The Human Condition:

The Great Secret of Time – December 11, 2011

Most of us can be focused, creative, and brilliant for an hour or for a day. We can conceive of a burst of energy that would let us, if we had the talent, write and finish a short story or a song lyric, paint a small canvas, or shape a bust in clay. But faced with something much larger—a novel, an opera, a mural, or a Mount Rushmore—we quail. The task is too big, the effort too great. We can’t even get started.

The secret is time. In order to do great works, you have to parcel it and marshal it. That’s easy enough to say, but for most of us nearly impossible. The effort to control our time takes too much discipline and patience. But there are tricks to help anyone attain great things.

1. Do a Little Every Day

If the task is too much to accomplish at one sitting, then the only thing to do is break it up into bite-sized—or sit-sized—chunks. This is how any artist works, by doing a little bit every day. Some artists can do a lot in a day, but that’s not the way to start out. Until you are sure of your energy level, it would be a disaster to commit yourself to an overly ambitious schedule. Commit, instead, to achieve something, then adjust the content and the effort until you find a sustainable level.

Of course, this approach applies to more than creative efforts and works of art. Every paying job is based on doing so much each day. No one would try to process all the orders coming into a company, ship all the products made in a factory, or answer all the customer queries by one superhuman effort for one hour a day, or one day a week or a month. You gauge the flow and keep on top of it.

The same applies to the kind of effort and practice it takes to master a musical instrument or any other skill. Despite the ideal of accelerated training shown in The Matrix, you can’t learn Kung Fu in one fifteen-second blast of neural stimulation and visual imagery. You must practice every day, learn and absorb and perfect new techniques at a regular pace, layer new skills and experiences on top of ones already mastered.1

2. Have a Plan

It may be possible to write a novel by sitting down at the keyboard every day and writing just whatever comes to mind. To some extent, this is what any novelist actually does, but if the mind is a blank and subject to curious vagaries when you sit down, the novel won’t be much good. It will wander all over the landscape, turn back on itself, and generally bore the reader.

The novelist, the painter, or the team carving the Crazy Horse Memorial in South Dakota all need a plan for the work at hand. The plan might be quite detailed—a run-through of the story, or canvas, or mountain in miniature. Or it might be more like a framework, a generalization of the structure, like the bamboo scaffolds with which Asian builders cocoon a skyscraper in progress.

The outline or framework may be completely finished before the writer or artist undertakes the actual product. Or it may come into being as work-ahead, executed just a few days or months before the actual writing or application of paint, groping toward a final image that’s still relatively plastic in the artist’s mind. Either approach can work.2

There are also traps in either approach. If the plan is too detailed and precious, the daily effort might follow it right out the window without seeing any inherent flaws in the structure. If the plan is too loose, the daily effort might become mired in creative detail. I think of the book outline as planning a road trip on a map, viewed from the 30,000-foot level. You know enough about where you’re going to leave town in the right direction and not wander in circles in the desert, but you don’t have such a hard pencil mark that you follow the state line and drive into a box canyon.

3. Have a Clear Vision

Separate from creating and following an outline, vision is a matter of knowing what your heart and intellect are doing. You can follow the book outline exactly but still wander in tone and be false to intent.

You need to be clear about whether your book or play or symphony is meant lightly or seriously. Some books invite the reader to laugh, make plays on words and inside jokes, and take the comic view of life; some compel the deeper emotions, ask for greater commitment from the reader’s attention, and intend to inspire or frighten. Some music is ebullient and grandiose, some somber and majestic. It’s important to know from the beginning what you are doing and stick with it. Books that start out as great emotional voyages and devolve into a fit of the giggles get thrown across the room with great force.

If you are feeling light and playful when you sit down to write, but the book at hand is a political thriller or a tragedy—or vice versa—then some days you will not be able to honor your commitment and push the word string forward. It’s important to know these times, consciously refrain from writing or painting, and avoid messing up good paper or canvas with work that will only have to be ripped out and done over. And if too many days end up that way, it may be a clue that the book and your heart are following divergent paths.

Of course, some writers and artists can school their emotions and do the necessary work under all conditions. They can turn from an evening of drink and merriment to write or paint the death of a beloved character. Or they can turn from personal tragedy to spin a tale of fun and laughter.3

4. Keep Your Eyes Below the Horizon

As you proceed to do your daily quota of words or paint or bars of music, it’s also important to focus downward and inward. You have to turn your gaze away from the arc of the story, the distant goal, the climax and denouement, the bright sunrise at the heart of the canvas—and write the scene you’re working on today, to paint the patch of shadow that is under your brush.

This may sound like conflicting advice—have a clear vision, but don’t look at it—but the principle is simple enough. If you are hiking on a crest line or climbing a rock face, you must occasionally look up to see where you are going, but you mostly look down at where to put your feet and what your next handhold should be.

The daily task is a particular piece of the work. It must share in the whole, but it still have its own internal logic, emotional context, rhythm, and purpose. The reader might be aware of the entire sweep of the book, but he or she is still reading this one patch of words, this one character’s experience, this one piece of the story at a time. A person listening to a symphony might remember what came before and anticipate what will come after, but he or she is only hearing the musical phrases being presented at this particular instant.

Only the painter, sculptor, or architect—a practitioner of the visual arts—can expect the viewer to take in the entire work as a single pattern, at a glance, as a gestalt. But even so the single glance is made up of disparate parts: light here and shadow there, an arch here and a cornice there. And each of these details has its own being and deserves individual respect and attention.

5. Harness Your Desires

Commitment to maintaining a daily schedule is one thing. Actually attaining it is often something else. What works for a week or a month may not last a year or a decade.

We all would like to be an accomplished musician, a writer with a stack of books behind us, or a painter with a collection of canvases. Thinking and dreaming about this level of accomplishment is one thing, desiring it enough to put down the television remote and go to the daily practice, or writing or painting session, is quite another. That requires a heartfelt desire, a sense of personal destiny, a life decision that lets you see your days and your purpose on this planet become focused on this choice and not others—often at the expense of others.

Fortunately, this is a decision most easily made when we’re young and full of energy and dreams. Then it’s easy to form habits of mind and body, of daily schedule and seriousness of purpose, that carry over into the hectic years of marriage and child-raising and endure through to the quiet years of maturity, attainment, and retirement. This is why so many music and arts programs are directed at the young, to capture their imaginations and their hearts.

6. Live an Orderly Life

The final requirement of meeting the daily commitment is to live an orderly and purposeful—and usually sober—life. To set aside an hour a day for painting or writing or musical practice requires that your days not be chaotic with other events.

This can be easier than it seems. Some people have jobs that require unexpected demands such as on-call periods and frequent travel. But the doctor or medical technician who is on call often has “down” periods of simple waiting. The traveler has empty hours in airports and hotel rooms. These can be filled with work at a keyboard if the passion is writing. Admittedly, it’s a bit harder to fill this time with work at an easel or practice on a musical instrument.

The great danger of making these spare hours work for you is the eventual interruption. To begin working on a chapter or scene while waiting for a flight can be dangerous. Any artistic endeavor is one of immersion, and your flight might be called when you are deep in the story. Then the choice is to break off your thought, or let the gate close and find a later flight.4

Notice that in all of this I’ve left out two elements that most people consider vital to creative effort: talent and inspiration.

Talent is, of course, a prerequisite. If your brain cannot generate a word string or the pitch-and-toss of dialogue on command, if your eye and hand cannot draw a fluid line with purpose, then it’s going to be difficult to write or paint. But usually these things can be learned; all it takes is practice and desire. And if you simply are not good at them, you won’t go far and will quickly look for something else to try. The daily task that is the secret of time simply won’t enter into the equation.

Inspiration is overrated. If you have prepared yourself with desire, a plan or outline for the story or painting in hand, clear vision of your purpose in tackling it, and the quiet mind that comes with an orderly life, then inspiration is a matter of sitting down and addressing the task. Inspiration comes from the work itself.5

It’s just a matter of putting down the remote and getting busy. And you know there’s nothing worth watching on television anyway, don’t you?

1. This applies not just to artistic endeavors and martial arts training. I know a man who used to quail at the thought of painting his house: doing all those rooms and hallways and moldings and doors in two or three days of backbreaking effort. Instead, he made painting a part of his weekend effort, for an hour or two on Saturday afternoons. He would commit himself to painting one wall of one room, or one side of a hallway, then quit. He probably spent more total time cleaning brushes than if he had tried to do the whole house in two days, but he got it done eventually and relatively painlessly. I also knew a couple who had an iron bedstead that needed to be chipped down to bare metal through several layers of old paint. Rather than try to do it all at once—with consequent hand cramps and blisters—they set the thing up in a back hallway and, every time they passed through, took two or three whacks with a scraper. It took them several months, but they got it clean. A little bit every day.

2. I’ve written books both ways. Ideally, I would like to have the outline complete down to the level of chapter and scene before I start, or shortly after I have the book idea set up with an encouraging first chapter or two. (In the old days, publishers might buy a novel on the basis of sample chapters and a finished outline—but no more. Now they want the entire book finished on spec.) I’ve also written books where I knew generally where the story had to go but worked up the outline in chunks, usually one or two sections ahead of what I call “production writing.”

3. Some people would say this is the sign of a defective character, of someone too emotionally facile or insincere to be trusted. Actually, it’s a matter of practice and discipline. The work lives apart from the artist.

4. One technique I’ve found useful when interrupted right at the critical point in a scene is to space down a couple of lines and do a quick sketch of what comes next: key words, key thoughts, key action steps. This takes perhaps thirty seconds and precedes saving the file and closing down the computer. Having that fragment to work from makes starting back up much easier.

5. Sometimes what looks like inspiration does raise its head. There are times when I am supposed to be working on a story, know more or less what should come next, but can’t make myself write. I can’t even look at the keyboard. Almost always, in this situation, the “what should come next” is wrong. I know at a subconscious level, which I cannot at first put into words, that something is missing or inverted or false. Then I need to stop and rework the outline. But otherwise, let me think of the opening sentence—the phrase, emotion, sensory image, or what have you that starts the scene—and my little word generator kicks in. And then we’re off to the races.