Productivity has been on my mind a lot these past weeks. The new year always makes me want to reevaluate my creative process and push myself to become a more productive writer. This year in particular this topic has felt very relevant to me.
Between launching DIY MFA 101 and getting ready for a new baby, productivity has been the theme for January. It seems fitting then that the first workshop for DIY MFA 101 should emphasize productivity, motivation and building good habits.
Today, I wanted to share the key take-away I got from putting this workshop together and the incredible tool I discovered that made me a much more productive writer.
Success Is Not About Getting It Right the First Time
Like most writers, I’m a perfectionist and I expect peak performance from myself the very first time I create anything. If a genie could grant me one wish with my writing it would be to always get things right the first time. What I realized in the process of creating DIY MFA 101, though, is that not only is this wish unrealistic, it’s actually bad for future productivity and success. Let me explain.
If we get things right the first time, then we have no data showing us how to hit the mark next time. But if we mess up in the beginning and slowly teach ourselves techniques to hit the mark, then we become reliably better. We won’t just hit a bullseye as a fluke, we’ll learn through practice how to hit our target every single time.
The Key to Success and Productivity is Iteration
What’s iteration? Simply put, it’s when you keep trying things out and tweaking your process until you get it right. This approach is huge in the tech startup world, where programmers develop rudimentary Beta versions and continually improve the product in subsequent updates. We think nothing if a piece of software creates an update to fix bugs and other problems, yet as writers we often beat ourselves up for the slightest imperfections, both in our writing projects and in our process itself.
I’m here to tell you that it’s OK to be imperfect. It’s OK to mess up. Go ahead, try a writing technique out and if it doesn’t work, just ditch it and try something else.
There are two sides to iteration. The first is we must be persistent and keep writing, even when it’s hard or painful and crafting each word feels like pulling teeth. On the flip-side, though, iteration also means letting go of habits or techniques that aren’t working for you. As writers, we sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that just because a certain technique worked for another great writer, it should work for us. Then when that technique doesn’t work, we feel like there’s something wrong with us because that other writer’s method didn’t take.
For example, when I read Stephen King’s memoir On Writing, I was very shaken by the part where he talks about his writing and reading habits. According to King, a “real writer” must write 2000 words per day and read upwards of 80 books in a year. I tried following his advice, really I did. And I failed miserably and felt horrible about my writing. That was when it hit me that Stephen King’s writing habits might work for Stephen King, but that didn’t necessarily mean they would work for Gabriela Pereira, or any other writer for that matter. I realized that I needed to test out my own writing habits and find something that worked for me.
After that, with a long-time process of trial and error, I discovered that I write best in late morning and late afternoon, that I do my best work with headphones on and music blaring, and that I need short, contained blocks of time. For reading, I’ve found that 25-30 books per year is my “sweet spot” and that I love reading on public transit or late at night under the covers with a book light (like I did when I was a kid). Without iteration I’d probably still be mentally flogging myself for not writing 2000 words per day and reading 80+ books per year.
Why Does Iteration Work?
The answer is threefold. First, iteration makes you mindful of your work habits and writing process. Next, it also pushes you to adopt a meta-view about your writing, which can lead to more objectivity. Finally, iteration keeps us humble and challenges us to embrace failures as part of the creative process. Let’s delve into these three reasons further, shall we?
You become a more mindful writer.
When you iterate and test out different aspects of your writing process, it pushes you to become a more mindful writer. Mindfulness and meditation are techniques that I’ve been exploring, both in my writing life and my real life over the years. The idea of mindfulness is to become aware of your mind–to observe your thoughts and where they go– but then to be able to let them go.
When you practice iteration in your writing process, it makes you more aware of your habits: both what works and what doesn’t. As you iterate and observe your habits, you’ll become better able to shape your process and become more a more effective and productive writer.
You adopt a meta mindset.
This goes hand-in-hand with mindfulness. When you iterate and test your process, it pushes you to adopt a meta-view of your writing. This creates a certain distance between you and your work, distance that can help you gain a more objective perspective about your project.
We writers can get very emotionally involved with our writing. Our characters become like close friends and the world of our writing becomes a private sanctuary. When it comes time to evaluate our work, this emotional connection makes us very biased. When we embrace iteration as part of our writing process, it creates a distance between us and our writing and this distance can make us more objective about our work.
You can embrace failure as part of the process.
Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
This is one of my favorite quotes because it gets at the heart of what iteration is all about. In order to iterate, we must embrace failure and mistakes as a central part of our creative process. Failure is not some big, scary thing. It’s part of the game. I like to think of it as sort of like playing golf. I’ve tried to learn, but when it comes to hand-eye coordination, I’m hopeless. Many of my cousins and other relatives play so I grew up hearing a lot of golf talk.
Here’s the thing: the whole idea with golf is getting the lowest possible score. You would think, then, that the ultimate victory–the epitome of perfection (at least in theory)–would be to score a “zero.” Here’s the catch: if you score a “zero” that means you didn’t actually play the game. The minute you step out onto the tee and take you’re first swing, you’re getting an imperfect score. Failure and imperfection is built into the premise of the game. In order to play you have to fail.
We need to embrace failure as being a core part of the creative process, just as it is a core part of playing golf. When we fail, let’s celebrate and embrace that fact. It means we’re out there, playing the game and doing the work.
Then let’s turn around and try to fail better.
DIY MFA 101 is Open for Registration
This concept of iteration is only one of the many important topics we’re covering in the first installment of DIY MFA 101. In this article we discussed why iteration is important, but in the first workshop you’ll learn tons of techniques on how to make it happen. Want to learn more about the course?
Check out the DIY MFA 101 registration page.
Hurry! Registration closes on January 31.