A couple of weeks ago, 10 pm Wednesday night, I could be found in my cottage at the end of the boardwalk at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna, Florida.
In a closet.
I had my laptop and a mic on a shelf, and I was recording the audio versions of the lessons in the Creative Focus Workshop. The wall next to me (I mean right next to me—it was a small closet) was covered with the autographs of “Master Artists” who had come before me. Spaulding Gray’s neat signature was at my left hip. As I got set up in there, I had a moment of, “this is a pretty unusual situation,” before returning to the biz at hand.
I was there as a “Master Artist” leading an intensive three-week residency/workshop for a group of eight “Associate Artists.”
I’ve been struggling lately to get my life figured out: two days after landing in a new house in a new town, I started a new job. I’ve been running ever since, sorting out what that job should contain, and what place my old life has in my new one. So the opportunity to get away from everything: work, other work, home, for three weeks was invaluable. I worked like a monk 12+ hours a day and missed my family like crazy, but it felt like pure luxury. The luxury of simple goals.
The time was framed for me by reading Deep Work by Cal Newport [Amazon associate link] while rewriting and recording my course materials for the CFW, and leading my Associates in a deep dive into their incredibly ambitious narrative projects. It was an illuminating confluence of subjects and thoughts.
What came out of all that for me was this overarching theme: obviously, one can be overburdened with things that need doing, and that can make getting creative work done very difficult.
But it’s not actually freedom from all the things that makes the work possible.
Often, artists’ residencies are so unstructured that artists come in with the best of intentions, but the contrast between their usual busy life and all that emptiness is too overwhelming. You could to ANYTHING. So what are you going to do right now?
The artists (and writers) who do well in these situations are commonly those who have a deadline looming. Deadlines concentrate the mind magnificently.
That wouldn’t work for my group, though, as they were all building the very initial stages of some complex narrative. Nothing would be due anytime soon, perhaps never, if they don’t get enough traction on the work to produce something to show a potential publisher.
So how does that motivation appear?
Group work, structure, and simple goals was our answer.
We met almost daily for 2-3 hours. This pattern gave associates a reason to show up, and small deadlines to produce for the next day’s meeting.
In the meetings, we held a series of story-building workshops (an expanded version of the Story Madlib workshop I’ve run in several contexts). This is where each person’s structure was tested by eight other minds at least three times. “Testing” itself is generative of ideas, and the associates would then go spend the rest of the day in study and drafting.
We really only tried to do one thing: build the best, most robust story structures we could. Of course, filling out those structures with scenes and characters (and then for many of the participants, drawing it. More than half the group was made up of cartoonists), will be a significant challenge. But the vast majority of novel-length projects are launched without this kind of investigation and planning work at the outset. That lack is what leads to getting stuck or having to scrap huge amounts of work, or taking much longer over the project than expected.
Story outlines and plans mushroomed on walls. The group of mostly-cartoonists drew very little, but did the kind of deep work that rarely gets done on books at this early stage.
As is usually the case when I teach Story Madlibs and the XY Story Formula, I learned an enormous amount as well about how these tools work, and how to use them better. I also got to workshop my own book that springs out of the Creative Focus Workshop.
Yes, it’s true: I’ve been promising this for at least six months, and I now have an actual working document and outline, and plenty of chapter drafts to play with. That’s thanks to the ACA, too.
As Cal Newport points out, deep work is a multiplier.
You’ll get more done in one 2-hour session of deep work than four 30-minute sessions over a day or two. And in my case, the “session” was three weeks long.
This kind of intense experience is something most people never get to have in their lives. But this idyll over for me, too. Now my job is to apply what I’ve learned while away in the context of my over-full normal life. I need to find the windows where I can shut off task-switching and distraction. I need to dive deep, and try to reach back and recreate that experience in my own studio.
Group work, structure, and, more than anything else: simple goals. That’s where I’m going next.
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