Linear vs Circular - Mari Biella

I recently read this very interesting post by Lauren Sapala, in which she argued – very convincingly, to my mind – that writers, by pressuring themselves to achieve goals, can actually hinder their progress. In the post, she made a very simple but, to me, quite startling point, which in turn provoked one of those “lightbulb” moments, when I thought, “Ah-ha! So that’s where I’ve been going wrong all this time!” She says:

Our culture tends to think of time as linear. It moves forward in a straight line. So if you want to get anything done, you need to move forward in a straight line as well. And the most popular method used in our culture to conquer this straight line is to push ourselves. This push is commonly referred to as "drive" or "motivation".

Of course, very often writers have their own particular set of motivations. They want to get their novel finished, and preferably by a certain date. They plan to submit it to publishers, or upload it as an eBook, by a given date. They put pressure on themselves to make x number of sales, or to garner a certain number of reviews, or any number of other things.

And of course this is all reasonable enough. Cover design, editing, publishing, selling – these are for the most part practical tasks, well suited to a linear outlook. Yet it’s also a viewpoint that sometimes seeps through into the purely creative side of our work. Writers might beat themselves up if they fail to write x number of words per day, or don’t write quite well enough, or have only a nebulous idea of a certain plot point or a given character. It’s easy to be hard on ourselves, to take on the role of both the quivering slave and the whip-cracking slave driver. We should be doing more, better, quicker!

Row faster, slave!

The goal-driven mentality is, of course, one that we’re all familiar with, and often for very good reasons. The practical business of life, whether it’s going to the supermarket, attending a job interview, or making the dinner, can all be viewed as linear: you do x in order to do y, hopefully with the final projected outcome of z. In many areas of life, that outlook makes absolute sense, which is perhaps why we’ve come to see it as the correct one.

But is this goal-oriented, linear outlook really compatible with creativity? When we attempt to measure our creative work against the linear model, might we not actually be hindering our own progress?
Going around in circles is frowned upon in today’s world, because how are you ever going to travel further down that straight line if you’re just going round and round? Circular movement is aimless, repetitive, and – crucially – it doesn’t have a clear goal in mind. We should be moving forward, not wasting time – or so, at least, our cultural background suggests.

Circular movement is not necessarily like this...

But creative writing – and creativity in general – are, it seems to me, not particularly well-suited to the linear model. Instead, they are often circular activities. Whether you’re working out the intricacies of a character’s personality, or trying to decide whether this phrase or that image actually does what you want it to do, or wondering whether a plot point is really feasible, you’re often digging away at the same mental ground, sifting through ideas and impressions that you’ve already examined, searching for that little piece of gold that got lost amidst the mud and sand before. Trying to impose a time limit on such activities is pointless, at least in my experience; they take as long as they take.

Much of my creative work takes place in that relaxed, contemplative state when I’m not actually writing anything, or indeed doing much at all. A non-creative person might deride this state as idling or time wasting. It is neither. This is the period when mental connections are forged, when imagery flowers, when seemingly disparate ideas and elements begin to amass and form a new entity with its own gravitational field, which in turn pulls in still more elements. This period cannot be forced, or measured out in days, weeks, or months. Either it has its own timescale – a timescale quite separate to that of linear, non-creative output – or it is somehow timeless. Motivation, as such, doesn’t really come into it. I often don’t have a particular goal in mind during this period.

Of course, we need some motivations – if we had none at all, why would we even bother to write our stories down, let alone publish them? But we should perhaps be wary of applying the goal-oriented outlook to the creative process. Might it not be a little like applying the laws of flight to a fish?

What do people think?


JO said…
I agree. I'm at my least creative when I'm trying. If I can let go of thinking I 'ought' to be writing, publishing, marketing, and remind myself I do this because I love it, then the words are far more likely to flow.
Susan Price said…
Mari, Jo - completely agree with you both. I often think it's like the game of chess in Carroll's 'Through the Looking Glass.' There, Alice finds that no matter how hard and fast she walks, or even runs, towards the other side of the chess-board, she gets further away. When she turns her back on it and strolls in the opposite direction, she arrives.

I think both creativity and originality are like that. The more you try to be original, the less original you are - because you're reacting against, something others have already done.
So drift, dream, do and think of other things - and let the writing take care of itself. Until it comes to the editing, of course.
Debbie Bennett said…
Oh thank you! Now I have a valid reason for daydreaming and moching round aimlessly on facebook and in real life!

I am just starting to understand myself well enough to know when I need to push and when I need to back off and walk away.
Dennis Hamley said…
Many years ago, I was given a memorable school report for A level History. 'Exhibits gusts of tremendous earnestness for this subject, interspersed with long periods of calm oblivion to its very existence.' I used to think that it chronicled a character defect. Now I think it's a good description of my - and many others' - creative processes. Great post, Mari.
Lydia Bennet said…
Yes I agree with you, forcing ourselves to consider output or productivity as in a factory doesn't always help creative work which needs time to steep and coalesce. Ironically, trying to do those things you list as more suited to a linear approach, can often feel more like the hamster wheel - computer and formatting problems getting in the way of ebook publishing for example!
Nick Green said…
And "Trying to have an idea" is the hardest thing of all...
Susan Price said…
Oh God, yes, Nick - I can remember 'trying to have an idea' when I was a teenager. Brow furrowed with concentration: Come on, brain!

It was my Dad who told me that you can't have an idea - you have to wait until one turns up. I didn't believe him, until experience taught me otherwise.
dritanje said…
Best model of time or life or creativity for me is the labyrinth with its sweeping circular pathways, where you retrace your directions but you never go back over exactly the same area twice.
A great article!

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