Productivity as a threat to writing

Last Tuesday I finished the first draft of my second novel. Ta da! I thought, as I pressed save smugly. It’s done. Look at me go. Onwards to literary fame and fortune.

And then on Saturday, when I held the printed manuscript in my hand, I remembered that a first draft is generally something that requires a tremendous amount of work. This is especially true if you write like me, which is at a scene level (as opposed to a sentence level). Sentences, for me, are the building blocks I use to make scenes. Scenes are what keep my story going for me.

I sometimes read great fiction like Ghana must Go or The God of Small Things and want to weep at the beauty of a sentence. Sentences that illuminate the beauty and mastery of the English language in a way that massages your eyeballs. For me though, what inspires me to write are characters who are interacting with one another, and concentrating on the words or sentences I use to get them to do that is less important.

Until the edit.

There I sit with my 200 pages of writing and think, ‘oh wow, it’s sunny outside. I must make this cup of coffee. Goodness, I really haven’t rearranged my underwear drawer lately.’ All these ordinary things suddenly accrue critical importance and I must do them immediately. I can get myself up (most days) at 6am to write, but getting me up to make that writing better is another story entirely.

This leaves me with a sense, in some small way, of failure. Why can’t I invest in myself the way I invest in House of Cards? What is it that holds me back from just getting the job done, when in other aspects of my life I am such a do-er that people find me overwhelming? Why I am I so damn unproductive?

And so it was strange today that I, unproductively and procrastinatively (new word, take that Oxford), stumbled on the University of Iowa podcast series, and chose to listen to one on productivity and writing. The speaker, Eireann Lorsung, talks about how the idea of productivity can sometimes stilt our writing more than it helps it to flourish. She used a metaphor that made me feel so much better about myself, and got me writing, even if it was just this blog. She suggested we think of the writing process like a bulb plant. This bulb is, for the most part, invisible, living under the ground, dormant. But, sometimes, maybe only once in its life, it becomes an above-surface visible flower.

If we think of writing as only the flower, or that outwardly visible product of our labour, of course we’re going to feel like we’re failing. We’re ignoring the extensive and important work that is going on under the surface, the work that takes time and lasts longer. Our everyday activities and interactions with people are the bulbs that generate the stories. They are not a waste of time. We are not failures.

Sometimes the universe sends you exactly what you need, and for me today it was that podcast. Tomorrow I’ll head off to the Franschoek Literary Festival where I will celebrate everyone’s visible flowers, and hope that the fruits of their labour provide the nourishment that my writing bulb plant needs.