The enemy of a good plan is the dream of a perfect plan.—Carl von Clausewitz
In high school, I didn’t participate in any extracurriculars. Doom wasn’t going to play itself, after all. It was only when college applications rolled around that I realized I’d made a minor error in judgment. You see, kids, back in those days you couldn’t just get your head photoshopped onto an athlete’s body. You had to do the work. And, since it was too late in the year to join any existing clubs or teams, I’d have to take the DIY approach.
It never fails to amaze me how a genuine deadline organizes my thinking and directs my energy. In short order, I’d wrangled some equally uncurriculared friends to help start a literary magazine. I knew soliciting entire stories from unmotivated high school students would take too long, so I decided we’d relay-write them. Each contributor would write a chunk of words and then I’d revise the text until it was presentable and finish it myself. (Who knew I’d turn this into a career one day?)
Convergence was a grand idea with middling execution, but it did the job. After pestering the neighborhood stationery store and the new Mexican place into running some ads, I printed a few hundred copies and brought them to school, triumphant. It didn’t matter that almost all the issues sat unread, even by the “staff.” I’d published a magazine. Ethically, I felt fully justified in claiming credit for the feat on my college application. And, in the end, I was accepted into some schools. Who knows? Maybe Convergence closed the deal. “Hey, maybe this kid is about more than just Doom,” they decided. “You could even say he’s well-rounded.”
A clear, near-term objective with consequences. Why is that so powerful, so necessary? In Skillful Means, the Tibetan Buddhist monk Tarthang Tulku writes:
Whenever we start something new, we may find ourselves anticipating the many obstacles that could arise and the limitations we feel we must face in ourselves and others. Although we feel enthusiastic about our work, we may also be constrained by an underlying fear that we might not succeed [emphasis mine]. This fear hinders the free flow of our energy and prevents us from fully appreciating the excellence and inner value of our work.
Damn right it’s scary to write something new! It’s always scary. Forget my client work, I’m even scared before writing this newsletter, which is hilarious because the only people who read it are pretty much you, whoever you are, and my Mom, and I sometimes wonder whether my Mom only says she reads it to be nice. She’s more of an Agatha Christie type. Tulku continues:
Because we are afraid to put all our energy into our work, we begin to undermine the force of our involvement. We may find ourselves leaving our work every few minutes to eat something, to get a tool, to have a drink of water, to remind someone of something. Although we may realize that none of these things is really necessary, we may still continue to interrupt and distract ourselves. When we fall behind in our work, we may then try to find the quickest way to complete it, giving it only enough energy to get by.
In other words, once that deadline gets close enough to give us a clear, near-term objective with consequences, we act. We stop trying to find the perfect plan and we figure out a way to achieve our objective in the time remaining. It’s the fear of getting it less than perfect that keeps us stuck. It’s only when we match that fear with an equivalent one—not getting into college, for example—that we can proceed. This is how noise-canceling headphones work: they play an equal but opposite frequency and the two sounds balance out into silence.
The problem is, many creative projects don’t have a deadline, and even if they do, by the time our brain accepts that the deadline is near enough to be scary, we don’t actually have enough time to do a proper job. Our brains are terrible at estimating how long things will take.
If you don’t have a deadline or if the one you have is simply too far into the distance to emotionally register, find one for yourself—a contest, an MFA application—and commit yourself to it publicly. Tie in a financial incentive with Beeminder. Make your commitment public. Whatever it takes to incite an equal and opposite fear. To escape from the pit, you must do as Bruce Wayne did: make the climb without the rope.
Creativity is a terrifying, abstract concept. Problem-solving, on the other hand, is something you do a hundred times a day. You just have to activate it: How am I going to get this done in time? What do I do first? What do I do after that? You don’t need a perfect plan, just one that’ll do the job.
p.s. If you want to write a novel, you have a full month to prepare for National Novel Writing Month in November. If not, look for alternatives or start your own.