Jennifer McLean: The perennial question for writers is the where-do-your-ideas-come-from one. And (while I’m not saying that I wouldn’t like to find out how some authors made their Faustian deal and get in on the room where it happens) I think it’s the wrong question on a number of fronts. At least at this stage of my life, I have hundreds of ideas. It’s non-stop. I always worried about that, but it turns out that the real problem is knowing what to do with them. We’ll probably talk another time about the issue of deciding which ideas are good ones (answer: certainly not the recurring ones I have about musicals), but our topic for today is what we in our chats have been calling Too Many Projects, Not Enough Time.
I don’t think I’m in a position to pronounce on a solution, so I’ll be interested in what you’ve got to say on this. I’m just going to throw in a couple of things I’ve been pondering.
Without a bit of prioritising, it’s really easy to fall into the trap of helpless, anxious unproductivity.
Maybe I’ll come to some of the other points, but what do you think? Should one project be enough, or is there value in the many-pronged approach? How do we avoid burnout? How many of the Hamilton references in the above did you spot, and will we ever be as productive as Lin-Manuel Miranda?
Patience is the name of the game, and being patient sucks.
I work three days a week in a job which is quite intense and draining, and by the time I get to the tail end of the week, which is designated as my writing time, my head’s already spinning. Becoming easily overwhelmed can be part and parcel of being a creative type, because you’re always noticing small stimuli and processing things deeply. I’ve learned that it’s important to respect your own limits and not overload yourself, which can be kind of excruciating when you’re in love with six different novels in your head and you want to write them all today. Patience is the name of the game, and being patient sucks.
The way I get through is to tell myself that projects can wait - and in fact will be better for the waiting. For me, the process which follows the initial idea for a book is effectively years of daydreaming about it while I’m getting on with other things. The longer you do that daydreaming for, the richer the story becomes, so that by the time you sit down to write it you’ve got layers and layers of stuff to draw on from your subconscious.
Currently I have around three different projects living in my head, making demands of me, aside from the thing I’m currently working on. In terms of sticking with things and finishing them, when you’re tempted to jump ship for the new shiny thing, my best advice would be to treat it like a worthwhile relationship: you won’t always feel the romance and sometimes other prospects will look more appealing, but if you commit and put in the work, good things will happen. Does that make sense?
All that said, I was talking to a couple of other friends (what? I know!) about The Zone - you know, that thing that happens maybe once in a blue moon, where you’re so focused and everything’s coming out just right, and the minute you notice, it all falls apart. Like suddenly thinking about your tongue. I still haven’t decided what the ideal conditions for that state are. Is having a number of projects on the go preventing that kind of laser focus, or does the deliberate cultivation of productive distractions actually create space for it?
The first rule of productivity for me is consistency - do it, do it again, finish it.
Magical things happen when you lift away the burden of duty and expectation in writing.
Magical things happen when you lift away the burden of duty and expectation in writing. To bring this full circle and quote our current creative icon Lin-Manuel Miranda, ‘I try not to think of writing as a burden at all. My job is to fall in love.’