Mechanical vs. creative

2019-11-10

Famous marketer and fasionable glasses afficionado Seth Godin suggests that writer’s block is not really a thing. For one thing nobody even mentioned having writer’s block until 1940, and what the hell is writer’s block anyway? Nobody ever talks about having plumber’s block.

To a certain degree, this is a fair point. Writing is work, just like anything else. If you sit down at a computer or blank page you will find that you are able to write words onto it until you decide to stop. You wrote something! That’s literally all it takes to be a writer, so that’s what you are now. So what’s the big deal?

On the other hand, it seems clear that writing is a different kind of work than plumbing. Plumbing is mechanical: diagnose, plan, and execute. If you get it wrong, start again from the top. It’s easy to know when you’ve succeeded because it’s really easy to tell when the job is done. Hire a plumber to invent a plumbing tool that nobody has ever thought of before, and you’ll see plumber’s block emerge real quickly.

The point Godin is makng, though, is that writing can be just as mechanical as plumbing, if you practice. A journalist can’t afford writer’s block, so for the most part it just doesn’t happen to them. They have a deadline and a word count they have to hit, and they deliver on their targets because they’re prfessionals. It might not be flawless prose, but there will be another shot at flawless prose next week.

To simplify that summary, the difference between the two is knowing when you’re done. The writing cycle is mechanical as well (write, edit and publish). The difference between mechanical and creative tasks is that it’s not clear when a creative task is finished.

Does it have to be perfect before you can call it finished? I sure hope not.

Perfectionism is the real driving force behind Parkinson’s stupid non-Law. It’s not that the work expands to fit the time allowed. It’s that your ridiculous standards will never allow you to finish, because you never defined what finishing actually means, and that’s scary.

To simplify the summary of the simplified summary, you get to choose what it means to be done, and if you’re the type of person who never finishes anything, you should decide up front what counts. The fewer subjective elements involved, the better.

To simplify the SSOTSS, if you can never finish anything, try working to a deadline. But also remember: Fuck Parkinson’s Law.