A few years ago, I asked some artist friends, “How do you know when a painting is finished?” By and large, the answers were vague. There’s certainly no objective standard. Answers included, “It’s a feeling…” or “I know it when I see it.” One friend confessed that, when she sees one of her paintings hanging in a friend’s house – even years after she “finished” it – she’s tempted to take out her brushes and continue the process. The simplest, clearest answer I got was, “I know it’s done when I run out of time.”
I thought of my artist friends the other night when I heard Jennifer Egan give a lecture at the Pen and Podium series at the University of Denver. Egan, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her novel, A Visit From The Goon Squad, spoke mainly about her craft – how she develops her ideas, characters, and plots. While she’s probably best known for her novels, Egan also writes long-form nonfiction, mainly for the New York Times Magazine.
Interestingly, Egan uses different writing processes for fiction and nonfiction. For nonfiction, she uses a keyboard. For fiction, she writes it out longhand. She said, “I write my fiction quickly and in longhand because I want to write in an unthinking way.” It sounds to me that she writes her fiction from System 1 and her nonfiction from System 2. I wonder how common that is. Do most authors who compose fiction, write from System 1? Do authors of nonfiction typically write from System 2? (For the record, I write nonfiction and I write in System 2; I’m not sure how to write from System 1).
Egan went on to say that she follows a simple three-step process in her writing: “Write quickly. Write badly. Fix it.” She captures the essence of her idea quickly and then revisits it to clean and clarify her thoughts. I wonder how she knows when she’s finished.
I thought of Egan the other day when I was reading about Google’s management culture. One of Google’s mottos is, “Ship then iterate.” The general idea is to get the software into reasonably good shape and then ship it to customers. (You may want to call it a beta version). Once the software is in customer hands, you’ll find out all kinds of interesting things. Then you iterate with a new release that adds new features or fixes old ones. The point is to do it quickly and do it frequently. It sounds remarkably similar to Jennifer Egan’s writing process.
There’s a corollary to this, of course: your first draft or first release is not going to be very good. Egan told the story of the first draft of her first novel. It was so bad, even her mother wouldn’t return her calls. In the software world, we say something quite similar, “If you’re proud of your first release, you shipped it too late.”
Software, of course, is never finished. You can always do something more (or less). I wonder if the same isn’t true of every work of art. There’s always something more.
While you could always do something more, the trick is to get the first draft done quickly. Create it quickly. Think about it. Fix it. Repeat. It’s a good way to create great things.