No. 106 | By Christine Carron
In the first week of the Jam Experience—Goodjelly’s signature training program—writers create a 2-week plan for their writing work using the new tools and techniques that are introduced in the program’s early lessons. There’s so much excitement when those first plans are finalized. Enthusiasm. Intention. Clarity. Writers are pumped! Ready to take action. Here. We. Go!
Yet I know I will soon be coaching those same writers through disappointment and frustration. Why? Because those shiny, sparkly plans are going to fail. Not because the plans are subpar. Not because the writers did something wrong. Not at all. Those first jam plans are likely the most thoughtful, effective writing plans the participants ever made thanks to what they’ve learned.
Their plans are going to fail because that is the nature of plans.
We make plans based on the information we have at the time. As soon as we finalize a plan, more time passes and more information comes our way. Maybe we learn that it takes longer than we thought it would to churn out pages. Or that pulling together a comprehensive character map involves more steps than we realized.
It may also turn out that assumptions we made about the rest of our life aren’t lining up either: maybe someone who relies on our support gets sick, or we get an unexpected opportunity that eats up our scheduled writing time, or . . . a global pandemic happens and impacts our motivation and drive.
All that is data.
Some of those data points inevitably will call into question, i.e., prove wrong, the underlying assumptions of the original plan.
At that point, yes, our plan has technically failed, but only in the sense that it didn’t predict reality. That shouldn’t be much of a surprise as predicting the future with perfect accuracy is still, as far as I know, an ability that resides only in fantasy worlds. Even so, the belief that we can create an infallible plan that will control reality’s unfolding seems to fuel the way many of us react to failed plans.
We stew. We fret. Possibly to the extent that all future writing progress we make is marred by the taint of late. “Yeah, I got it done, but I should have gotten it done earlier according to my original plan.”
That kind of thinking is not motivating, nor does it boost your confidence or momentum. Its logic is further suspect when you consider that never—and I really mean not once ever—have I seen a writer go into a death-spiral tizzy when their plan fails in their favor. “Yeah, I got it done, but it really should have taken me two days longer according to my original plan. So frustrating.”
That’s a potent inconsistency in our plan-failure reactions. One that indicates to me that it’s not actually our plan-failures that are the true problem but rather our relationships to our plans. Those relationships need an upgrade.
One of the best perspective-setting books I’ve ever read about planning in a creative context is wire walker Philippe Petit’s Creativity: The Perfect Crime. He calls the successful execution of a finished work a “coup” and writes: The schedule that governs the unfolding of a coup is nothing but a detailed battle plan. It deals with a duration of a series of actions (estimated by sheer science or by guesswork—my estimations are always wrong). Such a schedule usually proves, after the fact, just good enough to make a paper airplane! (65)
Reading that excerpt you might be lulled into thinking that Petit is dismissive of plans, as he clearly realizes their nature as well as his own estimates are so fallible. That is not the case. Far from it. Petit would have never been able to pull off one of the most epic creative acts of the last century—his 1974 highwire walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center—had he not been a mad planner.
What makes Petit different than the norm, and highly instructive, is how he interacts with any one of his (error-prone) coup plans: Thanks to intuition, improvisation, and observation, I update my plan constantly. But more importantly it updates me. I inhale what the plan exhales. (135, emphasis added)
I love those last two sentences. With them, Petit captures the dynamic nature of planning. The dynamic nature of a healthy relationship with a plan. Perhaps even inviting you to consider that—no matter the impact on your timeline—your plan failures aren’t actually failures.
Planning is a process. A conversation between you, your work, and your evolution as a writer. Stop expecting a plan to somehow magically control your writing future. That kind of thinking doesn’t serve you or your coups-in-progress.
Instead use your plan to focus. To get insight. To make progress. And most definitely, inhale what your plan exhales. You’ve got this!
Petit, Philippe. Creativity: The Perfect Crime. Riverhead Books–Penguin, 2014.