Do I just need to relax??
Pushing yourself vs. letting things come to you—the eternal dilemma
Welcome to the 90th issue of Subtle Maneuvers. Previously: Pat Metheny’s compulsive productivity—and my pitch for paid subscriptions. More on that below.
The other week, Letters of Note published a proposal that the producer Steve Albini sent to Nirvana in November 1992, laying out his vision for recording the band’s follow-up to its gazillion-selling culture bomb Nevermind. The entire letter is fascinating, but the following passage in particular jumped out at me. Albini writes:
I have worked on hundreds of records (some great, some good, some horrible, a lot in the courtyard), and I have seen a direct correlation between the quality of the end result and the mood of the band throughout the process. If the record takes a long time, and everyone gets bummed and scrutinizes every step, then the recordings bear little resemblance to the live band, and the end result is seldom flattering. Making punk records is definitely a case where more “work” does not imply a better end result.
As someone who is in the middle of a project that is taking a very long time, and where I’ve been more than a little bummed for long stretches, I definitely see his point! On the other hand, writing a nonfiction book is different from making a punk record… right?
Around the same time I read this letter, my wife and I watched the 2015 film Happy Hour (from Ryusuke Hamaguchi, the director of the Oscar-nominated Drive My Car) and, midway through, came to this exchange between one of the main characters, Sakurako, and her mother-in-law:
Mother-in-law: Sakurako, you’re too serious.
Mother-in-law: There are things you can’t help. But you blame yourself for everything. That’s somewhat… arrogant in a way.
Mother-in-law: That sort of mentality wears other people down, you know. Just take it easy. Be easygoing. That’s the best.
Sakurako: I thought I was easygoing.
Just take it easy. Be easygoing. That’s the best. I’ve had this exact conversation with myself many times. And, just as I was mulling it over again, the following Bill Murrayquote appeared in my Instagram feed:
The more relaxed you are, the better you are at everything; the better you are with your loved ones, the better you are with your enemies, the better you are at your job, the better you are with yourself.
Could this be true? It feels true of many things, and yet most of my best writing has come from a state that is pretty much the opposite of relaxed: jaw clenched, shoulders hunched, practically vibrating with anxiety as I try to squeeze out a page or two before my resolve fails. I relate powerfully to the literary critic Parul Sehgal’s recent description of her writing process:
The majority of my time is spent reading, sifting, thinking. The first draft happens in a sort of last-minute frenzy. I wish that weren’t the case but have more or less surrendered to my grim ‘process’. (Is there something about writing with great speed, shame, and urgency that overcomes certain defenses?)
That is exactly the combination that I rely on: great speed, shame, and urgency. It reminds me, as well, of the playwright Tom Stoppard, who said that the only thing that really got him to write was fear—he had to get “frightened enough to discipline myself to the typewriter for successive bouts.” Same!
But this is a difficult way to approach a multiyear project where there is just one big deadline at the end. And, with any project, there is a fine line between productive anxiety and, you know, just torturing yourself.
Anyway, I’m saying all of this not because I’m building toward an answer (sorry!) but because I think this is a such a fundamental dynamic of the creative process, regardless of what kind of work you make: that tension between pushing forward but not pushing too hard, between worrying things into existence and letting things come to you. I think it’s something that requires constant calibration and just, like, toggling (I love that word). And I guess I want to get better at making sure that relaxation is one of the states I toggle into, rather than idling in grim determination all the time.
Thoughts? I’m especially curious if this dynamic is limited to writers, or if some of you working in other disciplines can relate.
THE FILM IS THE MOOD
Steve Albini’s assertion that the mood of the band translates directly into the final recording reminds me of something the filmmaker Jane Campion said about her screenwriting process, which I quoted in Daily Rituals: Women at Work. “It starts with a feeling that’s quite unnameable,” Campion said in 1993. “And a mood, you know? And then you try to write things that create the mood you are feeling or thinking of.” If the process works, then ultimately “the film is the mood,” she said.
THE PATRONIZED LIFE
Last issue, I made my big pitch for paid subscriptions—and, in the spirit of transparency, I wanted to share the results so far:
As of this moment, there are 7,483 sensitive artists receiving this newsletter, and 64 of you have opted to become paid subscribers. Thank you! That means this fledgling newsletter entrepreneur is making a gross annualized revenue of $2,610, which, OK, is not quite enough to “live and thrive / Indebted to no Prince or Peer alive”—but it’s a start, and I’m truly grateful for your support.
If you’d like to join the ranks of this vaunted patron class, subscribe here for $3/month or $30/year. If you’re on the fence, please don’t put it off for too long; I will be donating 10 percent of the funds I receive in April–May to Direct Relief’s emergency-response efforts in Ukraine.
Thanks for reading! This is where I usually make a pitch for supporting this newsletter—but since I just did that, here’s a picture of my dog, Uno, instead 🥰
I saw this quote before the recent complaints about Murray’s on-set behavior surfaced, so I’m going to roll with it while acknowledging that he may not be the best person to look to for advice.
I think perhaps it's an aspect of art (including writing, of course!) as a main or sole career. I am a visual artist, but it's not my "day job". When any day off comes (weekends, holidays, earned time off days) I can easily dive into the artwork. There's no creative blocks, no "blank canvas syndrome". Or very infrequently. I think this is because I spend mental time during the week working on and anticipating the next project or canvas, and there is urgency, a "champing at the bit," to get to it. When the time does come, I do, usually, just get right to it. And I have time set aside to do so. Not sure where this fits in with your duality of pushing vs allowing.
I will contrast this scenario with day job projects though! I often procrastinate on them (because I don't really want to do them) and get the most reviled assignments done at the last minute with a modicum of panic and a wee pinch of shame. It's not as bad for the projects I don't mind.
When I did a brief stint in children's books, the writing and drawing were fine, it was the editing and constant revisions that drained the life from me! Perhaps this sits at the back of your mind when writing the first draft? You want it so perfect the first time around, to avoid the pain of revision, that this creates the block at the start. The mad rush at the end releases the block because you have no other choice, and the writing has been percolating in your mind - so it just flows.
It is an eternal dilemma - the pushing through or waiting! Working with writers I am VERY familiar with the "fine line between productive anxiety and, you know, just torturing yourself."
I've been researching creative persistence - the multi-year projects you talk about - and the concept of disfluency really helped me. I recently wrote that we crave certainty and want to avoid risk, but the creative process is the complete antithesis of this. Undertaking any creative project – writing included – involves trial and error, getting blocked, embarrassment, making hand break turns – the list goes on.
All of which causes disfluency which makes us more likely to prevaricate, procrastinate, get distracted and quit. And so, requires effort, grit and persistence to keep going. Those things are hard – but it’s because they’re hard that they also bring such joy and fulfilment.
As well as knowing that this is the creative process, the thing that helped me is noticing when I get stuck, eg every single new chapter!!! Coming to terms with the fact that we're doing something hard, that involves disfluency, means we can cope when blocks and barriers arrive.