Tag Archives: writing process

Creativity Hack: Forget Goals, Focus on the Process

Have you ever noticed how the best writing reads like it sprung from the page spontaneously with an undeniable clarity and logic, like it wasn’t so much written by the author as discovered?

FullSizeRender_2Watching the closing ceremonies of the Olympics with my wife and daughters last night, it was impossible not to realize to how hard every one of those athletes had trained and worked and sacrificed to get there, not to mention their families and friends. Clearly, they were uncommonly focused on their goals.

But less obviously, in order to endure and continue, in order to transcend raw effort and brute strength necessary to reach the level of play, each of them also had to see the work of training as a process, and largely forget about the product, the result.

Like famed writing teacher Donald M. Murray said, this writing thing has to be about process.

Yes, your processing of life and all the seemingly pointless and repetitive pondering and pontificating is absolutely productive.

It’s true, but some part of you still doesn’t believe that. It’s okay. I have proof….

IMG_7217I make a conscious effort to focus on motivation in these little screeds, and the reason, my dear fighting writers, is that when you write, it’s absolutely essential to know your true motives. At least as much as is possible. And of course, that’s far easier said than done because we’re all strangers to ourselves. But in writing, we’re always teaching, and that demands a certain respect for the fact that often, though we’d like to be helpful, insightful and life-wise, we aren’t even aware of the most basic facts.

For instance, the fact is you have to first possess the instruction yourself before you can give it to readers. It’s one thing to know what’s right–it’s quite another to do it. And so many times, I’ll catch myself saying things to writers I myself haven’t yet mastered or put into practice. 

The other day, I caught myself saying: “It’s important to write every day. Be sure to pay attention to your process and record the challenges and changes you notice. When you fail to write one day, set yourself a more achievable goal for the next day.” 

Seems like practical, logical advice. Maybe I should start applying it….

FullSizeRenderOh, sure. I’m busy with many other books. But everyone is busy. And maybe I’ve got too many stories roaming around my head, but who doesn’t? Those aren’t completely invalid, but they’re still just excuses.

Are you this way too? You’d rather serve as channel for the wisdom? Maybe see others benefit through you rather than be a direct recipient? Why do we do that? Why resist what we know we need? Is it fear of change? Simple laziness? Dogged immaturity maybe?

I think I know, at least in my case. It goes back to something I wrote a while back on fear of success. If I took my own advice and it worked, I’d be forced to admit the time I’ve wasted. And worse, I’d be responsible not just for that, but for the new path I’d be taking and for staying on it. I couldn’t slack off and use the old excuses for my limitations.

And maybe that honest assessment is exactly why I’ve needed this blog for 12 years.

FullSizeRender_3I’ve also learned an essential lesson from all the piano lessons my grandma bought me and my mom forced me to do.  Holding a lot at once to make it come out your fingers is never automatic. The secret is discipline, something none of us have until we learn it.

There’s the process of scales and chords and arpeggios. There’s the process of learning to read music. There’s the process of exercising and strengthening fingers, working through resistance, and becoming aware of all the things you must remember. And who knows how long it will take? But even as that’s all slowly happening, there’s the process of synthesizing it all as your grasp grows.

It’s the same with learning a sport or learning to read or to drive or to write. The process of learning requires processing, and it is productive because that’s how you come to possess the learning.

Processing is how we learn to apply our new ability to produce results, the product of our training.

FullSizeRender_1New York Times bestselling author Elizabeth Gilbert shares that Tom Waits taught her “about the process of songwriting that can apply also to the process of making art, the process of writing a book.” 

She said Tom said, “Every single song has its own individual character and you can’t treat each song the same way, because it wants to be treated differently and there are songs that are like scared birds that you have to sneak up on over the course of months in the woods.” 

I think that’s true of stories and playing piano and great sport performances as well. There are times when the work and the sweat and the hours of hammering on technique and process fall away and all that’s left is the unvarnished beauty of an artist at play. And that’s what I want to see when I read–that’s what we all want to see and want to produce.

But to get to that product, we have to first love the process. 

Just do your thing today, writer. Show up. And speak the words for the love of this incredible higher purpose…


Writing Is a Process, Not a Product

I absolutely love the classic wisdom from Donald M. Murray, Teach Writing as a Process Not Product.

Speaking to English teachers and writing instructors, he says too often we become frustrated because we focus on the product, which is subpar. We want literature and what we’re holding is obviously not it. So we use our training and attempt to point out the errors with the product.


Danish painter Peter Ilsted, Interior with a Young Girl Writing, 1905

“The product doesn’t improve, and so blaming the student—who else?—we pass him along to the next teacher, who is trained, too often, the same way we were. Year after year the student shudders under a barrage of criticism, much of it brilliant, some of it stupid, and all of it irrelevant. No matter how careful our criticisms, they do not help the student since when we teach composition we are not teaching a product, we are teaching a process.”

Many people remember that shudder in English class…. How many beleaguered souls might find it hugely freeing to see their writing work as a process rather than a product?

And what is the process?

Murray: “It is the process of discovery through language. It is the process of exploration of what we know and what we feel about what we know through language. It is the process of using language to learn about our world, to evaluate what we learn about our world, to communicate what we learn about our world.”

Imagine the freedom if instead of striving to be finished writing, we sought to learn how to communicate well through writing. Not to complete the collection of all the right words just yet, but to continue the search for the one best word.

To get into that frame of mind, we first have to let go of that tyrannical concept of the “Product-as-End-Goal.”

“This is not a question of correct or incorrect, of etiquette or custom. This is a matter of far higher importance. The writer, as he writes, is making ethical decisions. He doesn’t test his words by a rule book, but by life. He uses language to reveal the truth to himself so that he can tell it to others. It is an exciting, eventful, evolving process.”

We can make this important shift easier by dividing the process into three stages: prewriting, writing, and rewriting. And how much time each stage requires depends on personality, work habits, maturity in the craft, and how hard it is to say what we’re trying to say….

…but how long it takes is not an issue once you break the habit of focusing on product over process.

Pasteurized process "cheez" product.
Mmm. Processed cheese product.

I think this is why it’s so difficult for consumer-blind Westerners: everything but everything is a product. We like measurable things. Tangible things. We like results.

How much? How many? How long? How difficult? How quick? 

Try to think of one thing in your life where you’re interested in the process and not the result. Go ahead, I’ll wait….


Coffee? Nope.


Try again.
Commuting? That’s all about the anticipated result.


Hmm. Okay, sure. There may be a gender difference on this one...
Sex? Well, okay. There may be a slight gender difference involved in this one…


We even make recreational things like reading and watching movies about what it produces, i.e. “results-oriented” instead of merely enjoying the process. If something can’t be measured and quantified, we don’t even want to deal with it.

And the habit is so ingrained at this point, many don’t even notice they’re doing it. To say this is a problem for writers is a gross understatement.

Gamely, Murray tries to quantify the time involved for prewriting, writing, and rewriting processes. Prewriting–researching, daydreaming, note-making and outlining–may take about 75-85% of a writer’s time.

Writing, merely producing the first draft, “the fastest part of the process and the most frightening” (because you soon find out how much you don’t know and have to face how rough, searching and unfinished your work is), this takes about 1% of your total time!

How many writers just starting out realize this? And how many could save themselves a ton of grief if they did? (Well, now you know, so ease up, my friend. Writers are ALWAYS prewriting!)

Rewriting, reconsidering your subject, form, audience, vision, intent, viability, and all the prewriting elements too (research, notes, outline), takes the remaining 14-24% of your time. Murray says in rewriting, everything is rethought and redesigned until finally a line-by-line edit, in which “the demanding, satisfying process of making each word right” is faced.

So the whole writing process–from prewriting to writing to rewriting–is involved before there’s any clue what the end product will be.

Why, then, do we focus on product?

And this is not to mention that rewriting can take many times the hours required for writing the first draft!

I hope some of you will say “Duh! Of course!” But have you retrained your brain to relax and accept that you’re in a process? This is the number one problem I run into as a book coach. Even many published writers don’t understand that several rewritten drafts are required before a book is ready for a line-by-line edit. We need the best raw material on the page first.

Otherwise, I’m getting paid to polish turds.

Each draft may progress in a particular area–characters and supporting characters, plot and subplots, theme and metaphor, and setting, dialogue and tone. But slow, careful drafting is what eliminates the distractions and inconsistencies.

It’s also where you learn what you’re really writing. (And no, there’s no shortcut to that discovery, but I’m absolutely convinced it’s the difference between bestsellerdom and obscurity.)

Bottom line, writers who would be professionals must realize the writing craft requires shifting focus from the end goal to the “in medias res”–the “in-the-middle-of” getting there.

How many of the world’s most beloved works went through complete rewrites and multiple drafts? The vast majority? All of them? Does it matter how many once the final draft is done?

More importantly: how much fear, tension and stress could be alleviated if you focused on the process of writing rather than the product?

[Part 2, “How to Be a Great Edit” and avoid editing the heart out of your work is here…]

A Life Worth Sharing

You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship. – Anne Lamott

I suppose this is my song for today…

So we chose the house 4 years ago largely for its amazing backyard. I envisioned writing retreats where we’d sit out on the deck and talk shop, then zip-line down to the tea house for cheese and wine.

Ah. Someday.


There’s a great winding path the previous owners created that includes many features along the way. Currently, the features are mole holes and an overgrown flagstone waterfall  plastered with leaves and ivy vines.

But the stones are there.

And it seems to me an essential stone in the foundation of the writing process is this recognition that we are all of earth, and therefore subject to its gravity. As we hear the call to come build our wings, eventually we must accept that we’ll have to continue to show up for the building process. That’s where we gain the trust in God who rules the earth and the sky. That’s where he asks those of us who accept this journey not to become something more, but to become less, to empty so he can fill us with his new weightless grace.

I walk the old, leaf-strewn path and I believe that is happening. And as my gratitude for that grows I find the trust I need to continue showing up for the building every day.


That’s the writing life we’re all on together–that’s being on the path.

And maybe like the backyard of my dreams, it’s not the end result that will make it so worthwhile. It’s appreciating we’re all in a process, like a big old ship slowly getting there that makes the whole experience a place worth being, a story worth telling.

And maybe trusting who’s behind that process is the way to a life worth sharing….

Ending My Struggle For Art

“[Art] is a means of union among men, joining them together in the same feelings, and indispensable for the life and progress toward well-being of individuals and of humanity.”

― Leo Tolstoy, What Is Art?


Art, like faith, requires nothing so much as imagination.

Yet as a Christian and as an artist, I tend to get so crumpled up by so many things.

Of course, there’s a place for being focused on results. What’s practical. “Reality.” But so often, all that just gets in the way. At the start at least, I have to ignore all that. Even if it means not knowing what’s happening elsewhere.

Somehow, I keep thinking that in finishing this book, this product, is how I will finally be free, me, defined. I don’t know. It’s so embarrassing to admit, but at its core, it’s a lie–a simple lack of imagination.

I’m forgetting my process. I’m forgetting yet again that nothing comes from nothing.

What raises an artist to his or her greatest height is not the final work but the daily work.


I want to create art and capture well-chosen words for books.

And yet, even with my best intentions, it gets life-draining when I forget that I and my art are not defined by the results. I get depleted because I stop believing art is only defined by its process.

And this artist is only defined by one man.

Why do I keep forgetting? Why is this my continual lesson, how to value the basic foundational process?

This is my real work, the point of the art, the pursuit of the process and what it reveals about life and God and my place as his vessel.

Art can’t create value or status. It’s the Giver, and through this creative process, I learn and am caused to grow into who I’m becoming.

If anything can make art more worthwhile than ordinary life, it must be that.


This simple process of creating art, it’s working through the constant changes of life. Each tiny, tremendous discovery is more of my place within it. Secrets are spoken and brought into the light and understanding grows, and hence its value. And with every new discovery, more and more I see the struggle as necessary.

Each step by incremental step, all we rely upon is visible in the work process. Struggle brings motivation. The pain, it makes true joy recognizable. Isolation, rejection, frustration, it all births a greater appreciation of commitment and community. And the strength to speak it all, it rises from the knowledge that these truths have incubated in the dark for years and they demand my respect and my full attention.

The process, it grows my understanding of the Higher Purpose, through all I’ve lived through, learned and been prepared to share.

Seeing this and appreciating it, this is the real point of making art. Valuing the process and all its shaping influences.


But all of that floats away when I get distracted again.

Ultimately the reason the process is so important is because it reminds me that there’s only one place where I can start. And it’s where I will end up. It’s the beginning, the core, and the end of the process–


If I haven’t taken the time to listen to Jesus, how can I expect to have anything of value to share? We’re but channels for inspiration, we have to listen to the source!

The process is so critical to me because it means just this, time and time again: Stop. Wait. And listen.

You’d think I’d start remembering eventually, wouldn’t you?

Luckily, there’s a story about this.


Mark 9:2-9: “Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus.

Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.)

Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”

Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.”

It’s painfully familiar. Peter just wants to get doing something instead of what he should be doing.

i.e. nothing. i.e. listening. i.e. processing.


Don’t I realize I have nothing to say unless I listen to Jesus?

I want to speak. I want to help. I want to be heard.

We can only give when we’ve received. We can only give if he’s given. 

The process is about relearning this until it finally sinks in deep. Maybe like Peter, it takes a lot for me to be able to hear. Maybe the only way to know the depth of love I want to share is through this struggle to receive it.

Maybe this is the only way because I have to be made willing.

The process for me is to get my will out of the way of his will. And I guess I just don’t believe that until I learn it again.

Dang it, I’m the cause of the lion’s share of my struggle.

How much of me is still not what he has made? And who am I in the end if I’m in the way of who I’m ultimately becoming?


We can be disappointed with where we are. Or we can start where we are. That’s the choice (and of course by “start,” I mean Stop. Wait. And listen.)

I guess I do believe God will use whatever we give him.

So maybe it comes down to that one word: will. My will for His.

Am I willing?

“I am wrapped in mortality,

my flesh is a prison,

my bones the bars of death.

What is mortality

but the things related to the body,

which dies?

What is immortality

but the things related to the spirit,

which lives eternally?

What is the joy of heaven

but improvement

of the things of the spirit?

What are the pains of hell

but ignorance and bodily lust,

idleness and devastation

of the things of the spirit?

The imagination is not a state,

it is human existence itself.”

– William Blake

For His Perfect Will, that is the Higher Purpose,