Why I'm Embracing Total Inefficiency (In Other Words, How Do You Do Your Best Work?)

When we try to learn the way *other* people learn, it doesn't always work out so well. Here's a bit of encouragement for embracing your own natural process. | lucyflint.com

Welcome to April, my friend! I don't know what the weather's been like for you, but where I live, it's been cloudy and stormy and cloudy again—both outside, and inside my own writerly heart.

I've found myself slogging through waves of discouragement, some internal dark, rainy days. So I thought: Why not? Let's spend April tackling two sources of deep discouragement in the writing life. 

I'm calling it our Anti-Glum First Aid Kit. *high five*

First up: I've been struggling with the way my learning-to-write path has looked. For starters, it's LONG. And it's darned hard to explain, when someone asks me why I'm not published just yet.

How about you? Has the learning process been smooth sailing all the way?

No? Great, we can keep each other company. ;) Let's tackle this together, my friend, and shed that discouragement.


I've always admired people who seemed to learn in a straight line. Who could understand something fairly quickly and reproduce it. People who manage to absorb foreign languages, or who can do math in their heads.

I love that. I think it's awesome. And I keep trying to learn like that: in a quick and orderly way. 

... But that's just never been me. 

My mind tends to waltz up to something sideways. Or it comes wandering around, behind the solution, and then stumbles into it. And that's usually after passing it by three or four times. 

Take math: I've never been able to do math in my head and I never felt natural or easy with numbers. But it wasn't obvious to my classmates in school, because I took serious math classes and did really well in them.

The key to my math success? TONS of scrap paper. 

If you gave me enough scrap paper, I could figure almost anything out. Of course, I'd fill every sheet, and I needed time to meander all over the map before I got to the solution, but I usually did get there.

And it wasn't just math. That's how I learned anything, in any class: with a lot of paper, and a lot of time.

When I studied for finals, I would get a huge stack of scrap paper and rewrite the highlights from the whole semester's notes. And then I read them through, highlighted those, and rewrote the most important parts again.

And on, and on. I distilled and re-distilled. Lots of paper. Lots of time. ... Then I'd go ace the finals.

It was a crazy process, but it actually worked.

The more I look at my learning history, the more I see evidence of this—the roundabout path I take toward the right answers. 

It's how I make friends, how I make changes, how I learn any new concept.

I always, always take the long way around. I cycle past the truth a few times before coming to rest on it. I need to learn and relearn before it takes, working it through and summarizing, again and again.

... I've been thinking of this because I feel like I'm learning to write novels exactly backwards.

For one thing, I started at the wrong end of the whole enterprise, obsessing about what comes last: money! fame! ... Okay, okay, I mean: Publication. ;)

I wanted that result. I spent so much time flailing around to try and figure out how to get there, and—until recently—I didn't spend time learning how to do what comes first: building habits, working on great ideas, figuring out how creativity works, structuring a solid story.

And now that I'm finally focused on those good things, I find myself processing and reprocessing the best way to do each one.

I look over my learning-to-write path, and I'm chagrined because it's not a clean, clear path.

It is so not how anyone would recommend learning how to write.

It's all patchworky. It's a mass of scribbles and backtracks, broken ends and do overs.

And I was kicking myself over this—over all the time I've wasted and all the wrong directions and how long it's taking me—when suddenly I realized: 

Huh. Sounds familiar.

Sounds like how I've learned a lot of things.

Sounds like how I did math. Flail around, fill tons of scrap pages, take way too long, but then—I do finally get to the good stuff. 

Well, shoot, I thought. That's not exactly what the productivity blogs say to do. Flailing isn't efficient. Bad Lucy.

But then, but then, I thought: OH, WAIT. This is actually good news. REALLY good news.

Because, inefficient or not, it actually works for me. This is how I got stellar grades. Top of my class in high school—not that I'm bragging, because it was flailing and scratch paper all the way.

Which means, no matter how weird it looks—backwards and forwards and backwards again—in spite of all that, this is what it looks like when I'm learning

My roundabout learning-to-write process doesn't mean I'm doing a terrible job, it means I am doing my job. It means I'm working my process. It means I'm finding my way, because this is how I find my way!

No wonder I keep taking a zillion notes on how my process is going, and why I distill them, again and again, into this blog. This is just how I learn.

I've never been able to take the shortest distance between two points. I have wanted to—oh, so much—but somehow, that's just not how my mind works.

And each time I try to beat my own brain and take a shortcut, the path zags yet again. And it's still the long way around, baby.

I am, alas, never going to be the poster child for anyone's productivity system. I convolute. It's my natural process. 

But even though the path I'm taking looks bizarre, I'm actually on my way to the center of the maze. And given time enough and paper enough, I have a history of making it to the center of a lot of mazes. It's never elegant, but I do get there. 

... Realizing all that has calmed me down these last few weeks. Filled my pockets with courage.

My job isn't to try and learn like other people learn. My job is simply to learn. The way I learn.

So here's my question to you, oh lionhearted writing friend: What's your usual learning process? And are you beating yourself up for learning how to write the way you best learn?

Are you comparing your own process—however it looks—to anyone else's process, and feeling like a failure as a result?

How do you learn? It can be hard to spy on ourselves, so think through your own history: how have you learned hard things in the past? Especially anything that had a lot of steps in it, a complicated array of systems all working together. What did that look like for you?

What happened in your head, with your hands, how you thought? When did you get your best results?

How can you work with your natural process instead of against it? How can you be your own best support? 

Release the idea that your process has to look the same as anyone else's. No matter how much you may admire them, they're not you. 

Here, check out this lovely encouragement from Bernard Malamud (taken from the book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, ed. Mason Currey). When discussing work habits, Malamud told an interviewer:

There's no one waythere's too much drivel about this subject. You're who you are, not Fitzgerald or Thomas Wolfe. You write by sitting down and writing. ... You suit yourself, your nature. ... Eventually everyone learns his or her own best way. The real mystery to crack is you. 

That quote just fills me with optimism. We will learn our own best way! (And I, for one, will be rocking out the eventually part of that line. Just keep that scrap paper coming, and I'll be set.)

However it looks, embrace your own process, my friend.

Lean in to how you best learn.