You’ve set your intention. You’ve incubated and investigated it. You’ve oodles of information, swirling around your head and in the form of notes and plans. Now it’s time to get it all into order. It’s time to compose.
This is the central phase in the creative process – three phases lead up to it, three more will follow afterwards. It is also, together with the editing phase, the most obviously active stage. This is where you stop wondering and imagining, mulling and doodling — and start doing. You put the beads together, you write the first draft, you get the builders in and see the bricks laid, you…. well, you get it. Whatever you’re creating, this is the stage of the process in which you lay the groundwork.
COMPOSING. THE CHALLENGE: To put together a full and fair first effort that fulfills the intention you set in Stage One.
— “Full” means this stage is not concluded until you have worked through to the end, and if necessary looped back to fill in missing bits, in order to put together an entity that is complete.
— “Fair” means a disinterested person should be able to recognise what you have made. It will still, at the end of this stage of the process, need trimming and improving but it will recognisably be what it is: a necklace; a story with a beginning, middle and end; a kitchen extension…
ALLOWING & LETTING GO.
In this stage you begin the process of letting go of most of the infinite possibilities available to you, of choosing the few that will combine in a unique way to make this particular creation. As you do, keep in mind that what is being put together at this point is very much work in progress, that the next two phases will afford you time and opportunity to modify, alter and add in any way you want.
And note the passive voice: it’s “being put together”. Your conscious intention and effort is just one of the conditions that brings it into form. Life too will have an input. As John Lennon so eloquently said: “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans”. Creation is always co-creation. Welcome life’s input, what emerging circumstances might be saying to you. Learn from mistakes. Be alert to the opportunities that can be embedded in what looks like a setback. Enable anything that leads to positive creative progress.
Stay committed to the creative intention you set in Stage One while staying flexible in your approach. If, as very occasionally happens, you find what is emerging is not fulfilling your original intention, then go back to the drawing board and set a new intention for incubation and investigation.
OPENING THROUGH STRUCTURE.
The creative process is in many ways paradoxical and one of its paradoxes is that a set structure best allows our fluid and spontaneous creative intelligence to flourish. During this stage, it is especially important to have the life structures in place that best encourage us in starting, continuing and completing our draft.
Like a zen meditator, sitting zazen – legs crossed, spine straight, eyes closed, hands held just so – it is the physical containment and discipline that allows the mental freedom to be playful and expansive, individual and inventive.
When drafting we need to structure our lives – specifically our time, space, resources and attitude of mind – to support our endeavour. Without adequate time and space, composing can become an arid or stressful effort.
We need a set place – the public library, the local coffee shop, the kitchen table – and a set time over days or weeks or months or sometimes even years to do our work, slowly steadily. This is what allows digression, originality, artistry and inspiration to arise.
This is in many ways a blind process. Our conscious mind has an idea about what it is trying to create but, as we saw in stage one, that’s only the most obvious dimension of the mind. Much is happening at the deeper, emotional and imaginative levels of which we are unaware. I am currently, in 2011, editing for a US audience my first novel, originally published in Ireland in 2006 and am startled by themes and ideas I was unconscious of writing at the time.
TRY THIS: Claim your space — anything from a bag that you will bring off to the coffee shop every day to a dedicated corner or room. Mark it out as belonging to you and your intended creation. Fill it with things you love: postcards, shells, stones, flowers, meaningful quotes, jewels, fine writing paper… whatever makes you feel good about it.
TRY THIS: Timetabling. Find a time that you will be able to work on what you are creating consistently each and every day. Or, if your schedule is so erratic that this is not truly not possible, sit down each Monday to timetable your week, filling in the time during that week that you will draft.
TRY THIS: Work in 90 minute bursts. Research shows this is the optimum amount of concentration time for most people, after which we deliver diminishing returns.
TRY THIS: Acknowledge your effort by enjoying your time away from it. Drafting is for most people the most effortful part of the procedure. As you timetable your activity, give yourself plenty of time ‘off’ — daily, weekly and holiday breaks — as well as plenty of activity that nurtures your creativity: meditation, f-r-e-e-writing, mindmapping, doodling.
TRY THIS: Begin. Anywhere. Go from there. Start by getting something –anything — done.
While drafting, we are open to learning from our mistakes, learning from good advice, learning from constructive criticism. To remain that open, we need a method of dealing with negative, carping criticism. Occasionally this comes from outside, but most often it’s inside ourselves.
Nobody has written better about the challenge of the inner critic than Annie Lamott in her famous essay about writing “shitty first drafts” in Bird by Bird: “First there’s the vinegar-lipped Reader Lady, who says primly, ‘Well, that’s not very interesting, is it?’ And there’s the emaciated German male who writes these Orwellian memos detailing your thought crimes. And there are your parents, agonizing over your lack of loyalty and discretion; and there’s William Burroughs, dozing off or shooting up because he finds you as bold and articulate as a houseplant; and so on…
TRY THIS: Critic Container. “Close your eyes and get quiet for a minute, until the chatter starts up. Then isolate one of the voices and imagine the person speaking as a mouse. Pick it up by the tail and drop it into a mason jar. Then isolate another voice, pick it up by the tail, drop it in the jar. And so on. Drop in any high-maintenance parental units, drop in any contractors, lawyers, colleagues, children, anyone who is whining in your head. Then put the lid on, and watch all these mouse people clawing at the glass, jabbering away, trying to make you feel like shit because you won’t do what they want–won’t give them more money, won’t be more successful, won’t see them more often. Then imagine that there is a volume-control button on the bottle. Turn it all the way up for a minute, and listen to the stream of angry, neglected, guilt-mongering voices. Then turn it all the way down and watch the frantic mice lunge at the glass, trying to get to you. Leave it down, and get back to your shitty first draft.”
TRY THIS: Take Your Time. As you compose, consciously slow down in order to be present and alert. The pace of creation is generally slower than our impatient surface mind wants to acknowledge — and the more ambitious the creation, the slower the pace. What we call blocks and gaps are very often necessary parts of the process, with great shifts happening at the subterranean level.
Another paradox: Go slow as a tortoise to see your creative composing bound ahead like a hare.
And vice versa.
The 1st Stage: Intention (Choosing)
The 2nd Stage: Incubation (Germinating)
The 3rd Stage: Investigation (Researching)
The 4th Stage: Composition (Drafting)
The 5th Stage: Amplification (Deepening)
The 6th Stage: Clarification (Editing)
The 7th Stage: Completion (Finishing & Going Public)