Do creative projects have a life of their own?

“There are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up.

The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows. And I’m much more a gardener than an architect.” – George RR Martin

This gave me great hope when I read it a few weeks ago.

“Maybe I’m a gardener!” I thought to myself, watering some tomato plants. Maybe that’s why I’m rubbish at writing long stuff. I get scared by the bigness of a project and dive into a completely alien way of working.

Maybe, I think, if I work out what all the sections of this are, and plan it to the nth degree, then eventually I’ll just fill in the detail in all the little compartments I’ve created and the thing will be finished and beautifully structured.

But I just don’t work like that. Neil Gaiman explains his writing method:

“Your first draft can go way off the rails, your first draft can absolutely go up in flames, it can — you can change the age, gender, number of a character, you can bring somebody dead back to life. Nobody ever needs to know anything that happens in your first draft. It is you telling the story to yourself.

Then, I’ll sit down and type. I’ll put it onto a computer, and as far as I’m concerned, the second draft is where I try and make it look like I knew what I was doing all along.” – Neil Gaiman (The Tim Ferriss Show”)

Another gardener! Write it, allow anything at all to happen, and then pick out the bits that make up an elegant plot in draft 2. He even goes on to say he prefers hand-writing his first drafts because then he can pick out the bits he wants when typing up, rather than having to delete whole pages of work on the computer.

Then I listened to another interview today which suggests that we may not be in control of our creative projects at all.

A true creator knows that you follow the thing to where it’s going, not where you think it ought to go.” – Adam Savage (via Tim Ferriss, again.)

Now that’s really interesting.

Is it that a creative project has a life of its own, and we’re not the master of the thing we came up with at all?

“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” – Michelangelo

It’s all very well for people of extraordinary vision like Michelangelo, but not everything is captured inside a block of marble. And if it is, not everybody can see the statue. Some just see a very difficult and painful afternoon.

I guess if you look at it from outside your own skull and the point in time that you’re at, every creative project has a trajectory and a rate of ‘success’, but we can’t see all of it from the beginning.

So maybe the point is just to set off along the path, and see where we get to.

2 thoughts on “Do creative projects have a life of their own?

  1. This is a topic that’s come up a bunch of times in some of the writing podcasts that I listen to – I’ve heard a few different names for it (“Architect” for people who plan, and “Pantser” for people who write “on the seat of their pants, for example). One point that they made which I think is important is that you can be different ones for different elements. Some people plot out their characters tightly before sending them off not knowing where they are going, while others have a vague plotline and their characters develop as they go along that plotline… before the characters then knock the plot off course and that changes too.

    In terms of comedy, I find that I’ll go in with a vague idea of “what something is about” which is basically because I’ve thought of one joke about it, but that will be a topic (like a TV show, or the idea of having superpowers) rather than what I really want, which is the feelings or journey behind it (like “why wasn’t I encouraged to try this stuff to see if I like it?”, or the way in which having a superpower would go wrong). These often only coalesce when I’ve got an ending – and then I can go back and structure something which I think feels like a set around it. I don’t think I’d get to the ending without the now possibly somewhat ignored initial framing though.

    I think it’s like so much creative stuff though – read a lot of what other people do, take what works for you, discard the rest. 🙂

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