Which is more important—the process of writing or the product that results? It’s not something we think much about, but as creatives, one of these two things is typically motivating us. And it’s good to know what our drivers are. I’m glad David Duhr is talking about this today, because it’s providing a lot of food for thought.
When I meet with a new book coaching client I always start our first session with two questions:
Why do you want to write a book?
Why do you want to publish a book?
Between you and me, here’s what I’m really asking: Which is more important to you, process or product?
For some writers, publishing a finished product is the only goal, the writing itself the tedious obstacle standing in the way. For others, the allure lies in the creative act, the getting there, and publication is a consideration consigned to the future, if ever.
If you’re not sure which group you belong to, contemplate this (and then let us know your answer in the comments!):
Would you rather wake tomorrow morning to find your name on the front of a pristine, freshly published book but with no recollection of having written it? Or would you prefer to relish the years-long process of writing your masterpiece, even if no one ever reads it but you?
Therapy for the Artistically Challenged
There’s an old Northern Exposure episode that does a great job of driving this point home. One of the characters, Holling, has taken up painting by number. He only mildly enjoys the hobby but is monstrously attached to the product.
When his wife, Shelly, says his latest landscape should go on their tavern’s wall, Holling says, “You think it’s that good?” I.e., is this painting even more impressive than he already believes it to be?!
So Holling displays the painting in the bar, opening himself up to praise but also to that thing so many of us fear so intensely: Criticism.
“Hell, that’s not painting,” another character says with a scornful laugh. “That’s paint-by-numbers. That’s therapy for the artistically challenged. That’s what they prescribe for cretins in dayrooms.”
Cold Ice Water & Hot Fire
As artists ourselves we’re crushed on Holling’s behalf, having too-easy recall of our own “Hell, that’s not painting” moments. Here’s one of mine:
One day I sent my beta reader a new story. I was helplessly, hopelessly in love with it, and I knew he would be, too. I basically said as much when I sent it: “You’re going to love this one. I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written.”
He replied — in caps — “I DO NOT LIKE THIS STORY.”
I imagine I looked like Holling when I read that. I almost gave up writing entirely, just like Holling vows to abandon painting.
“The more I got into [painting],” he says to fellow artist Chris, “the more I thought, well, maybe I’ve got a little talent.”
“Oh, and now you don’t?” Chris says.
Those critical comments, Holling tells Chris, were like a bucket of ice water being dumped on his head.
We all know that feeling. Harsh criticism can take a writer’s breath away. The only way to avoid it is to not show your work—to undergo the process but keep to yourself the product. (At which point you have only to deal with your internal critic.)
Art … Is a Process
Quasi-philosopher Chris tries to reframe the way Holling approaches his art. “You’ve got a very basic problem,” he says. “You’re confusing product with process. Most people, when they criticize, they’re talking about product. Now, that’s not art — that’s the result of art. Art … is a process.”
To drive home his point, Chris drags a bewildered Holling into the basement and urges him to slide the painting into the furnace. “It’s not your painting anymore,” Chris says. “It stopped being your painting the moment you finished it.”
And a reluctant Holling nudges his work into the flames.
The Doing and the Having
By going to that extreme — and sometimes we must go to extremes — Holling learns a few lessons I’d like to learn: By not investing the whole of his artistic identity in the quality of the result, he can…
enjoy both process and product.
appreciate the product even if it’s not perfect.
recognize the progress he’s made since beginning the journey.
break free from the need for validation by others.
Fast-forward to a reinvigorated Holling again painting by number—but now happily, while giving away his products to friends.
“You’re cranking ’em out like sausages, babe,” Shelly says.
“You know, Chris says it’s all in the doing,” Holling says. “Tell you the truth, I think there’s a lot to be said for the having.”
That’s the space I’d like to live in. I’m planted firmly in the process-oriented, burn-the-product-with-fire camp, but partly because I find it difficult to tolerate my finished work, and showing it fills me with dread. For example, I’ve loved writing this post, but I’m sure I’ll find the result unspeakably repugnant. So the question becomes: If I liked my writing but not the act of writing it, would I still write?
Probably. There’s no right or wrong here.
If publication is what matters to you, undertaking the process is the only way to get there. Draw whatever nourishment from it you’re able. If none, so be it.
If the process is where it’s at for you, enjoy it. Dwell in it, feed off of it. If at the end, you want to publish, cool; if not, cool. Enjoy the journey, and to hell with the destination.
But if you can find your way to appreciating both, crank ’em out like sausages and enjoy the doing and the having.
David Duhr is a writing coach and co-founder at WriteByNight, where he blogs weekly. He’s also fiction editor at the Texas Observer and a member of the Yak Babies books podcast.
You can find his writing in the Dallas Morning News, Publishing Perspectives, Electric Lit, and many others.
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Patricia A Wallace says
I’m more of the process mind-set. You see, I know virtually nothing about how to write a short story much less a novel. So I have to learn the craft. Publishing is a far off if never goal. I used to run a commercial writing business and in between jobs while submitting proposals I’d reread some of my work and say oftentimes: This is damn good writing! It was a way of supporting myself emotionally while I pursed my next assignment. It took me about 73 proposals one time before I landed a job and not a very good one at that. So it was important to keep my spirits up and remain confident of my skills as a writer. After I retired I chanced to run across some of my work that thought I had gotten rid of on both on my computer and Google Drive. I wasn’t as impressed, maybe because it wasn’t the type of writing I was truly interested in, more of a grind than anything. The only times I ever derived true pleasure was when I could be funny or clever. But still, looking at the finished product gave me a sense of accomplishment and there’s a lot to be said for that. Now I’m writing for myself and beginning a steep learning curve, gradually developing the feeling of what it’s like to be a real writer. Even my journaling shows that I’m acquiring a creative writer’s mentality through the experiences of my daily life. I’m learning a lot about myself and growing with each entry. One task I’ve set myself is to find a different way to describe the bucolic scene outside my kitchen window each morning. I see possibilities of how I can approach it as a not strictly-literal execution. But I would also LOVE to see a story of mine published. But learning the process of becoming a creative writer is exciting to me! I’m a blank canvas and have an advantage over other writers who have more ego invested in their work than I do, that have published or are close to publishing. I’m not knocking it just leveling the playing field. Sometimes I get a reality check about the ardors of writing, which can be discouraging and make me feel inadequate, i.e. one famous author (forget who) who took an entire day to write two sentences! Two! Or authors who take ten or twenty years to finish a novel (Nabakov’s Lolita). So, anyway, these are just some thoughts in response to your article. It’s always beneficial to have someone explain some aspect of the writing game. Thanks!
David Duhr says
Hi Patricia. Thanks so much for the response and for sharing your experiences. I’m glad to hear you’re not skipping the whole learn-the-process part… so many writers try to jump straight to publishing a book without first learning how to write one, much less learning how to write a *good* one.
I love your morning exercise! It must get challenging after awhile to come up with fresh descriptions. Which I suppose is the point. My kitchen window is about five feet above the sink, so my view is nothing but sky. I should try the same and see how many days until I get repetitive. (My guess is two.)
Kay DiBianca says
I love this subject
We might compare the process of writing to training for a marathon, with the book being the race itself. Do I love training? Yes and no. It is a mixture of hard work, dedication, and persistence wrapped in the joy of physical exercise. Whether I run the race or not, I am a better person because of the training. Likewise, writing is a constant process of improvement that’s exciting in itself, with or without a book for sale on Amazon.
But running is all for me, while writing is for a higher purpose. When a race is done, it’s over, but a book is a gift to the world. It’s simply the last step in the process.
Therefore, I say process and product are two parts of the same whole. I can’t choose between them.
David Duhr says
Hi Kay. Thanks for reading and sharing! I like the comparison. The thing that jumps out to me is that we could look at running the marathon itself as a repetition (or continuation?) of the process. So if you enjoy running, the marathon, as the product, is a longer version of what you already enjoy. It’s definitely the culmination of the process, same as a published book, and brings a similar sense of accomplishment and finality. (At least, I imagine so; if I were to add up the miles I’ve run lifetime, I’m not sure I’d hit 26.2.)
And then with both, you can take a few days off to rest up and then start the process all over again.
Kay DiBianca says
David, I think you hit on another good analogy! When you finish a race, you immediately think you could have done better and you start thinking of the next one. Same is true in writing a book. After it’s published, you’re already preparing for the next one with an expectation you can do better.
David Duhr says
My problem (one of them, at least) is that when I finish a race, I’m mostly just irritated at my performance. So instead of turning my attention to the next race, I just keep rerunning the previous race. Even after it’s published! I dwell on the things I would change. A book review I published ten years ago still nags at me, because of one little word choice. Isn’t that ridiculous?! But if it’s part of what keeps me running, then I’ll take it.
Charlene Marolf says
I loved Northern Exposure! I enjoy the process. Someone told me once, when I posted on a forum, worried about my writing, why didn’t I write just for the fun of it? So I am Holling for sure. I am still editing my book, I want it to be perfect. I would love it to sell and change the world with it. But I’m not sweating the small stuff quite so much anymore. If there’s something that makes sense to only me, it’s still going in the book. Now that doesn’t mean if it were read by someone who might publish it that I wouldn’t have the heart to change it! But I am writing it to make me happy. A big goal in my life was to write a book, and I’ve done it.
David Duhr says
Thanks for sharing, Charlene. I hear a lot of “A big goal in my life,” and I’d say it’s about a 50/50 split between “is to write a book” and “is to publish a book.” Most of those writers don’t consider that there may be a distinction between the two. But you clearly do. You’ve accomplished your goal (congratulations!), and so the rest — what happens with the product — is gravy.
A big goal in my life is to write a book. If that book is never published, I think I’ll be OK with that. Every few years, between reruns of NX, I’ll pull it out and read it and enjoy recalling the process. (And recall enjoying the process.)
Patricia Bradley says
I thought I was in the finished product camp until you said I’d wake up with a book and not know how it came to be…that did not sit well. lol I want to remember every agonizing minute of writing that book! So you decide–which camp am I in? 🙂
David Duhr says
Thank you for reading, Patricia. I’d suggest you’re in that *other* camp, the one I envy: Writers who enjoy both process and product. But the beauty of a “Would you rather?” is that it forces you to choose. So, I send it back to you!
I will say that describing the process as “every agonizing minute” makes you sound to me like you’d choose the process. Because it’s such wonderful agony, isn’t it!?
(As opposed to reading the product, which for me brings only agonizing agony.)
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
I think we all like goal posts and milestones which is why we focus on the product a bit too much. However, if we can bend our mindset to enjoying the process I think it helps our mental state because it dovetails with the fact that there’s never a point where we “know enough” either. There will always be more to learn, more things to add to our toolboxes. If we adopt a learner’s mindset of enjoying the process of learning craft instead of focusing on, “when will I know enough to be able to just write books without worrying” we’ll be happier, I think. Learning is a journey. 🙂
David Duhr says
Hi Angela. Thank you for hosting me today. I’d say some of us do focus too much on product, but there’s also some risk in focusing too much on process. I’ve been working and reworking a particular story for ten years now. I love the piece, and its characters, and visiting it for a few hours every now and then is a pleasure.
But! Because of that, I wonder if I’ll ever have a finished product. There’s always something to tinker with: This word could be better; this line of dialogue could be funnier; maybe the brown chair should be black?
I think what’s really happening here is a fear of the product. If I never show my favorite story, nobody can ever dump on it, and I can dwell in its process forever.
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
Fear is a big part of it. Some fear failure, others fear success. Or fear both because they are tied to expectation – what we expect of ourselves and what others will expect of us. The comfort zone doesn’t lead to growth though, so we have to try and push back against fears as much as we can.
Definitely getting stuck in the rewriting trap can be a problem. But I think this is where a structured process can actually help. Sure we can revise something to the ends of the earth, but how can we measure this effort? If we create a plan, one that includes self-education (understanding where our weaknesses lie and take steps to learn more in these areas), practice (applying technique but also critiquing others) and feedback (being critiqued), then we’ll move forward. Where we can get in trouble is the “writer as an island” mentality. Other people have a lot of knowledge and distance we lack, and we can use both to help us move through the learning curve and as a way to ensure we’re not actually just moving around words but actually honing the product.
David Duhr says
That would make a great subject for a post: how to recognize whether you’re honing and improving or merely moving words around.
When I look at fears, I’m sure there’s a healthy dose of both success and failure, but perhaps neither to the same degree as I’m afraid of total indifference. To pour so much of myself into a book and have it be greeted with a shoulder shrug. Or with a silence that would match the silence of never publishing it in the first place.
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
The thing to remember is you aren’t writing for everyone. Some will love it, some won’t. I remember how nerve-inducing it all was on the pre-published side, but once you cross over, you get the love its and the hate its, and the UGHs, but it’s okay. Just as we learn to thicken our skin when receiving feedback, it’s the same thing with reviews. But again, I’ll come back to the importance of having a plan. If writers understand who they are writing for, and then when they publish, they target the people most likely to want to read a book like theirs, then they will hit that target. Missing the target is where readers get disappointed as what they wanted isn’t what they got. So again our job is to educate ourselves and learn what it is we’re writing, who wants that type of book, how to find and connect with these people, building relationships. Then it’s more learning to craft the right copy, marketing, and content that appeals to that ideal reader group so when the book is out, we’re directing it into the hands of the right people.
I love the process of writing, but I also love seeing the finished product. I can even tolerate the editing and preparation for publishing. The bit I hate, and struggle with, is the process after that: the marketing.
David Duhr says
Thanks for reading, Anne. Yeah, it never really ends, does it? Have the idea for the thing; write the thing; rewrite the thing; rewrite the thing again; finish the thing. Write the pitch for the thing; pitch the thing; negotiate for the thing; wait for someone to make the thing (or make the thing yourself); hold the thing. Hey, you’re finally done!
Nope, just kidding. Gotta tell people about the thing. Advocate for the thing. Again and again and again. Forever.