The Nonlinear Process of Creative Work

“(A painter) paints the area in a radius of twenty miles, he paints bright strong pictures. He might take a barn from twenty miles away, and hook it up with a brook right next door, then with a car ten miles away, and with the sky on some certain day, and the light on the trees from another certain day. A person passing by will be painted alongside someone ten miles away. And in the end he’ll have this composite picture of something which you can’t say exists in his mind. It’s not that he started off willfully painting this picture from all his experience…That’s more or less what I do.”

Bob Dylan


Before he rose to fame for his work in the Eagles, Glenn Frey was once a novice songwriter too. Like most people starting out, he wanted to write songs, but was halted by the question, “How do you do it? Do you just wait around for inspiration to come?”. He probably expected a clear-cut, step-by-step answer, but whatever it was, he was eager to learn.

Frey’s songwriting lesson later came through his floor, literally, when he lived in the same building with the musician Jackson Browne. Every morning at around 9, Frey, who lived a floor above Browne, would be awakened by the whistling of Browne’s kettle and the sound of him playing the piano.

As Browne worked on a new song, Frey would sit quietly still and listen.

Browne would get up, play the first verse and the first chorus over and over again, until it sounded just the way he wanted. Then there would be silence, and the kettle would whistle again. After being quiet for ten or twenty minutes, the piano would start playing, now with a second verse, which he played over and over again. Then he would start from the top and play the first verse, the first chorus, and the second verse, over and over again — A tweak here, a change of word there, until he felt totally comfortable with it.

In his room, Frey thought, “So this is how you do it : Elbow grease, time, thought, persistence.”

While other neighbors wanted to murder Browne for playing the same phrase from “Doctor My Eyes” for six weeks, Frey was more than happy that he learned what he needed.

Maybe you’ve had an idea for creative work. You stepped into writing a song or a story, then suddenly in disconcert, you thought “Ah this idea sucks”, and you gave up on the draft, thinking that you’re just not cut out for it, or the craft.

What if the idea isn’t as bad as you think? What if it’s just you who gave up too early?

You’re not bad at what you do. You’re just bad at keeping ideas on hold. You just lack what the poet John Keats called a “negative capability” — The ability to embrace uncertainties and doubts in your work, to hold back the need to throw in your own judgments and criticism.

Creating work requires you to be fully present, to enjoy the slow boil of the process. And you can’t do this if you just want a piece of work out right away.

It takes time, sometimes a lot of time, for your ideas to really develop, to form a picture that makes sense. Things don’t usually happen when you want them to.

Just as Jackson Browne did in his songwriting, you really need to honor the process. Because the effort you spend focusing on the end product is the effort you don’t spend on actually making your work as good as it can be. That’s a huge opportunity cost right there.

So, keep this in mind when you see a complete piece of work anywhere — That it’s born from a process. No scammy overnight successes, no silver bullets, no thinking that you’re an untouchable genius.

It might even be tempting to see this article as an easy idea that I just pulled out of my hat and immediately wrote. Though saying this could potentially make my writing look less sexy — In actuality, a single article comes from reading a ton of material, devouring documentaries, scribbling notes, transferring those notes onto notecards, then getting the ideas, piecing the ideas together, creating an outline for the article, and then writing the article.

It’s only when you focus on the process that you can filter the ideas, make a lot of improvements, and do other things necessary to make your work as best as possible.

For this reason, you’ve got to remind yourself that the process is the boss — And I mean that. Plenty of times creating good work requires you to put aside your cherished visions of how you want it to be, giving up your most beloved ideas when they don’t fit the picture. Doing otherwise will only make your work seem dishonest.

For me, in writing these articles, this happens quite a lot, and I have to remind myself that I can’t dictate the process. Sometimes they take an unexpected turn, and it’s always for the better.

Last year, I wanted to work on an article called “A Personal Commentary on Selected Bob Dylan Songs” —  As I started to explain in length about why Dylan winning the Nobel Prize in Literature was truly significant and relevant, I felt, “Crap, I’d might as well write a whole article about why literature isn’t limited to books.” — All of my energy and focus were shifted towards that direction, and I ended up writing “Exploring Music As Literature“.

More recently, I had all the plans for a big article called “Making Work Lifelike” — But I came to realize that it was too wide, and that I would to do it better justice by splitting it into different articles and letting them stand in their own space. So that became “The Ultimate Goal in Creating Work“, “Life is a Playground of Inspiration“, and “The Best Art is Impersonal“.

You might feel that something is still holding you back from going out there and creating work. Maybe it’s writer’s block (or any equivalent term) as we hear about, more often than we should.

Siding with Seth Godin’s view, I honestly don’t believe that writer’s block exists. Rather, what exists is our fear of putting out bad work.

Writing and making bad stuff is scary, I know. It’s tantamount to fearing failure. This fear can really paralyze you if you let it, because it certainly paralyzed me. There were stretches of time where I spent months not writing a single article, because of this fear.

Bob Seger, who acted as a mentor to Glenn Frey in his early songwriting days, advised him that “(The songs) are gonna be bad. But you just keep writing and keep writing,
and eventually, you’ll write a good song.”

And he’s right. If you want to do creative work, you need to come to terms with the unavoidable reality that you will put out bad material out there. But what matters is that you keep creating, and occasionally, a good one comes out.

In fact, you might come to realize that the bad stuff aren’t as bad as you think, anyway — They’re just not on par with your own standards — But if people love them, so what, right?

A beautiful thing about creative work is that there’s no competition. You’re just marshaling whatever resources you have, with whatever ideas that come in mind, making the most out of everything. You make mistakes, you learn from your trials and errors, and you start again.

It’s an endless process of picking things back up and starting out with a new clean slate. Over and over again.

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