The Creative Process – Part 2 – Choosing

CHOOSING is the second stage of the creative process and it starts with a question: what do I write? Inspiration has struck and you’re buzzing with ideas. Now you must choose between them.

Chess board

Choosing is unavoidable if you want to create. In fact, choosing is unavoidable if you want to live. But choosing is hard because it involves making a commitment to one idea over another, or to writing over not writing.

You must also choose to be true to yourself. You live through what you create, so it’s important to choose honestly and deeply. Deep choosing means going for the big themes or difficult concepts, the idea that scares you, the one that torments you at four in the morning, the idea your heart needs to write even though the market may not accept it. I think if you’re not a little scared of the book you’re writing, then you’re probably working on the wrong thing.

I wrote my first novel because I needed to get it out of my system. I knew the subject matter wasn’t marketable and that the book wouldn’t sell much. I wrote it anyway. The story was burning a hole in my head and the only way to make it stop was to write it down. The process wasn’t easy. I’d never written prose before and had no idea if I could write a whole novel, plus the story is based on personal experience. I had to confront myself and dig deep into areas I would normally avoid sharing. Addled: Adventures of a Reluctant Mystic is a perfect example of how not to write a novel – and yet it works. I made the deep choice to write the book that scared me, and it paid off – not financially (!), but in self-knowledge.

Deep choosing means being willing to reveal yourself in your work, to take risks and be unpopular. You always reveal yourself in your writing, even when you’re trying not to, perhaps especially when you’re trying not to.

The creative process involves three types of choice:

  • Choosing what to work on
  • Choosing to work
  • Choosing while working

Taking them in reverse order, choosing while working means all the choices you make as you write. You must choose which words to use and how to say what needs to be said. Which is the best verb for a sentence? Do you need to change the way a scene plays out? Should you include a snippet of research or back story at this point in the book? And so on. Choosing to work means making the decision to actually write in the first place. This might seem to be a choice you make only once, but you’ll need to renew your commitment to your writing every day, and perhaps even while you’re working. It’s easy to get sidetracked or dispirited. Writing is hard work and it’s easier to not write a book than to write one. So the choice to write is one you’ll make over and over.

Now that you’ve make the choice to work, what will you write?

Choosing What to Work On

Your next brilliant idea may come out of the wishing stage: while affirming your desire to create something, the idea pops up and demands your attention. Or it could be an idea you’ve had rattling around in your head for years. Or perhaps it’ll come out of all the excellent thinking you’ve been doing on interesting subjects, giving rise to an idea you have to explore.

Or you may choose to work on something for purely commercial reasons. Perhaps you’ve been commissioned to write something and the choice of what to write is made for you. Perhaps after spending years on your three volume epic novel about crochet and the men who love it, you think it’s time to write something that’ll sell, something for the kids, something with blood and guts and breasts. And explosions. Exploding breasts!

Or perhaps not.

Confused Mind

Whatever you choose to work on, the process of weighing up all these potential ideas and trying to work out which is the best can be overwhelming. The anxiety of this stage is called Confused Mind anxiety – either you don’t know what to write or you have too many ideas all vying for your attention. You might worry that you’re choosing to write something for the wrong reasons, or be concerned over the quality of the ideas, and so on.

What you need is clarity, but at this stage in the process that’s more or less impossible. The project is swirling around and changing shape. You try to hold it still, but it keeps wriggling and slipping through your fingers. There’s no way to know, even if you do write it, whether the story will work, whether you can do it justice, or whether it will sell.

Confusion now is normal. You can’t escape it, but you can learn to think about it differently.

Being Clear

Confused Mind anxiety is dealt with by applying ‘appropriate clarity’. There may be many things you’re confused about, but there are five facts you can be clear about at this stage of the creative process:

  1. You are alive and you want to create
  2. You have an idea
  3. You don’t know how it will turn out
  4. It’s hard to create anything
  5. You can choose, and you can do your best

These facts are mostly self-explanatory. You’ve already made the choice to create and found an idea. You can’t use the fact that it’s hard to create stop you from writing. If you do, then there was no sense in making the choice to write in the first place. And not knowing how it will turn out is no excuse for not writing. You don’t know how your life is going to turn out either and you don’t use that as an excuse to stay in bed all day.

As usual, all the anxiety at this stage comes down to one big FEAR:

Will I Fail?

The question of failure haunts all creative work. Looking at the statistics doesn’t help. Screenwriter Bill Nicholson says he has a success rate of 30%, which means 70% of the scripts he writes are never made into films. The odds of getting published by a traditional publisher if you’re not already published or famous for something else, are nanoscopic.

Knowing that most writing fails will not help you at this point. You need to develop a kind of selective blindness to reality. Yes, the odds are against you – but so what? That kind of thinking never stopped anyone buying a lottery ticket. But then, there’s no risk in that. Or skill.

Having said that, it’s important not to be deluded about what you’re trying to do either. It is possible to be too confident and declare your genius to anyone who can’t run away fast enough. Or not confident enough and give up before you’ve even started, or scribble half-hearted rubbish that no one would want to read anyway, thereby guaranteeing failure.

All success is built from the bones of failure.

So, even if the situation is unclear, you can still be clear about that lack of clarity. That sounds like bullshit, but you don’t have to take the confusion personally or turn it into a problem. Embrace not knowing. You’ll figure it out as you go.

I spent several years writing Addled and eventually self-published when no one would touch the manuscript because it wasn’t commercial enough. Was that a bad choice? Could I have written something else? Could I have changed the book to make it more accessible or obviously saleable? Perhaps, but then it wouldn’t have been the book I wanted (and needed) to write. I don’t believe I made a bad choice. I learned so much from the process and became a different, and hopefully better, writer as a result. A book isn’t a failure if it doesn’t sell in the millions, or even hundreds. It’s practice.

Just write something. It’s the only way to learn.

In Part 3 we’ll look at STARTING.

>Read the whole series here