Posted on March 28, 2018
I recently watched a TED Talk called “The Surprising Habits of Original Thinkers” by Adam Grant. The talk was illuminating. I’ve always had trouble with the idea of abandoning a writing project. The writer Philip Roth said, “The road to Hell is paved with unfinished projects.” Indeed, an unfinished project nags at me. I feel like I gave up, like the project is dead. Not so! Grant’s talk reinforced the idea that one’s unconscious mind is still “working on” unfinished projects.
This summer, I wrote one third of a novel and put it away. Since then, I have felt like I have been a magnet for books, films and people that relate to the book’s subject matter. This is Carl Jung’s synchronicity. Whenever ideas float into my consciousness, I develop them and save them in organized folders. I now know what it means when authors say “it took me 20 years to write that book.” The following is Michael Crichton’s response to “How long does it take to write a book?”
“It’s difficult for me to say. Usually, an idea “cooks” in my head for a very long time before I begin to write it. During that preparation time I will make notes and do research. The actual writing can be relatively quick—four to fifteen months—but I could do the preparation as part of the work. So in that way, The Great Train Robbery was 3 years. Jurassic Park was 8 years. Disclosure was 5 years. Sphere is an odd example: I started it and wrote part of it, but didn’t have a good ending, so I stopped. Twenty years later, I picked it up again and finished it in about two months. So: did it take 20 years, or two months?”
As this passage shows, it wasn’t that Crichton was physically writing for two decades. He was living, working on other projects, letting his unconscious mull over the unfinished project (“cooking,” he says). No doubt, when Crichton restarted the project, he was delighted to find that he had subconsciously solved most of the book’s creative problems. A teacher of mine suggested that they might have been easier to solve because of his own personal evolution.
In Woody Allen: A Documentary (2011), we see Woody Allen’s creative process. Whenever Allen has an idea, he writes it on a piece of scrap paper and puts it in a drawer with hundreds, maybe thousands, of other pieces of paper. When he wants to start a new project Allen opens the drawer, sifts through the papers and sometimes combining separate ideas. A script may come from an idea that has been sitting in his drawer for decades. I would love to have seen the scrap paper(s) that formed the foundation of his movie, Midnight in Paris (2011).
Adam Grant’s TED talk provides tremendous insight into the creative process. It’s made me less anxious about abandoning unfinished projects. In fact, I now see the virtue in it. I also realized that, in some ways, I have been doing this since my late twenties for both fiction and nonfiction projects. As I’m working on a novel, I’m collecting ideas for an essay. As I’m working on an essay, a future book is simmering in my subconscious. I collect all of these ideas in the notetaking software, Evernote. Months or years later, I begin the process of writing.