In order to understand the world, one has to turn away from it on occasion; in order to serve men better, one has to hold them at a distance for a time. But where can one find the solitude necessary to vigor, the deep breath in which the mind collects itself and courage gauges its strength? …Simply, certain conditions are required.
That’s a quote from The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, written by the French writer Albert Camus.
I’m John Fanning and this is the Create with John Fanning podcast.
How’s it goin out there. Hope all is well.
This is Episode 24 of my series of episodes on the Imagination, based around my book Create.
Last time I spoke about Balance, Health and Notebooks but today I want to talk about process and retreats and the dark nights of the soul.
On my journey as a writer I used to think pulling all-nighters was the way to write. It didn’t work. I used to think I had to write every single day. I don’t. I used to think I was a night creator, until I became a morning creator. Now, I’m an anytime creator, but I have a process. I repeat it, every day, until my first draft is done. This is the journey. You have to find your own process by doing and finding space and time to discover by making mistakes and learning from those mistakes.
I’m not alone in this. Nearly every creator I’ve ever talked to about how they created something inevitably talks about their process, how they create a space and time for that process to grow into a creation.
In old French, process means “journey”, and in Latin, it means “to advance”. So, process is about the journey, not the end. We advance, we proceed, we journey into creation. It’s personal, because everyone is different, original.
So there’s no path to creation; you make the path by going on the journey because process is not a product, a finished product you walk on, journey along. And why is this? Because capitalism values product as the most important part of creation. Well, it’s not. Process is.
Process is hard work, but it can be fun if we’re not put under pressure. Going down a path you’ve never taken before, every day, is fun. It never finishes. It starts again and again. You never know what the character is going to say to the other character. You only know they’re in a garden. You don’t know why something appears in a painting while you’re painting. You advance a new process of manufacturing something, by mistake, by trying to figure out a solution. This is why process is associated with so many activities — arts, law, business, science, technology, thermodynamics, mathematics — because it describes so many different types of creative journeys.
At first, a good place to find your own working process is to study people in your field, as I mentioned in episode 19 when I talked about mentors. The best place to get information about the process of a creator you love, how they worked, is to read their autobiography, or biographies. There are many places online full of inspirational background information on the creative process of creators you love. You simply have to research them. Criticism, biographies are helpful, but a “Paris Review” interview, or a well written autobiography, are indispensable.
The best books to read on any process are, well, on process. Most of the time, when you go to the critics, you get information on the “end product”, the painting, the iPhone, the house. But does this show you how to go about painting, designing, or building those creations? No. You want to know how the creator went about creating it, not the thing itself. How did they do it.
Another important ingredient to process: How do you create space-time? As John Cleese says, you have to find a “space” where you can give yourself that “time” to connect with what some call flow, others genius, and what I call inspiration and the imagination.
Yes, this space can be created in your home or office, but what about what Cleese calls the “interruptions”, or what I call distractions: phone calls, ticking things off on lists, racing around all day? I’ll talk about Distractions in the next episode, alone with sacredness and awareness. Anyway, Cleese says if you are interrupted during your “creative state” then you lose the flow of what you were working on. Unless you create what he calls an “oasis of space-time” where there are “boundaries” of “space” and “time” then you can’t tap into inspiration, or what he calls creativity.
Boundaries can be difficult to create. This is OK. This is not. But if we stick to our own authenticity, your own integrity, that this is what I need to do, not what I want to do, then out of our own integrity and authenticity comes natural boundaries. Then, you do the work. You do the work just like you would for your day job. How long that is is up to you. Ninety minutes seems to be the most universally accepted amount of time, or so research shows. This is the time when creative work is optimal, before opening the blue screen in the morning, when you get into a deep kind of concentrated work. After that ninety minutes people are supposed to have diminishing returns. It makes sense too, because we operate on ninety minutes cycles in sleep. You get up at the same time every day as Elizabeth Gilbert puts it and you “sweat and labor.”
Stendhal used to give himself two hours every day. You can start in the morning like Auden. It can be late at night like Dostoyevsky. Faulkner used to say, “I get inspired, at 9 every morning.”
Hemingway, mornings. And they all created for a set amount of time. If they only wrote one word during those hours, well then that was the work for that day. Tolstoy wrote in the morning, preferably after a short walk.
I go for a short walk before I write. I didn’t steal it from Tolstoy. I do it because it makes me feel good. Flaubert frequently wrote twelve hours a day, beginning in the late afternoon and continuing through the night. He complained how his throat hurt from writing. Yes, he read every single sentence out, many times, until he got it right. I started reading my stuff out loud after reading about Flaubert. I found out Richard Ford reads his stuff out to his wife too. I did this for one novel then gave up on it. Flaubert rewrote each page of Madame Bovary at least four or five times, a lot of the pages as many as a dozen times.
I know a lot of musicians who write their songs on the road, performing. Many writers I’ve met need to be absolutely still in a blank room to get anything done. So process can be movement or stasis, or a combination of both. Certain creators need to be in movement. Many bands who were going to break up because they couldn’t create any new material discover new songs when they go on the road. So, do you create when you move, or in stasis? I do both. Notes in movement, stasis to transcribe and tie them all together by writing them down and feeling my way into imagination and inspiration.
Then there’s the process of retreating. Do you need to retreat into the woods for three weeks, or into what Virginia Woolf called a literal, and figurative, “room of one’s own”? Some people can write in a coffee shop, others need to have absolute silence and be staring at a blank white wall. Nabokov liked writing in hotels. Certain artists need to be in their studio, others need to be outside, as with the Impressionists.
Of course I think it a great idea to go away or retreat to a space for a specific amount of time to create. You go into the “wilderness” like a Thoreau or any of the people who go on retreats to places like the one we created – La Muse. A lot of those creators do this every year. It doesn’t have to be completely isolated. Thoreau went home to his mother’s for meals.
So you bring your idea, your talent and your intention. A retreat gives you space-time away from the real world, and a support system to make the most of your stay and get a block of work done that would have been impossible at him. The thing with a retreat though is that you will be doing your “work” with a group of people who have went there too for the same purpose, a group of people who understand what you are going through. If we are talking about a sustained amount of time to really get into your project without interruptions then a retreat can be very productive.
Ultimately you have to have the right conditions to be able to make the effort to get inspired. Inspiration and genius are in all of us. However, we are not all truly receptive all the time as it takes a huge effort when surrounded by the vicissitudes. It takes courage to be receptive and to create. Places like La Muse, the retreat we created in France, are spaces designed to reduce these “interruptions.” “Quiet Hours” and the natural, tranquil setting allow for creative ideas to seed and grow.
Sure, you can optimize those conditions in your own life whether it’s with meditation or a non-negotiable writing routine, but it does help to get a boost, to say the least, by going on a retreat. Just creating those conditions at home can take years. Establishing them in a retreat and then bringing them back home with you would be even better. As opposed to having to fight through your routine to form a creative schedule you can retreat and establish your process and be encouraged by the example of other creative individuals so you have no excuses to not do your work, because they’re doing theirs, by practicing their process.
If I need to get a big chunk of work done, I retreat. It can be a week. Three days, a long weekend. As much as four weeks. I’ve been doing them for years.
I recently found out Kazuo Ishiguro does retreats, but instead of a retreat, he calls it a “crash”. He only writes. All day. Six days a week. He takes an hour off for lunch, two for dinner. No email. No phone. No guests, visitors. This way his fictional world becomes more real than his real world. He immerses himself in his creation.
Retreat means to withdraw, detach from the world to find your inner world. Retreats do not have to be weeks long. They can be a weekend. Also, you can have regular short retreats, short withdrawals to create in notebooks. I used to retreat in the truck waiting for writers and artists to get their shopping done. I retreat waiting for the kids to finish school, sitting outside the conservatoire for them to finish their music, on trains, planes. I write. It could be notes on a character. Half a chapter. Backstory. Some dialogue. This is what I call regular creation.
Of course, you’ll need support to get away. Others will have to give up time so you can take time. But this is an opportunity for those you love to support you, and it is something you can then offer them.
The whole idea is to resource yourself, and really get into your creation. In French a “source” is a water source, like the one at La Muse, where people get fresh mountain water, but it can also mean something deeper. On retreat residents go out every day to re-source themselves by filling up a glass bottle. When it’s empty they know they have to go back out again, and each time they come back refreshed to their work, inspired.
This is what a retreat can give you. It can re-source you, give you the time to decompress from the stresses of contemporary life to actually figure out what you want to create. Peers, other creators, people on the same wave-length, and sometimes on the same path creatively as you, are another benefit. Retreats can give you large blocks of space-time to create. The thing with La Muse and places like it is that you will be doing this “work” with a group of people who have come for the same purpose, a group of people who understand what you are going through.
Retreats are spaces designed to reduce distractions and walls, but they’re not the only places to go. There are residencies and fellowships too. The idea is to allow yourself to see the big picture of where you are, but more importantly your creative future. A lot of the time they can also house professional creators who host workshops to help you learn your craft better. And again, there is also regular creation, taking moments and minutes to document or create while waiting for the kids, the spouse, until you can find the time to get away for longer.
So, need to really focus on a specific project? Then get rid of all distractions. Movies. Books. Phone. Everything. Find space-time, and if you need a really focused block of it then retreat. We’re all different. Some people can retreat in their own house, in a library, a writers room. You have to have faith in your own process, but first you have to find out what your process is.
And another thing, another fundamental part of process: what I call the Dark Night of the Soul. And what is this? Well, from my own perspective, when I write a book I always want to give up at the end. When I’ve spent months and years writing a novel, and I’m sick of looking at it, I want to stop. If I have to edit it one more time I’ll literally want toburn the whole thing or chuck the computer out the window. I just can’t do it any more. All is lost.
Well, it’s not. This is when I know it’s nearly finished. When I can barely stand to look at it any more. Like every movie, the hero finds a way of beating the bad guy, no matter how lost they feel near the end. They get up out of their wallowing and finish the job in the final act.
You’ve nearly finished a book, a chair, a business plan. This is what they call the “All is lost” moment in screenplays, which then turns into the “Dark Night of the Soul” or wallowing. It’s the nearly done moment. This is what divides the creatives from the creators. Finishing. Entering the third act.
It doesn’t matter how crap you think your chair, book, business plan is, you have to finish it. It’s the only way to go on, to create another one, a better one. Only by doing, do we get better. But the mind/ego, the walls, they’re always highest near the end of a project.
Like the Romans when they hit Scotland. They couldn’t kill all the Scots in the Highlands. So they built a wall to keep them out of the South. Basically, they failed. They gave up. They didn’t finish the intended project of conquering the Scots, but finished another project instead: Hadrian’s Wall. It’s beautiful, and it’s still standing, even if the Scots are still there, and the Romans are gone. The Romans finished their creation. They couldn’t achieve their complete goal, beating the Scots, but they kept them out of England.
In France, they have an expression: “A house is never finished.” Creation is a house. It’s never finished because you could go on renovating your creation forever. There are many rooms in your creative house. Each room has specific purposes, but each one needs to be functional. It’s better to have a functional kitchen, than one without a sink, or a bathroom without a shower. Everything else could be perfect, but one important part is missing. You have to walk into each of your creative rooms, and not allow the walls, the negative voices of self-sabotage, fear, myths, ageism, elitism, perfection, stop you finishing them.
Basically you have to allow yourself to accept that what you are creating is not perfect. It’s simply a room. Then self-sabotage won’t have as strong a hold on you. Nothing is perfect, something I talked about in episode 10. Every masterpiece has its flaws. The chapter that just goes on for ever. The skirt with the unaligned hem. That one actor destroying a scene of an otherwise amazing film. You wrote the screenplay, but you can’t control the direction, the acting.
This is what Beckett meant when he said fail better. Do your best. Put it out there, and then let it be. Jump of the cliff as Vonnegut put it and learn how to fly on the way down.
Of course people like Nabokov can’t help themselves. They come back and re-write novels that have been out for years, decades. But this is not the point. The point is to know that no how matter how great someone is at creating in a field, we all think what we do could be better. But, at some stage you have to stop, and a lot of the time if you don’t, if you keep revising, changing your creation, it can turn into a real failure, something over worked.
Know that it’s okay to let go of a creation. Work on a different project for a while, or move on to the next one. We learn from each thing we create. Each thing we finish allows us to get better at what we create. Empower yourself. Get better. This way you’ll continue to enjoy what you’re creating. Get past the dark night of the soul. Finish, and move onto your next creation.
And before sending something out into the world, wait, rest. You’re not on a “deadline”. Forget the capitalistic deadline orientated culture of instant gratification. Creation is as natural, as organic and essential as breathing, every hour, every day, a lifetime. We don’t have to finish the creative process. We are not going to die if we don’t get over the “line” of some imagined deadline. Think of what you have created as a due date. The baby isn’t always “cooked” on the due date. Nothing is ever perfect the second it comes out of you. It gets revised, edited, redone, changed. This is part of the process. It is born, but it needs time to open its eyes, for you to see what it is with clear eyes.
Writers do this all the time. They leave a novel, essay, poem for a period of time, say two or three months, then come back to it. They leave what Anne Lamott calls “the shitty first draft” alone and go work on something else.
This also goes for artists, business people, musicians. There will be parts of what you have created that are wonderful, that barely need any re-working, but there will be a lot of it that needs to be re-visited.
Let the dust settle. Rest yourself, but more importantly, let the work rest. Give it time. Then return to it. By resting the work a creator is not in the creation any more but allowing the process to continue of its own volition. Creators get out of their work so that they can make it better when they return to it. If you give a creation to people before it’s really ready you do a disservice to the work, but also to the person you’ve given it to. You’ll be forcing them to judge something underdeveloped, and to have to tell you it is too when they won’t want to. It makes more work for them. Rest with your work. Wait.
So, the question is: what’s your process? What rhythm is best for you? Night? Daytime? One hour? Two hours? 12 hours like Flaubert? When is your most productive time? When do you come up with new ideas? Knowing “your time” makes you consistent. It allows you, helps you to show up on time to work, every day. You have to ask yourself the question: how do I process ideas, words, images, reality best? When is my best time, to process? Words in the evening, or words in the morning? Ideas in the morning and evening? Well, then that’s your process. For me deep creation, inspiration, happens in the mornings. The afternoons are good for communal creation, left brain creation.
T. S. Eliot wrote poems and plays partly on a typewriter and partly with pencil and paper. He always kept to a three hour writing limit. In the beginning he wanted to go for longer, but then when he looked at his stuff the next day, what he’d done after three hours was never good enough. He thought it better to stop and think about something completely different to return to the work fresh the next day. Da Vinci would spend an hour in front of “The Last Supper”, add one paint stroke and leave.
Process is not a straight line. You don’t sit down and write a whole novel, day by day, from start to finish, unless you’ve written a whole lot of them already, like say a John Steinbeck. (If you’re to believe his diary about the writing of “East of Eden”, he wrote it straight.) Most people aren’t that lucky. Most of the time, in the beginning anyway, it’s disorganized, messy, and you have to know about parts of the process, like the dark nights of the soul and the waiting and resting, every creator has to go through before they finish any creation.
So thanks for listening. I started with a quote from a great French writer and philosopher, but as always I’m going to end this episode with an Irish proverb. It literally means:
However long the day, the evening will come.
Dá fhada an lá tagann an tráthnóna.
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