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On The Value Of Being Intentional
Slow Down, And Breathe.
Welcome to another edition of Fiction Notes. You can find previous essays here—topics range from idea generation to the importance of talent, to outlining a novel. If you like what you read, please hit reply or shoot me an email. And if you haven’t, please sign up!
Today, I'm writing about the value of being intentional in your writing. I'll discuss the idea in general, and then I'll leave you with a piece of advice that might come of use in your writing practice. Are you ready?
I'm not the first to write, or talk, or think about intentionality. Of knowing not only what you're doing, but why you're doing it, and how.
Still, this we often forget about when in the midst of an important project, when rushing to meet a deadline, or when succumbing under the immense pressure that weighs our shoulders, our mind, and soul, when attempting to express (and expose) ourselves.
So let's recap, together, what we mean when we say: 'let's be intentional', shall we?
Slow Down, And Think, Before You Act
This is what we mean when we say 'let's be intentional', at least in a general sense. Because we often forget to do so. We're often so caught up in the excitement of it all that we forget what we're doing and, more importantly, why we're doing it.
Breathe. That's all you have to do.
This applies to living, and it applies to writing (and art in general, too.)
But why breathe, or why slow down? Why not just take advantage of the momentum you've gathered, and use it to finish whatever it is you started, and be done with it, oh god I want to be done with it?
The answer: you avoid two traps.
Trap 1 — Art's Mystery As An Excuse
We sometimes claim the safeguarding of art's mystery as permission to write foggy prose; to escape the discipline it takes to understand what we think, what we are doing, and what we want to do. — From The Artful Edit by Susan P. Bell
When people say: “Oh, I don’t know what my process is. Art is mysterious. Inspiration comes and goes, and I just try to ride that wave whenever it shows up at my doorstep.”
What they mean is: “Doing art is hard, and I prefer not to think about it too much. I prefer to just close my eyes and write and hope for the best. If you can’t understand/don’t like what I did, then the problem is with you, maybe you’re just not sophisticated enough.”
We’ve all been there. I’ve been there. I have said those things, both to others and to myself.
Because I was scared. I was scared to realize that maybe, just maybe, I wasn’t as good as I thought I was.
And while I’m not saying that being intentional will stop you from making those excuses—it is definitely the first step you should take.
Because intentionality allows us to see clearly. It is, in a way, the act of putting our glasses on before we crack open the manuscript.
Or standing at the top of a cliff, and seeing the ocean, the fresh-blue water below, so enticing—and choosing to jump and dive, and where, instead of walking back first towards the edge until you fall, all the while hoping you don’t hit the rocks.
When we stop and have the discipline to be intentional about what we do, and look, really look at the page (or canvas, or sheet-music) before us—all mystery disappears.
We see things for what they are, and what they are not. We cannot fool ourselves any longer. We're forced to contend with the foggy prose or meandering story structure. With the poor choice of color palette, or the sloppy brush-stroke.
And that is good. Very good.
Because it is only by seeing our art for what it is, warts and all, that we can start to see it for what it could be.
And then there is trap number 2...
Trap 2 — Art Is Born Out Of Spontaneity
This is the biggest, most prevalent, most dangerous meme when it comes to writing, and painting, and drawing, and all forms of art. It is, I believe, the main cause of all blockages, and fits of despair that artists so often go through.
You know what I'm talking about.
Spontaneity. Inspiration. The capital m Muse we just hope will pay us a visit.
But art isn't about spontaneity. It isn't about inspiration. Art isn't about hours spent drudging and working, either.
It isn't about days and weeks and years of single-minded focus. Art is the in-between point. Art is the narrow intersection between chaos (inspiration) and order (intention). Or, as Susan P. Bell would say:
The intercourse between intention and spontaneity shapes the creative art. We make a plan to more or less control our art, while life's vagaries continually urge us to ignore the plan and let our work respond freely to what's around it. To meander is as crucial as to stay the course.
Creating constraints around your art is one way to be intentional. By doing so, you’re saying: this, at least, I won’t do.
You are choosing your course of action, instead of hoping for that bolt of lightning to strike and give you the inspiration you need to figure out how to proceed.
And the same goes for stopping, and breathing, and thinking before you create. Telling yourself: I will do this, and that, and for this long, and no more.
The more intentional you become, the more (good) art you will make. Like muscles, your brain and soul will get used to relying on themselves, entirely themselves, and no external force whatsoever.
And if you do this well, and often, before you know it, lighting striking will just be an every-day occurrence.
But enough philosophy. Here's a small and down-to-earth practice you can start implementing to become more intentional about your art, today.
Just Write Your Intention Down
It's that simple, really. Let's assume you're a fiction writer. Let's assume you've just woken up, and are sitting in front of your computer, coffee mug in hand, ready to start the day's work. Let's even assume you've followed the advice I gave a few weeks ago when I wrote:
Reduce the pressure. Be intentional. Tell yourself that you're only going to work for 60 minutes, no more. Say what it is you're going to do, remind yourself of where you were when you left-off last time. Tell yourself to breathe before you begin.
You open up the word document where your partially-written novel sits. Your 60-minute timer is set and ready to go on your phone. What now?
Write your intention down.
I mean literally. Before you begin your work, write (somewhere, anywhere) what you're going to be doing during that 60-minute session, and why. What characters are going to appear in this section of your novel? What are the dynamics between them that you hope to illustrate? Is this an argument between two characters, maybe? If so, what will be its result? Answer those questions.
Or you can even make it more about yourself, and not what will go on the page. You can write down as if crystallizing your internal dialogue:
"Okay. I'm going to write for 60 minutes, no more. If I don't know what to write, or if I'm stuck, I'll just stare at the screen and wait for time to pass. If I do manage to write, it doesn't matter if the words are not good. This is just a first draft. You're doing great. Just take a breath, and go.”
Give this exercise a try, and let me know what happens. I do it every day, and before every writing session. And the results have been both measurable and astounding.
That's it for today! Have a great weekend!
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