The Writing Process

Linear vs Circular

Image credit: Sherry Tetens Long | Dreamstime Stock Photos
Image credit: Sherry Tetens Long | Dreamstime Stock Photos

I recently read this very interesting post by Lauren Sapala, in which she argued – very convincingly, to my mind – that writers, by pressuring themselves to achieve goals, can actually hinder their progress. In the post, she made a very simple but, to me, quite startling point, which in turn provoked one of those “lightbulb” moments, when I thought, “Ah-ha! So that’s where I’ve been going wrong all this time!” She says:

“Our culture tends to think of time as linear. It moves forward in a straight line. So if you want to get anything done, you need to move forward in a straight line as well. And the most popular method used in our culture to conquer this straight line is to push ourselves. This push is commonly referred to as ‘drive’ or ‘motivation’.”

Of course, very often writers have their own particular set of motivations. They want to get their novel finished, and preferably by a certain date. They plan to submit it to publishers, or upload it as an eBook, by a given date. They put pressure on themselves to make x number of sales, or to garner a certain number of reviews, or any number of other things.

And of course this is all reasonable enough. Cover design, editing, publishing, selling – these are for the most part practical tasks, well suited to a linear outlook. Yet it’s also a viewpoint that sometimes seeps through into the purely creative side of our work. Writers might beat themselves up if they fail to write x number of words per day, or don’t write quite well enough, or have only a nebulous idea of a certain plot point or a given character. It’s easy to be hard on ourselves, to take on the role of both the quivering slave and the whip-cracking slave driver. We should be doing more, better, quicker!

Row faster, slave! Public domain image | Wikimedia Commons
Row faster, slave! Public domain image | Wikimedia Commons

The goal-driven mentality is, of course, one that we’re all familiar with, and often for very good reasons. The practical business of life, whether it’s going to the supermarket, attending a job interview, or making the dinner, can all be viewed as linear: you do x in order to do y, hopefully with the final projected outcome of z. In many areas of life, that outlook makes absolute sense, which is perhaps why we’ve come to see it as the correct one.

But is this goal-oriented, linear outlook really compatible with creativity? When we attempt to measure our creative work against the linear model, might we not actually be hindering our own progress?

Going around in circles is frowned upon in today’s world, because how are you ever going to travel further down that straight line if you’re just going round and round? Circular movement is aimless, repetitive, and – crucially – it doesn’t have a clear goal in mind. We should be moving forward, not wasting time – or so, at least, our cultural background suggests.

Circular movement is not necessarily like this... Image credit: Mylius | Wikimedia Commons
Circular movement is not necessarily like this… Image credit: Mylius | Wikimedia Commons

But creative writing – and creativity in general – are, it seems to me, not particularly well-suited to the linear model. Instead, they are often circular activities. Whether you’re working out the intricacies of a character’s personality, or trying to decide whether this phrase or that image actually does what you want it to do, or wondering whether a plot point is really feasible, you’re often digging away at the same mental ground, sifting through ideas and impressions that you’ve already examined, searching for that little piece of gold that got lost amidst the mud and sand before. Trying to impose a time limit on such activities is pointless, at least in my experience; they take as long as they take.

Much of my creative work takes place in that relaxed, contemplative state when I’m not actually writing anything, or indeed doing much at all. A non-creative person might deride this state as idling or time-wasting. It is neither. This is the period when mental connections are forged, when imagery flowers, when seemingly disparate ideas and elements begin to amass and form a new entity with its own gravitational field, which in turn pulls in still more elements. This period cannot be forced, or measured out in days, weeks, or months. Either it has its own timescale – a timescale quite separate to that of linear, non-creative output – or it is somehow timeless. Motivation, as such, doesn’t really come into it. I often don’t have a particular goal in mind during this period.

Of course, we need some motivations – if we had none at all, why would we even bother to write our stories down, let alone publish them? But we should perhaps be wary of applying the goal-oriented outlook to the creative process. Might it not be a little like applying the laws of flight to a fish?

What do people think?

Re-blogged from Authors Electric.

12 thoughts on “Linear vs Circular

  1. Very intriguing, Mari, and weird synchronicity for me when you think of the comment in ‘Aleks Sager’s Daemon’ saying just that ‘time is circular, not linear’. I have a strange conviction that it is (it’d fit in with the extremes of the laws of relativity, after all) and only the non logical parts of our brain can appreciate the implications of this. But leaving that eccentric belief aside, I think writing has to stew, mature, or whatever; I think even our rational friend Thomas Cotterill agreed on that . It seems as if the unconscious has to work on it. I always go through a period of maddening ‘writer’s block’ at some point in a novel, and suddenly the solution to the problems which seemed insoluable appear like magic…

    1. Hi Lucinda, and thanks for commenting. I agree that writing has to mature, and that the unconscious mind is probably involved in the process to a large degree. Like you, I often find that solutions to problems appear when I’m not actively looking for them!

  2. An insightful post, Mari. Professional commercial writers, that is writers who write for a living and would starve if they did not hit deadlines are, without exception, goal oriented.That’s not to say they are not creative and indeed many writers cannot be creative without pressure.

    I agree with Lucinda when she says that the unconscious has to work on it, but we all have different processors for that function. Mine may instruct me to sit and stare into space for two days, then write a half dozen words on a Remington; yours may be to smack the hell out of a squash ball and write 10k in the shower on an iPad. Different strokes… ( however 10k in the shower would result in sever wrinkleage, so be warned).

    I’m not sure that we should be wary of goal orientation, unless our particular, unique processor refuses to function when faced with a deadline or pressure and then the solution is obvious.

    Of course, it all depends on how you choose to define the concept of creativity…

    1. Hi J.D., and thanks for commenting. Yes, I think you’re right now I come to think about it: for many writers, a looming deadline, or pressure of some kind, might actually provide just the push they need. And you may be right that we shouldn’t necessarily be wary of goal motivation. I suppose I was writing from my own experience, really. The moment I tell myself that I have to do something is the moment I find myself least likely to actually do it; if I’m not concerned with doing something, things get done. It’s strange!

  3. I am circular in my approach to writing in that I “circle back” to read and edit the last couple of pages I wrote in my previous writing session before beginning work on new material. I’m linear in that I require a deadline in order to make fiction my priority, and move forward towards a particular goal. I think there’s room for both philosophies of time in the creative process, and probably both are necessary to accomplish the grinding work of moving from idea to publication. I just finished reading Write. Publish. Repeat. (do read it, it’s GREAT!), and the authors strongly encourage goal setting, even tracking word count per session. I don’t know that I will ever do that, but I have started to pay more attention to how I spend my writing time, and am making some pretty big decisions on what to give up to gain more writing time.

    And in closing: Time is the thing I tend to waste, even as I bemoan how I need more of it!


    1. Hi Aniko, and thanks for commenting. I too tend to waste time, and then moan that there isn’t enough of it…

      Since I wrote this post I’ve begun to think that maybe there is much to be said for the linear approach after all. I was forgetting the galvanising effect that a deadline can have. Personally, though, I find that I have to let ideas and stories “stew”, and that is a process that isn’t amenable to the imposition of deadlines.

      I’ll have to add “Write. Publish. Repeat.” to my to-read list – thanks for the recommendation!

  4. This is a beautiful post Mari, and I’m so honored to be mentioned. Very happy to know also that others writers work in circles. For a long time I thought I was the only one and that I was doing it all wrong.

    The closer I get with other writers through the online community the more I am inspired and heartened. And you are one of those people who inspires me. Thank you so much!

    1. You’re welcome, Lauren! Your original post helped me to work out something that had been bothering me for a while, so I thought it certainly deserved a mention. And I too am inspired and heartened by my fellow writers!

  5. Really interesting read. I also agree. I found that the mounting pressure one places upon themselves to write can only make one further propel into this void of stress, confusion, doubt, hence hindering writing. I find that the best writing comes naturally as you’ve explained, in a state where you almost “know” there is something there, waiting to be written…:)

    1. Thank you for visiting my blog, Nina, and for leaving a comment! I’m glad you enjoyed the post. My personal experience does indeed suggest that increased pressure leads to decreased creativity. It’s far better (for me, at least) to let the words come when they’re ready…

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