I’ve always had an affinity for computer programming, but I lack the discipline and math comfort required, or maybe I just didn’t get the right encouragement when I was younger. I dabbled in programming, mainly in BASIC, and I enjoy the creative aspect even as my bug-ridden code always reminded me that my attention to detail is … lacking.
I always think of programming and chess in similar ways: Deep oceans I’ve poked a toe into, knowing that if I try to swim out too far I’ll just drown, because my brain is about as deep as a puddle. I get very interested in things and for short periods of time learn everything I can—about programming, about chess openings, what have you—and once I have a superficial and minimal mastery of them I lose interest and wander off. The upside is, I know a very little about a huge number of things.
In operating systems, there are what are known as daemons, small programs that run constantly in the background, checking on things or providing data. And here, a hundred words in, we get to the point: Your creativity is a daemon process. It’s working all the time, even if you’re not.
This is why you have to take breaks. Writers often try to force themselves to achieve arbitrary goals, like 5,000 words in a day or a first draft of a novel in four weeks or something like that. And all well and good if that works for you, but keep in mind the typing is the tip of that iceberg. The real work is buried deep inside your head, and it goes on 24-7. And if it’s not producing anything, all the typing in the world won’t help.
That’s why sometimes the best thing you can do for your novel is to walk away and stop writing it. And why sometimes it doesn’t make any sense to worry about stuff like word counts or progress. That creative process is going to be chugging along in the background no matter what you do, so waiting for it to start pushing ideas to the front of your head isn’t wasted time; often it’s necessary time. That’s one reason creativity often looks like doing nothing, just like your computer looks like it’s not doing anything even though there are dozens of processes running in the background all the time.
Of course, this is also a convenient excuse for me to day drink, because when someone catches me sipping whiskey on the deck instead of writing, I just tap my head and wink and say “Creative process!”