parchment, inkwell, quill and books

I have often, even in this very blog, proclaimed the importance of valuing process over product. It’s something I feel very strongly about when it comes to creative work, for a lot of reasons. So many people avoid creative activities because they’ve been taught to believe that unless art (visual, written or musical) has commercial value, it’s not worth doing. If you don’t have enough natural talent to start making money from it, why even bother? That mindset overlooks all the benefits of creative and artistic activities, for mental health, for personal development, for just plain fun. Everyone should be encouraged to pursue creative activities, no matter what their skill level. Maybe they’ll discover an unknown talent for painting or poetry or piano — you never know. But the main thing is just to enjoy doing it, to challenge yourself, and to connect with the creative possibilities that lie within us all.

On the other hand, there’s nothing wrong with producing a finished, commercially-viable product, either.

When I was writing last week about establishing new habits, I linked to a blog post that had inspired me to battle resistance with a new mindset: If I do this today, it’ll be easier to do it tomorrow. The same blog post includes a second inspiring thought that has helped me stay focused on my goals over the past year. I didn’t include it because I realized that, on some levels, it contradicts the process-over-product philosophy that I have espoused for the past ten years or more, and I needed time to mull it over.

That little bit of of an idea was this: This is a gift for my future self.

Last year, when I was approaching my 50th birthday, this inspiring bit of self-talk turned me on like a light switch. Of course I wanted to gift myself a finished novel on my milestone birthday! Not only would it be momentous goal to check off my bucket list, but there’s literally nothing I like to read more than my own, well-polished prose.1 So this was the perfect idea for me.

And it worked, too! I chewed through last summer’s novel draft, cheering myself on through all the hard parts — late night, after-work writing sessions, sweating away in the hottest corner of the house, butt sticking to the peeling pleather of the broken down computer chair — inspired by the idea that, come March, the best gift of all would come from myself.

Clearly, I ended up disappointing myself. My day job was upended not long after I finished the draft, and that disruption made enough of an opening that resistance was able to sneak in and wreak havoc on my goals. That’s all right. I’ve already worked through all that guilt and self-recrimination for letting myself go astray, and I’m making plans to get back on track. And guess what — I have another birthday next year!

My point is, having a goal that was a finished product absolutely worked for me. Granted, it was framed in a very personal, work-focused way. A goal that included actually selling a book would be pointless and beyond my control. But setting a deadline for a certain amount of work to be completed by a specific date, with a very selfish motivating factor? That’s a worthwhile alchemy.

But what does it mean for process over product?

Looking back at last summer’s writing endeavors, even though it was hard, I have to say it was also a lot of fun. The clicking tock heightened my engagement with the project — I was never not thinking about it — and the melodrama of the race (so to speak) actually made it exciting. Would I hit my word count for the night? What crazy and unexpected things would my madcap creativity spew into the pages? So yes, even though the product was the end goal, it was still a fulfilling process…I think because that end product was just for myself. A gift for future me.

Thank you sticking with me as I figure all this out. I need to assess out why last summer creative venture was a success but the months since have been less successful — both with process and product. Understanding the many layers of creative effort and the resistance that undermines it is the only way I’m going to achieve my creative goals.

So how can I capture that same element of fun that I did in writing the draft so that I can use it in the much more tedious and mindful process of rewriting and editing? I”m not sure. But reminding myself that it’s a gift for my future self will certainly help — maybe I should pick out some lovely wrapping paper and ribbons for it in anticipation.

  1. I’m not kidding. There are things I’ve written that I can read over and over again and still enjoy. Oh, there are things I can’t stand, too, but on the whole I like what I write. I mean, they tell you to write what you want to read — so I do!

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