The Organized Writer: Order vs Freedom

by Jeff Abbott on December 5, 2008

In thinking about organization and creativity, here are two quotes for your consideration:
Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work–Gustave Flaubert
The Filofax is the enemy of art.–Erica Jong
Now, the whole point of a Filofax is to be regular and orderly in your life–to know where you’re supposed to be, what you’re supposed to be doing, when you’re supposed to do it. (That is why I have one, open on my desk all the time.) Who’s wrong, who’s right? Do I have an enemy of art just inches away from my computer?

My answer is that they both are right. Flaubert is correct to suggest a regular, orderly life–perhaps one free of the drama brought about by crises leading from disorder–frees the mind to focus on the work. He is advocating, in a way, against distraction. (This of course from a man who was regularly distracted by ladies of the evening.) A steady schedule, a sense that your time is under control, knowing that you are being productive each and every day can give your writing/creative project a constant sense of forward momentum.
Jong is right, too, though. Her quote used to be on her web site back in 1997, and she advocates for lots of “dream time” (her term) and freedom from constriction for writers. (She also identifies the phone and the fax as enemies of art, and she’s right–simply in terms of them offering distraction during creative periods). Certainly, too much distraction or too much structure in our schedules could undercut the creative impulse. Our minds need to be free to wander, free to break rules, free to pursue the best ideas when they come. Clearly, too much structure wouldn’t work for her.
It is about finding what works for you. For me–and I suspect for other writers of commercial fiction who need to produce a book a year–I fall more on the side of Flaubert. I am not hyper-organized, but I need the regular order of life to keep moving forward. I schedule my writing on my calendar. I schedule my time to handle the administrative side of being a full-time novelist. I schedule meetings with my assistant (although I have been very lax on that front lately, feeling swamped with work). I schedule research time. And I make sure that there are blocks of time for the other interests in my life, especially my family. If I get derailed from that schedule (and we all know about good intentions and the best-laid plans–schedules can go out the window at times), I note what I did instead on the calendar pages–so I can hopefully stay on track better and also, if I need to rethink my schedule (for instance, I’m starting a new book and therefore spending much more time on research) then I need to know where my time is going. I want, always, to make intelligent decisions about how I’m spending my time as a writer. Whether it’s structured time, or the time to take a walk and let my mind wander. (My Filofax pages have nice schedules written on them, but then also doodles and random thoughts. I suppose that shows a balance of sorts.)
So what do you think? Which side do you come down on, the clockwork of Flaubert or the freedom of Jong? Or are you in the middle? How organized in your day do you feel you need to be?

    { 11 comments… read them below or add one }

    JT Ellison December 5, 2008 at 12:55 pm

    I’m utterly schizophrenic. Half the time I’m Jong, and feel like it doesn’t matter what has happened during the day so long as I get my word count in. Other times… like now… I’m all Flaubert. I get militant about my time and clamp down, so I can free my mind of the mental doorbell that seems to go off every 30 seconds.
    Finding the balance is tricky for me, because I feel like I’m spread too thin, between writing, which is #1, blogging, committee work and trying to have a life. I’ve realized I’m too accessible, and not in the right ways.
    And Jeff, many thanks for the link to 43 Folders. A lifesaver, to be sure. I’ve ordered the book from yesterday too, it seems like something I need. : )

    Janet December 5, 2008 at 8:59 pm

    I need a minimum of structure to be productive; my capacity to waste time is almost infinite otherwise. I do work best if there are few items on my to-do list, so I’d rather do things in chunks, and then turn to something else, rather than have too many tiny jobs to do.
    Structure is important, but I think it also has to be flexible.

    Ann Victor December 6, 2008 at 5:55 am

    Distraction is the greatest thief of my time, so I LOVED the Flaubert quote (I’ve copied it and it’s in my “motivations” box!) Great series of posts. Thanks, Jeff!

    Jeanie W December 6, 2008 at 10:03 am

    I hate organizing my days. But if I don’t make the effort to keep track of all I need to do, then while I’m trying to write I’m plagued by the feeling that I’m forgetting to do something important — something that will eventually bite me in the ass if I keep neglecting to deal with it. I don’t use as tidy a system as filofax. Perhaps I should look into it. Right now I have reminders and to-do lists on about twenty post-it notes stuck around the edges of my computer monitor.

    Jeff Abbott December 6, 2008 at 10:39 am

    JT: 43 Folders is an amazingly useful site, and I love Merlin Mann’s distinctive voice. The peril is (and I think Mann fell into this for a while) in having to write about different productivity solutions, there’s a trap in constantly changing the way you do things. Probably that would be another good topic for this series, picking a system and sticking with it.
    I have to be both militant and flexible about my time. One of the useful lessons is knowing when to pick your battles (which can involve disappointing loved ones who want your time) and learning when to let go (as in one weekend when everyone in my family was sick, and I was on deadline, and I had to be both doctor and writer). I was stressed then, but now I laugh about it. Life happens, writing happens, it will all get done.

    Jeff Abbott December 6, 2008 at 10:41 am

    Janet: I will write about to-do lists very soon in a separate blog entry, but I agree with you, a staggeringly long one just seems to wilt a person’s resolve.
    Ann: You’re welcome, glad it was useful.

    Jeff Abbott December 6, 2008 at 10:48 am

    I will write about different ways to organize in a separate entry (thanks all of you who are spurring ideas for future entries): but I can say I think the post-it note approach would cost me more mental energy than it was worth. I say that because it used to be my system. That being plagued by the feeling that you’re forgetting something haunted me. Time management gurus talk about having a “trusted system”–a place where all your notes, to-dos, thoughts, etc. can be dumped and kept until you are ready to deal with them. There are lots of solutions to that problem–whether paper or electronic–and I’ll write about that in an upcoming entry.

    Kristan December 8, 2008 at 12:28 pm

    Well, so far everything you’ve said about how you do things appeals to me, so I’m thinking I’m like you, somewhere in the middle. Too much free time makes me distracted and lazy, but too much schedule makes me feel forced, obligated, un-creative.

    robena grant December 8, 2008 at 6:44 pm

    I’d say I also land somewhere in the middle. I do have a rather funny bad habit though, on a great writing day I make a list of all the things I’ve done during that work day and check them off (after the fact) which to many would prove useless. When I catch myself doing that I laugh. But somehow it makes me feel that I’ve accomplished a lot and it seems to stimulate writing more the next day, and the day after. So organization, but after the fact. Try it, it feels good.

    cath December 8, 2008 at 7:45 pm

    just a quick note from a new reader (found you via meg gardiner’s blog, and am working my way through your books) …
    i am “affectionately” referred to in my personal and work relationships as obsessively organized. i have adapted the system i use throughout the years to accomodate the type of work i am doing, but in essence, i feel lost and ineffective without structure. when i know where the boundaries are, i am free to roam within them – and roam i do! i think my creativity is stimulated by an appropriate amount of planning.
    looking forward to peeking in your writings going forward!

    Jeff Abbott December 9, 2008 at 12:37 pm

    The thing to remember about structure is that by creating boundaries, it forces us to be more creative. Think of Shakespeare’s genius in writing sonnets. He wasn’t limited by the strict form; the form forced him to be more creative within its bounds.

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