To begin talking about writing strategies, we’re going to talk about pottery. Specifically, the kind of pottery created by a bunch of Psychology students who do not, normally, create pottery. The students themselves were given an assignment where they were split into two groups, each with their own similar yet different goals. Members in group A were asked to make as many pots as physically possible for the span of a month; the higher the number of pots, the higher the possible grade. Members of group B were instead asked to submit a single pot, whose quality would determine their individual grade.
Assuming that the two would be separated by the adage of quality versus quantity, the psychologists were surprised to find that the best quality pots were instead found in group A. After some mulling over these results and interviewing members, they realized that, while group B had invested more time in research and planning their final product, their mental effort could not compete with the experience that practice gave. Group A also benefited from the unintended emotional buffer of not trying to achieve perfection, but instead quantity.
I first came across this story scrolling through social media when I should have been sleeping. Though I had work in the morning I was so excited by what had been explained to me that I reread the anecdote. I’ve since been unable to find a definitive source for the story since then; frequently re-blogged and commented on, it’s become a kind of internet urban legend among creative types. And while I can say it was disappointing to find out that there was no factual truth to it, I still found a lot to reflect on with that anecdote.
I’ve never been a focus on quantity over quality type myself. A well established procrastinator, I’ve always found it easier to focus on making the single copy I can as opposed to finding enough time to make multiple projects. This was true for most of the written work I created, from essays to the poems that I might feel compelled to write. And while by the end of my English degree I had made the connection that, after writing 15 or more essays per year I had gotten pretty good at them, the idea of just making things for the sake of making things was something that didn’t even occur to me. There always had to be a point to what I was writing, or a story I was telling. A contest to enter, an assignment in my creative writing class, all of which would be edited and plodded over until that one, individual copy was as good as I could make it at the time. But just writing without necessarily worrying about the quality, only to achieve the finished product, that was something that seemed utterly foreign to me, verging in the realm of counter productive.
It can be the strange things in life that make us understand what has been obviously in front of us the whole time. For me, it was a Tumblr post at 2 in the morning, with a story that was succinctly titled “Make Your Shitty Pots”. Anecdotes and internet myths can take on different meanings for different people, but for me it made me realize that, however awful or even rushed, a poem a day or a short story a week was still practice. I’m a plodder. I can take three minutes to write out a single sentence, and for those who have been following my writing journey that means that my allotted half hour of writing a day sometimes produces very little. While I was satisfied that the half poem or single paragraph I had produced was “decent”, it was also discouraging to make such little progress. This coupled with not always being able to find a contest to enter, or a single purpose, an answer to the question of “why am I doing this?”, has made motivation hard.
I am fortunate enough to have a creative circle of friends, and while all of them posses their different outlets ranging from dance to screenwriting, I’ve heard them mull over these same ideas. It’s much easier to feel productive if you are creating with a specific purpose in mind. It provides the structure of a deadline, as well as an affirming reason for spending time in a busy day to make something that may not pay you. But it’s all practice, and even if you write or paint the worst thing that you may be afraid to attach your name to, it serves its purpose, and it still has meaning. I’ve written ten poems recently, nine of which I will never show anyone. But my most recent tenth, that one was pretty ok. Today I will write my eleventh, and while it might be awful, I can still say I accomplished something. And who knows, the 12th might be pretty ok, too.