Hello and welcome to the 100 Day Writing Challenge, Day 26.
You knew this day would come – after yesterday’s going toe to toe, head to head, cheek by jowl and eye to eye with your close personal long-time Writing Demon, it’s time for me to temporarily turn you loose to do whatever you damn well please.
So today’s ten minutes is the second of your free, unplanned, self-directed sessions. And again, I feel sufficiently fragile in my identity as a writing teacher to mount a short defence of what might be viewed as a cop-out on my part, an abnegation of responsibility and a cheap filler exercise.
I want you, when our 100 days together are up – or before that, if you decide you don’t want to go on and finish the course – to have learned to trust yourself. To have a degree of informed, rational faith in your ability to turn up and be creatively self-directed. That yes, you can respond to a diverse range of writing assignments with courage, ingenuity and flexibility, but that also you can call upon what I’d tentatively call metacreative skills – that is, the ability to be creative about how you create.
Because fiction writing isn’t just about figuring out ‘how do I do story good?’ You also have to invent and then choose between the projects themselves. What should you spend time on and in what proportions? When you sit down at your laptop or notebook where should you start? Do you need to do anything to preheat the old creative oven? Is your creativity best served by working on one project at a time, from beginning to end, idea, plan, first draft, revision, feedback, final draft, publication, next idea, over and over? Sitting in the same room, week on week, month on month? Living the same routine outside your writing hours?
And I know it sounds like I’m asking leading questions, luring you into bellowing ‘no! I shall live in a treehouse and only write when the crystals in my storm glass form shapes resembling figures from the Golden Age of Cinema.’ That’s actually not my intent. Routine, the template of a way of doing things can be really powerful in my experience – it can take away some of the cognitive burden of having to decide what you’re going to work on and how and all of that sort of nonsense. You don’t always want to be making every single decision in an original way.
You know in the same way most of the time, if you meet a friend for dinner and you go somewhere to eat you don’t want every aspect of the dining experience to be innovative and unique. You don’t especially want contortionist waiters who approach you in a backwards crabwalk like the girl off The Exorcist with the wine list clenched between their leotarded bum cheeks. You don’t want the price of each dish to be determined by your performance in a complicated carnival sideshow game. You don’t want every item on the menu, including the desserts, to made from mechanically-reclaimed ham.
And look, I’m not saying there’s not room for a bit of theatre in one’s dining experience, for ringing the changes every once in while – these innovations are subtly rippling out through the industry all the time. But it’s also good that eating out has tropes, right? It has clichés, almost, which you can rely on, like you become literate with the expectations and culture of eating out, so a lot of it feels automatic and you can focus your finite mental resources on what you would like to eat, and catching up with your friend.
We have to, to a certain extent, pick our battles when it comes to decision making. Each time you sit down at your laptop you don’t want to be having to expend time and energy deciding ‘do I want to continue with this project? Should I stop and start something new? What else could I write about? What if I changed this so it was all in the second person? Should I spend the morning doing warm-up exercises instead? Would I be better off writing historical fiction? Should I be writing at all today or do I need to spend more time reading and researching?’
You have limited cognitive power. That’s not a dig, it’s just part of being human. Your attention and focus are resources, and your brain consumes glucose when you’re concentrating intensely and especially when you’re worrying. That’s part of what I hope you’re discovering through this course, actually – that when someone digs some grooves for you, plots a course for you to pilot down, suddenly all this energy becomes available to you. You thought you didn’t have any willpower, any ideas, much capacity for turning up and writing, but it turns out you do, you always did, you’re just burnt out from wrestling, solving and resolving metacreative questions of what, where and how.
I hear this a lot chatting with psychologists interested in computational learning theories and AI developers. If our goal is to finish a novel, then the value of sitting down to write today, now, is entirely dependent on subsequent decisions we make in the days that follow. Because if you don’t have confidence that you’ll make optimal decisions in the future – in this case continuing to work on your novel, until such point as it’s completed – then the value of doing so now, today, is hugely diminished.
Just like, say you’re designing a drone you want to be able to autonomously pop down the shops for a pint of milk. And one rule you want that drone to internalise very quickly is: don’t fly into moving vehicles or human beings. Because if it does that, aside from the hazard to other people, it’s going to damage itself and drop the milk and the quest is over. So you want it to be reasonably conservative when it comes to balancing risk with speed. Try to pick an optimal course but prioritise keeping safe because that aspect is zero sum – if you crash, the fact that you shaved five seconds off your route earlier is all for naught.
So assuming this is a drone that learns dynamically, through doing, it’s going to fly out, observe behaviours from cars and people, infer safe patterns and follow those. You could even create a fleet of drones capable of sharing data, even taking in flight reports from drones that crashed into buses and incorporating that into their calculations. But, there’s a problem. How safe is safe? How much risk should a drone take?
To cut a long story short, there’s this big problem in AI called aversive clipping, where bots learn rules from single instances, so maybe one day a human threw a rock at one of the drones and knocked it out of the air, so the fleet learns the rule ‘don’t fly within 30 feet of humans’, which, sure enough reduces the number of rock-related crashes to zero but makes it nearly impossible to buy a pint of milk. But the problem is, when we do a behaviour, we’re not just doing the behaviour. We’re also getting statistical data on it that we plug back into our model of the world. Because the drones no longer fly near human beings they’re not getting good data that proves actually, most human beings don’t throw rocks at drones, this is so unlikely that it’s not worth building a whole avoidant behaviour around.
If you’re not careful, you end up with neurotic drones that have learned so many rules about avoiding hazards they can’t leave the depot. By now I hope it’s clear why I think this is relevant.
When we write, we’re not just writing. We’re also building a model in our heads of what it’s like to write. What the experience of writing consists of, what bits make us feel good, what bits make us feel bad. And quite unconsciously we try to spot patterns, precursors, figure out how to make our experience contain more of the good and less of the bad.
Perfectly rational. And potentially disastrous for creativity. Because, like the drone, in fact horribly like the drone, each time you sit down you can run back through the flight data from hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of previous milk runs. Oh, when I tried doing this it made me feel bad. Oh, when I wrote this way I ended up throwing away 30,000 words. Oh, when I shared this thing I’d put my heart and soul into with my teacher/parent/reading group/partner they looked bored, they said something cutting, I could tell they didn’t like it.
And we try to figure out the rule and we try to make sure we never run into that problem again.
Well look. I’m here to tell you that sometimes, often in fact, you will crash into power lines. A seagull will try to mate with you. A lightning bolt will descend from a clear blue sky and strike you out of the air. If you leave the depot, there is no way round this.
But wouldn’t it be a shame just to sit there, when you were built to fly?
I’m not asking you not to feel pain, not to feel vulnerable, not to feel disappointment when your writing doesn’t go as you’d hoped. Quite the opposite. I’m asking you to consider – to the extent to which you are ready – embracing those feelings as a healthy, essential and in fact enriching part of creativity. And of life.
Now as I’ve said, sometimes – often, even – you’re going to focus your energy by committing in a certain direction. Like I say, you can wear yourself out spinning your wheels worrying each time you sit down whether maybe this wouldn’t be better if you wrote it in the first person, if maybe you made plot error in the last chapter and you should go back and fix it, if maybe that other idea you had for a story mightn’t be a better choice. All of these questions boil down to the fundamental one: ‘am I writing the right story?’
Sounds silly but I worry about it almost everyday. And it can drive you bananas, like there’s a true purpose singing at a pitch just beyond your range of hearing. But remember that the act of writing is also an act of learning. So for most of the time, we just have to take a decent guess with the information we have right now, then start marching in that direction, understanding that we can’t have 100% certainty, but the data isn’t going to get any better unless we write this thing and find out.
But also, and like I’ve been saying throughout the course, I’d rather hit the nuances of this than send you off with easy slogans, sometimes, at some key points in your journey, it is okay to stop and ask: where am I going? What would happen if I rewrote this in the first person? What would happen if I wrote it from a complete different point of view?
Those are cool, creative questions, they’re just… divergent, generative and, if you don’t give yourself permission to put them aside, they can generate loads of anxiety.
But we’re here again, at another of these way stations. Little inns at the side of the road. Today I’m going to give you ten minutes to write about whatever you want, in whatever style you want. Next time I’m going to give you even less instruction than this because it’s important to me that this is you practising being self-directed, checking in with your own intuition and needs, but for today, you could expand on one of the exercises we’ve previously done, you could journal about how you’re feeling about the course so far, you could write a little character piece or start off a story, you could reflect on what I’ve talked about in today’s episode, you could make up your own exercise. You might even have a project buzzing around in your mind, or one you’re currently working on, or some vague ideas you haven’t quite touched yet, and you could brainstorm ideas around that, or maybe draft a synopsis, or list some titles, or try writing the first page.
Or something else entirely. I’ve already led you by the nose a bit too much, and that’s my anxiety, not yours. The main thing is, take a few moments to have a think about what you’d like to do, or even take the first minute once the timer starts to decide, no rush, and then write till the gong sounds.
How’s that? Sound okay? Right. Three… two… one… off you go.
And there you have it. I hope that was okay for you. As always you might like to reflect on how you felt before, during and how you feel now. We often spend a lot of time resisting writing, so I think, in the name of good data science, it’s worth checking how well our expectations of what it’s going to feel like match up with reality.
So tomorrow we’ll be back on our regular programme of super-prescriptive writing exercises where I set up a bunch of hoops and challenge you to jump through them. Continuing these ideas of character and point of view and seeing how those transform a story.
Right. Take care of yourself. Well done. I’ll see you tomorrow.