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.

Remember This When All Of Your Writing Plans Blow Up

When everything goes crazy in your life, and your plans for your writing blow up: what can you do? What can you count on? I've got your answers here. | lucyflint.com

I am a recovering control freak. (HUGE surprise, right? I know, I know.)

I still have a major fondness for one-hundred-item lists. For plans that map out the next three years with precision. 

I love the idea of my personal universe clicking along, on well-oiled gears, everything spinning just as it should.

I love that. It's so tidy.

And when I'm on a planning tear, it feels so, so possible. Give me a calendar and a notepad and a pen, and you will see me work up some serious control-freak euphoria.

There's only one thing more dependable than my desire to plan: The way those plans almost always explode. Or dissolve. Or vanish. 

They tank, they go south, they self-destruct. Swept overboard by crises, illness, injuries.

(What's that? Oh yes. I'm still fending off a four-week sinus-infection-meets-bronchitis supervirus from hell. It has slowed down my writing progress a tiny bit. ... It is also gross.)

Plans blow up, and then I'm reminded—oh, yet again—that I am actually operating in a world that I don't control. 

Whoops.

So I take a little time to recover, to soften my grip on the calendar and the pen and the hundred-item list. I give myself some chocolate, find a cozy blanket, and then remind myself of this quote. 

This fantastic, writing-life-altering quote: 

Teach yourself to work in uncertainty. — Bernard Malamud

That's the kind of quote that used to reduce this control freak to a quivering wreck. Because that is not what I wanted Mr. Malamud to say. 

I wanted him to say: "Never fear, writer! You actually are a little god! You can make everything go your way if you just PLAN HARD. Don't give up!! Fight! Grip it all too tight! Insist on your own version of reality in the face of everything else! Mwahahahaha!!"

He did not say that.

Teach yourself to work in uncertainty.

"Teach yourself to work in uncertainty." - Bernard Malamud // There are three constants in a writer's life: the writer, the work, and uncertainty. Now that we know that, let's write anyway.

Kind of makes it sound like the certain thing in the writing life is actually—its uncertainty

I'm finally waking up to the fact that the thing I can absolutely predict is that there will be chaos, there will be some event that checks my plans, there will be evil-minded germs.

And the writing itself can jump the tracks: Outlines suddenly sound like gibberish. Favorite characters start acting like morons. Dialogue devolves into silly clichéd exchanges. 

An appetite for reading goes dry. A disciplined working routine fizzles. Plans fail.

There is always uncertainty. We can count on it. 

It took me a while to see how hopeful and wonderful Malamud's quote is. Because yes, there is always uncertainty.

But there are also two other constants in that quote. Two other things to be counted on:

There is always the work. That work we're called to, like someone tied a string to our hearts, and tied the other end to stories. 

That work. 

And then, there is always the writer. 

She might be beaten up, she might have suffered loss, she might look like she's just clambered out of a shipwreck.

She might have just drunk all the tea in the house and be sitting amidst a pile of used tissues. (Who, me?) 

She might not be able to save her writing with plans and schedules. She might not be able to see clear to the end of the endeavor like she wants to. 

But that's okay. That's the thing. That's the really, really good news:

There is always uncertainty. There is always the work. And there is always you, my dear lionheart.

And when we train ourselves to work, despite the uncertainty, then we actually become invincible. 

We don't have to understand exactly how we're going to get this draft done on time. We don't have to be able to diagnose all the ills of our upcoming months in advance. 

Spoiler alert: 2016 is NOT going to go according to plan.

Seriously. There is some major stuff heading toward our lives.

Some of these plans for our writing—so neat! so clever! so possible!—will absolutely be swallowed by the perfect storm of crazy that is coming. 

I'm guaranteeing it. 

That used to make me tense and white-knuckled. That used to make me run around, screaming. 

Guess how I thought I'd fix everything? By planning harder.

Granted: A bit of good strategizing will help. Of course it will. 

But it is so easy to get trapped in a cycle of overthinking and overplanning: Let's get all the variables accounted for! Let's find three ways to defeat each obstacle! Let's make a list of forty things I have to do every single day to stay on schedule!!

But the best, best, best thing to do in the face of uncertainty is the work

The ACTUAL work. 

Not planning the work. Not analyzing notes. Not listing new ways to research.

But the real, true, sweet storytelling work itself. 

Craft the next sentence. Write the very next paragraph. Sketch out the next chapter. 

Actual words for the actual story.

Even though you're not sure! Even though everything's shivering and unstable! Write. Even then.

Over the last three years, life has dealt me a serious amount of bizarre and frustrating and crazy circumstances.

Planning has its allure, but it has never, ever saved the day like writing has. 

It gets easier with practice. It comes more naturally. It's a skill we can grow.

So let's practice that together, okay, lionheart? 

Whatever form of uncertainty is facing you right now—whether big life circumstances, or just the normal plain uncertainty of how the heck are you going to finish that novel?!—whatever that is, consider it for a moment.

And then take a really deep breath.

Right now. Yes, really. 

A super deep breath. And then let it all out. Then do it two more times. (Something about three deep breaths. It's a thing. I love it.)

And then do a little writing. It doesn't have to be much. 

Grab an index card and write the very next sentence of your story. A line of dialogue that's spot-on for your protagonist. A smidge of description for your favorite bit of setting.

Write down something, anything, that reconnects you to the heart of the tale you're telling.

Not to the planning. To the work.

Writing is the best medicine, the best antidote, and the best safeguard in the face of uncertainty.

Use it well. And use it often.

(Don't you feel just a little bit better now?)

The secret.

I caught my foot in another cycle of overthinking this afternoon. Overanalyzing, hyperscheduling, visualizing the worst, overplanning. 

I find myself in these cycles a lot.

So, into that bit of madness, this breath of simplicity:

Sometimes, the whole secret to writing is just this: sitting down. | lucyflint.com

Because sometimes, that really is all I need to know. 

Sometimes that's the only rule I need to keep.

And sometimes, I need to remember that it can be that simple.

You write by sitting down and writing. -- Bernard Malamud