Jun 132014

On heavy writing days I’ll run through a lot of paper, along with everything else.

There’s the old image of the writer at his typewriter, which always seems to be a manual. He’s always there with a hill of wadded-up paper all over his desk. Sometimes you can even see the writer among that landfill.

The new model is one of deleted files, editing done to the actual file and rewrites done on the fly. A lot more efficient and more ecologically sensitive, but this new model doesn’t carry the power of the old image. You don’t see the mess anymore.

The creative process, at least in the early stages, is a violent act. You get the bleeding, callused fingers. The keyboard or piano or drafting table gets hit in a frontal assault. Hair gets torn out. Many trees denuded for the sake of art; all those paper wads have to come from somewhere.

Even though most work is now done on the computer, think of all those baby electrons you clubbed to death.

Forget about trying to make this sound politically correct; there’s no way to do this without totally diluting the process.

But let’s also crank in the other costs. Some are equally violent: The hours chewed up while you’re working on that great concept. The people who get things thrown at them because they dared to interrupt in mid-thought (I’m denying everything here, and the statute of limitations has expired in many of these cases). The wreckage I’ve made of my body because of the coffee, desktop snacks, forgotten meals and inconsistent exercise. The psychological damage, whether real or imagined.

The economics don’t make sense

There’s always a cost. And while the internal (psychological) costs have been discussed in many articles and blogs, what about the externals? The sunk costs?

There are plenty of these in the creative business. If you want a halfway decent chance at a return on your investment, you’re really in the wrong place. And most of the best creative practices go against sound economics.

(**Disclaimer: My own knowledge of economics is pretty limited. I know how to make a budget and balance my checkbook, but that’s about all. I do put my money in CD’s, mostly of the Willie Nelson and Charles Mingus variety. I’m also a great fan of Freakonomics, so that’s my pedigree.)

Artists, writers, musicians and entrepreneurs all try to avoid getting entangled in speculative work, but let’s get to the truth. Along this path it’s all speculative. You’re doing something now and have no idea whether it will pay off later — or even if it’ll work.

Might as well throw your resources into farming hairless chinchillas, huh?

Knowing when to fold ’em

As I write this I’m assembling an outline and character studies for a new fiction project. I’ll spend July and half of August at my manic best, slamming the first draft down on my older-than-I-am Royal typewriter. After that it’ll sit in a #2 mayonnaise jar on Funk & Wagnalls’ porch for the prescribed 40 days and 40 nights.

Which means when I do my first read-through near the end of September, I’ll have an idea whether the thing will fly. That’s only about three months.

So already I can see the costs, and it always pays to count them first:

  • A whole lot of paper. I’m saving a bit here because most of that paper has already been through a printer once. Reduce, reuse, recycle.
  • Three months of my time. As I noticed, three months is worth a lot more when I’m 56 than when I was 26.
  • 100,000 words: That’s about 2,500 of them a day. About 10 pages, and right in line with my usual production. While some folks swear I can easily toss off 100,000 spoken words in a day (watch it), it’s really tougher than it looks.
  • Pride. Of course. I’ll admit that’s a big issue with me. Don’t know if it’s a guy thing or an Eric thing. But there’s the risk of being proved wrong, which hasn’t happened in my adult life. Mistaken, yes. Wrong, no.

Now here’s where it gets tricky. I mentioned the sound economics and cutting your losses. If those chinchillas fail to reproduce or you run out of Rogaine for them, do you get out while you can and forget the bad investment?

See, that’s some real-life stuff here. How many people stay in a truly wretched job, town or relationship because they’ve invested too much time in that?

So after those three months, a lot of paper and many destroyed brain cells, that’s when decision time comes:

  1. Push on regardless, meaning I’m throwing even more resources into what looks like a loser?
  2. Try to eliminate the bleeding by calling it done and pitching it elsewhere? Maybe to a fresh audience or a new market?
  3. Throw it in the blender, let the blades work on it some more and give it another shot? (The imagery here gives me some ideas for a murder scene I’m grappling with. Thanks.)
  4. Pull it out of the queue, stick it in a drawer and work on something else? Maybe some answers will come on the first concept, by which time I’m in a position to do something about it. Or maybe answers won’t come and it’ll be a sunk cost. I’m not waiting around for something to happen.
  5. Hang the costs, cut the losses, light the essobee on fire and deny ever knowing it?

Maybe it’s just geting older or learning a few things about the creative life, but I find myself leaning away from the loss-cutting option. But is it stubbornness, the refusal to quit, stupidity or the faith in the concept that’s driving me here? It sure isn’t good economics.

But while the pushing on sounds good, options 3 and 4 sound even better to me.

It’s never in my best interest to be “married” to a project, even though in the creative world you’re in a common-law relationship with your work. I find that’s especially true with longer projects, like the one I’m outlining now.

It’s easier to dump a shorter project of 500 to 1,000 words. My hard drive has a ton of old blog posts that I abandoned in second draft — something I’d never consider for a larger work. I’ve helped line at least one landfill with my messed-up first drafts.

But can I trash 100,000 words and three months?

Not any more. But I can shove it in the blender. Chop, dice or liquefy?


Talk to me: How do you handle the sunk costs of creativity? Is it advisable to just scuttle the whole thing if it’s a loser? Oh, yeah, and a friend of mine wants me to get in on his hairless chinchilla venture. Should I take him up on it? Please share in the comments.