The Mac app store has a dedicated section of Apps for Writers. It contains Scrivener, and some “distraction free” text editors, and a whole bunch of to-do list apps, pomodoro timers and other productivity aids. I sometimes find myself scrolling through these apps, which I’ve learned is a good indication that my writing day is not going well.
Productivity is a very different beast for writers, or any creator, than it is for most working professionals. In a past life I managed events and festivals, so I understand the facility of a to-do list app when you have 400 actionable emails a day hitting your inbox. For most people that’s modern working life, and those 400 emails are likely a sign you’re doing something right. For writers they’re a sign you’ve done something terribly wrong.
Around the time I was transitioning / escaping / fleeing from the 4oo emails a day life, I made a reading from the I-Ching. Say what you like about divination systems, the Book of Changes contains some sublimely beautiful writing on life, and on creativity. I tossed the coins and got hexagram 1, The Creative, composed of six unbroken lines. An auspicious outcome, to say the least.
The I-Ching delivers a quite uncompromising message on creativity. If you want to hold true creative power, a goal central to the Taoist and Zen traditions the I-Ching is wrapped up with, you have to push out of your life all things that are not creative, and all things that drain your creative energy. At the time I was working twelve-hour days organising events. Reading the words of the I-Ching I wondered. What if I took all that energy and applied it to writing? What if I pushed out all the non-creative work from my life, and just…wrote? Some years later, that’s what I’ve done.
But it’s hard. Oh so hard. Today’s cult of productivity is all about multitasking, Getting Things Done, building a network, scheduling efficient meetings and so on and so forth. All of this frenetic activity is born from, and in turn breeds, a certain kind of mind. In Buddhism it’s called “monkey mind”. If you gave a monkey a smartphone and the power of speech it would make a perfectly fine marketing executive. I could say a lot about how the “monkey mind” is rooted in fear. Look at those marketing monkeys, desperately ticking off to-do list items, because who knows which unmet priority will be the one that gets you fired? But then maybe that’s all I need to say.
Monkey mind is not a mental state any writer should seek to cultivate. Writing is sitting at a desk, in a quiet room, working on the same task for hour after hour, day after day, month after month. If I did have a to-do list app, it would have one task. Write. If I kept a calendar, it would just be the same block of time every day marked with the same word. Write. It’s not hard to remember what I’m doing tomorrow or the next day because it’s exactly what I did yesterday and the day before. Write.
What is hard is too actually…write. Because our monkey mind doesn’t like it. It’s MUCH happier writing to-do lists and arguing with other monkey minds in meetings. Alone in a room with just one seemingly endless task, is the monkey minds worst fear. And it’s a particularly frustrating task to the monkey mind. At least coding, web design or other technical tasks that require focus, have rules, structure, incremental progressions of achievement. Writing is endlessly wrestling the gloopy stuff of language in the arena of our own imagination.
The cognitive trap is to believe that if you can just. Organise. Everything. Better. Then you’ll have “time to write”. But it doesn’t work that way. Because all that organisation is training and strengthening your monkey mind. And when you get to your precious writing time, it won’t shut-up, and you’ll find you can’t write. The hour you spent shuffling priorities on Omniplanner has left you in entirely the wrong frame of mind to do anything creative. That’s why the I-Ching is so brutal in it’s advice on creativity, and so right. You have to push the non-creative out of your life, and with it the monkey mind.
This is why writers either live simply or in chaos. The things you own end up owning you. So your two options are to not own anything, or let the things run wild while you…write. I find the simple approach better. I live out of one bag, and move house, or even continent, in preference to cleaning. But your mileage may vary. Instead of setting aside time to write, set aside time to organise. One hour a day after you’ve done the real work. Write.
Productivity for writers is anything that brings you to an aware, focused mind, and chases the monkey mind away. A quiet space and regular time for writing are basics. Meditation is generally considered useful, although there are numerous ways meditation can become a fearful, monkey mind activity. “I MUST empty my mind! I MUST empty my mind, now!” Not fetishising the writing process helps. You don’t need that Moleskine, however much your monkey mind wants one!
Make writing your practice. Make the aim of writing be, simply to write. Free-write. Do morning pages. When an idea comes, write that. If you’re working on a book, add more to it. Did you write today? Good, if writing is your practice then the only measure of success is saying yes to that question. This is very un-monkey mind. It’s cultivating what Buddhists variously call Buddha mind, awakened mind, wholeness or oneness. If your only goal in writing is to write, then you can bring your whole mind to it, which is all that creativity really demands.
PS – The I-Ching also counsels good timing and self-awareness as essential for creative success. When you’re ready, you will know.
PPS – I start teaching a new writing course soon. Email me for more info: firstname.lastname@example.org
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