be relied upon.
Somehow that doesn’t resonate with list-tickers. They know, within reason, just how long it takes them to do just everything they need to do—so they are damned if they can see why a writer should be any different. Certainly, after the first book or two, you should be able to plan with some confidence. Surely books can’t be that different!
The fact is that books are very different—even if they are in the same genre and the same length—and the more creative they are, the more different thy are likely to be.
That apart, because a book take a considerable time to write, the circumstances of the writer may have changed between books. On top of that, where traditional publishing is concerned, a writer has to factor in endless and unpredictable delays, which can have a profound effect on the frequency of books being published. Editors get over-loaded. Editors get fired. Copy-editors have babies. The book-cover isn’t right. You’ve hit the sales cycle at the wrong time. The list is endless.
But, at a certain point—which comes early—it becomes clear that it is futile to try and explain such subtleties (which strike me as pretty damn obvious) so it becomes easier to talk about something else.
This is actually no bad thing, if you are a writer, because finding out everything about other people—including as much detail of what they do, and how and why they do it—is fundamental to the writing process. Trying to explain ourselves—normally a vain effort—is not.
In our opinion, our work speaks for itself—not always as well as we would like, but, hopefully, to the limit of our capabilities at that particular point in time. So we look, and question, and analyze, and see what we can do with the raw material that is available.
I tend to think of time as a continuum, and devote a great deal of effort to keeping my memories fresh and usable. As a consequence, the past is not a long time ago—but may well be something I have been giving a great deal of attention to that very morning. I tend to think of WW II as being relatively recent, for instance, whereas all too many Americans seem to be unaware of Vietnam.
Perversely enough, because of my dyslexia, I have no memory for dates (or telephone numbers) but—if prompted—truly excellent recall of events, moods, personalities, issues—and the other factors that constitute human experience.
I’m not totally oblivious of dates—because I blog every day, apart from anything else. Nonetheless, the number will remain just a number, and won’t ring any bells, if my mind is creatively engaged elsewhere. For instance, recently I let July 4 go by without reacting to its significance—and this after living for 14 years in America!
Frankly, I wish, sometimes, my mind was more date oriented—but it just isn’t.
I accept that deadlines are are necessary for some things, but, years ago, I made one of the worst mistakes trying to meet a self-imposed deadline, and now only employ them in a rather fuzzy sense—unless I have absolutely no alternative (such as when they are vital for someone else).
I am not unaware of the passage of time, but am less affected by it than many. As far as I am concerned, creative work takes as long as it takes—and I am constantly struck by how I can resolve some tricky creative issue or other—if I just stay with it.
In that context I have patience, stamina, fortitude, and faith in my creative abilities. If my inner voice says, “Continue,” I will do just that—virtually indefinitely—until such time as I have achieved the result I am after.
Frequently, I don’t know the result I’m after—except in general terms. Where that is the situation, I feel my way regardless—until whatever I am doing feels right in my creative judgment. That doesn’t mean it is the best that can be done—I am well aware of the talent that is out there. But, normally it means the best I can do, after pushing my capabilities to their limits.
I normally try and do creative work regardless of how I feel. I’m not sure of the wisdom of that, but I am surprised at how often staying with something throughout what seems to a lousy work day can result in success.
This rather goes against what is generally recommended—and I do believe that there is a great deal to be said for breaking off when stuck, and leaving one’s subconscious to do what is necessary—but I can only report that, again and again, when I have felt like quitting, but have stayed with it, some breakthrough has occurred. It is downright uncanny.
I have also learned that when an idea, and a specific creative urge, combine, I’m well advised to give in to it, and commit whatever it is to writing as soon as possible. Now, you might think that merely listing the heading on a list would be sufficient—and I have tried that many times—but it is not. When your inner voice demands that you write, get on with it. It invariably has a good reason—and the results of such impulses are normally superior.
They are also a damn nuisance, because I do make lists and try and move things along in an orderly fashion.
Often, I fail because—within the context of my value system and discipline—writing has the high ground—and always will.
Sometimes I wonder whether there are not different sorts of time—with normal time only having a passing resemblance to creative time.
All of which means, I am entirely unable to answer my own question with any precision—and yet I have written nearly 2,000 words on the matter (a typical day’s output, by the way).
Call it a creative answer.