Saturday, February 2, 2008

Be Prolific...

...Then you can throw away everything that you don't like an you'll still have something left over. That's the advice a friend gave me today. We were talking about writing music, but it's a principle that surely holds for all creative endeavors. Not every attempt will turn out to be good.
How many bad light bulbs did Edison make before the one that worked? By going through the motions of creating, by making the honest effort, we learn something. We may not learn enough. But writing, as I've said before, is a process by which we learn, and so every time we make a serious effort to write something down, we learn something valuable. Very often, the valuable lesson is that we haven't got it right and that what we did try isn't going to work. But that doesn't mean it's not a valuable lesson. It may well be the most valuable lesson we can learn at that moment. Learning what won't work is not to be dismissed as negative learning: it is still an increase in our understanding of what we're doing.

Yesterday I was working with a client who was complaining that when he wrote things down they didn't work. He was just starting to refine a general topic idea into a more serious, and more carefully thought-out proposal draft. But he was getting so frustrated--we would talk about the ideas, and we'd start to get some semblance of a form, and he'd want to stop and write it down. But shortly thereafter we would also see that what he had just stopped to write down wasn't going to work in some way, too. The key, I kept emphasizing, was to work on clarifying the ideas in his head--to start to try to refine and tease out the structure of the argument that he was using, so that instead of just talking around a topic and instead of just talking around a research question, he had some sense of how that research question fit into a larger body of theory and how to turn that somewhat-general research question into an actual research project. It doesn't come easy. The different ideas surrounding a topic are myriad and their interplay is complex. Working out the ideas is a necessary first step, but even then, once you've gotten an idea of what the ideas are, you still have to try to get that down on paper and that's a whole different task. After all, the ideas in our head aren't matched in form with the ideas we put down in a paper--for one thing, the ideas in our head are present and interacting simultaneously and the ideas we put down on paper have to take a specific order. If you're dealing with, for example, three different ideas and their interaction who's to say what the right order to put them on paper is? In our heads the three may all follow from and lead to each other.

So what do we do? We try to find one specific expression of putting them on paper. And then we try another. And another, and so on. In the process we refine our ideas about the concepts, and also we refine our ideas about how to present those concepts in a written form. We can't do it without trying. Sure, maybe there are some people out there who can get it all to come out right on the first try, but what proportion of the population is that? Many who have been successful have tried, and tried, and tried, and thrown away one draft after another until the final moment when they found the one that works. Therefore, be prolific--it provides you with the opportunity to throw away what isn't working because you'll find something that is working.

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