It's time to kill the ‘productive' writer

Why attempting to make our creative labor more 'efficient' is stunting our growth and making our lives worse.

It's time to kill the ‘productive' writer

Good writing tells the truth. Not just any truth—specific, hard, felt truths. Good writing requires a chewy, tangible knowledge rooted in something deeper than faith or professed values. It needs conviction: the absolute sureness that if you touch the fire, it will burn. It's why conviction is often rooted in past suffering; few things in life produce that kind of concrete certainty.

But conviction requires cultivation. It's not something that sprouts instantaneously, or even quickly. Writers sometimes describe themselves as gardeners, but it's more accurate to say that writers themselves are gardens. The composting refuse of our interests, ideas, experiences, memories, traumas, and internal dramas enrich our soil, and out of us sprouts insight. Something made of, but not altogether resembling, the writer.

It's why writer Natalie Goldberg taught that writing is composting—a way of processing the heat of our experience into something illuminating.

Emre Soyer said something similar in "Works of Brilliance Come From Great Processes, Not Great Ideas": brilliance isn't a flash, but a slowly growing crop. Good work comes from steady development. Creation is a cycle of taking in experience, breaking it down, and releasing it as wisdom.

And yet, when we hear about a writer far younger than us getting a life-changing book deal, how do we react? When we learn that one of our heroes wrote world-changing works of staggering brilliance by the time they were our age, what do we tell ourselves?

We tell ourselves that we're behind, that we'd better hurry, that we wasted our best years while other people were leaping from achievement to achievement over our heads. We punish ourselves for not growing fast enough.

The dawn of the clock

The pendulum clock was invented in 1656. Since the day the pendulum starting swinging, human life has been accompanied by a persistent ticking, a sense that time in its now-measurable seconds was always slipping away. For nearly 400 years, that has been the defining condition of human life under capitalism: a sense of rushing, moving, of constantly scrambling for a future that never arrives.

It's not a coincidence that the clock was born in the Netherlands, the birthplace of finance capital and modern trade. The growth of capital required the exploitation not just of natural resources and labor—it required the exploitation of time itself.

In Four Thousand Weeks, Oliver Burkeman writes that the invention of the clock made capitalism possible. Before clocks, time wasn't something you had, but something you were—part of the human experience. Time wasn't seconds or schedules, but leaves budding in the spring, weeds bolting in summer, frost descending in fall, and so on. As a result, a day's work wasn't based on a productivity standard or even a basic unit of accomplishment—it was simply the work that got done that day.

But the clock made it possible to divide your time by the second. By measuring time on a granular level, bosses were able to dictate what time ‘belonged’ to them and what time belonged to you. An even bigger shift occurred in our relationship to time: rather than living in time, time became something outside us that we could utilize. Bosses initially framed time this way to increase profitability, but society itself shifted its view of time before long.

The idea of time-as-a-resource reached its peak with ‘productivity gurus’: people whose extensive knowledge of ‘life hacks’ are designed to help you produce more, focus harder, and work 10x more efficiently with the same hours as everyone else.

The writing cycle

Living in an urban/industrial world (as most people do, statistically) shapes the way we frame our world. Most of us don’t garden or farm. A lot of us have worked in production though—fast food, coffee shops, warehouses. These are jobs where labor splits into specific roles and tasks, where workers produce commodities in stages (e.g. a double-double, a caramel crunch frappuccino, a Ford Focus).

So, when we envision writing, we often frame it as production work. First, you create an idea. Then, you outline. Then, you research. Then, you draft. Then, you revise. Then, you publish. You start with nothing, but you end with a blog, an article, or a novel.

But that’s not actually how writing works.

Writing is circular. It never begins at the blank page; it never "begins" at all. When someone starts drafting a piece, they're drawing upon years of experience, research, and previous writing. Any "new" piece actually began months or years in advance with the reading of an article or the formulation of an idea, regardless of whether the writer is aware of it.

What you’re actually doing when you write something is more akin to harvesting, preceded by planting, cultivation, and year-round care. It’s a slow process, but that slowness is necessary: you need time to break down your experiences and draw out insight. But that slowness, the truth that time is an integral ingredient to creativity, is completely at odds with our clock-obsessed, efficiency-minded mode of production under capitalism. We would rather believe our creative processes are completely under our control, that we can simply produce insight on a regular schedule dictated by us. And some authors seem to be capable of that: fans admire authors like Danielle Steel, Stephen King, and Brandon Sanderson for producing novels like clockwork.

But the truth is that our ability to harvest insight from our experiences is not totally up to us. Good work takes the time it needs to take.

Creativity is the opposite of productivity

At the same time, writers can’t sit around and wait for inspiration to strike. Art requires regular, consistent labor; anyone serious about their craft takes that as a given. But labor alone cannot produce the brilliant work a writer wants from themselves. You cannot “life hack” yourself into regularly creating insight. You cannot “time block” your way into writing a good novel faster.

In fact, what I’m suggesting is that a “productivity focused”-approach to writing is fundamentally harmful to creating the meaningful insight every writer could be capable of. “Productivity” sees time as a resource outside ourselves to be utilized, but the truth is that our creative projects (and our lives) are made of time and labor. Our creative work cannot be accomplished more quickly without sacrificing part of what made it worth doing in the first place.

The writing community’s enthusiasm for NaNoWriMo reveals a deep desire to get creative work done in the smallest amount of time, similar to the way developers might do a sprint. While NaNoWriMo’s purpose is noble, I think it also speaks to the ineffective way people treat creative problems like production problems: set an arbitrary deadline, figure out a daily target to meet that date, and then stick to the schedule.

But creativity is not like building a lego set. There is no set path between the first and last step. Creative work is foremost an act of exploration—open-ended by definition. Capitalism, in its desire to produce on a schedule according to the boss’ clock, abhors open-ended projects.

There’s a tension between creativity and productivity. Your work needs time to grow and develop in the soil of your soul, which is a process that refuses to obey a launch schedule. At the same time, there’s a moment that you need to call something “done” and move on to the next thing. Could every novel benefit from more development time? Possibly. Is there a point at which taking more time is just procrastination? Of course—it’s a balance, but it’s a balance that we only consider one side of.

But if you decide that you want to draft your novel in a month, ask yourself what you’re giving up by not taking a year instead.

Writing as an atelic activity

So if writing simply takes the time it takes, does that mean I don’t have writing goals? Not at all; every day, my goal is to write at least 500 words of fiction, which takes me between 25 and 40 minutes. I’d like to write a novel. The key thing is that I don’t have a deadline for when that novel will be completed; my goal is to write my 500 words every day and have faith that a novel will take shape eventually.

The difference between a goal like “I’m going to write a novel by November 30th, and it’ll take me 1,666 words a day to get there,” and “I’m going to write 500 words a day until I have a novel,” is the difference between telic and atelic activity.

Telic activity is any action where the outcome is the point. If you’re walking to the supermarket, the point of the walking is to get to the supermarket. If the supermarket closes before you get there, then that walk was for nothing. Atelic activity is any action where the doing of the action is the point. It’d be like taking a walk because you want to enjoy the weather and get some sun: it doesn’t matter where you end up because by walking, you accomplished exactly what you wanted.

Exercises like NaNoWriMo treat writing as telic; who cares if 1,666 is a strenuous and nigh-impossible pace for a new writer to hit for 30 days in a row? The point is to have a complete first draft by the end of November.

But we’d benefit by treating writing as an atelic activity: the point is not the result, but the act of writing itself. That’s why my goal is 500 words a day; it’s arbitrary in a way that’s designed to bring my life pleasure. Five hundred words isn’t strenuous for me, but it allows me enough time to experience the joy that comes from creative work. When I feel like writing more, I do. When I feel like writing less, I make my 500 words with zero expectation that it’ll be good writing. Doing it this way makes writing an expression of how I live every day, rather than imposing a production schedule on myself.

Ironically, because I let the pace of my life determine the pace of my writing, I’m more likely to actually write a novel. A month of 500 words/day is 15,000 words. Four months is 60,000 words—the size of a traditional novel. And I can get there while giving time room to do its work.

It’s natural to be impressed with prolific writers. If the work is good, being prolific is objectively impressive. Where we go wrong is when we treat high output as a virtue to be chased. If you want to develop yourself into a writer who can write 6,000 words a day, go for it. Like any coach would tell you, take it slow at first and allow your pace to climb over time.

But if writing 6,000 words makes you miserable, why do it? Not only would it make your life worse to hold yourself to a standard that makes you miserable, but it also makes it less likely you’ll stick with it long enough to make a novel.

What I’m getting at is this: creative labor isn’t an activity that’s apart from our ‘real life.’ Creative labor is our real life. And if our creative labor is miserable, goal-oriented, and robbed of the time that would make it meaningful to us, then that’s true of our lives too.

Our lives are short as it is. The best thing we could do is allow ourselves the opportunity to enjoy it more fully.

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