I was reading a blog post by Michael Hyatt this morning called “Are You a Pilot or a Passenger in Your Own Life?”
Michael’s blog is focused on business- and leadership-minded individuals, and I’ve found a lot of inspiration for the business, teaching, coaching, and speaking parts of my life in his words and in various programs he has offered over the years.
But I often find myself having to “translate” some of the ideas and principles from Michael’s work into “fictionese”. That is, the creative and artistic side of the work I do seems to have a different language than the business and leadership side of things.
That is actually a good problem to have. It forces me to re-state and re-examine the content that Michael, and others like him, offer in their blogs, podcasts, and online training. Because there is a difference in the way I hear and process things when I’m wearing my fiction writing hat, I have to find different ways to see the same information.
This is always a powerful way of expanding and deepening learning.
Hyatt’s “Power of Agency”
In the post referenced above, Michael refers to the work of a Stanford University professor who gives four “aspects of our agency that help us achieve our goals.” He makes a distinction between being a pilot of our lives and being a passenger. Those four aspects are: Intention, Forethought, Action, and Self-Reflection.
As I talked about goal setting and taking our writing and creative lives to the next level in 2015, I hit on each of these areas. I covered this in both the blog and the podcast. But, I did so from the perspective of what we want to achieve in our writing lives. The end result.
For example I have a whole list of actions I want to take, on a regular basis, that I KNOW will get me closer and closer to the results I want for my business and teaching endeavors, and even progressive benchmarks for personal mental, emotional, and spiritual growth.
I also monitor and track specific actions for my creative life: quality input, amount of time actually writing, engaging with others, etc. (All of the ways I speak of feeding the creative rhythm.)
Applying the “Power of Agency” to the Creative Act Itself
And yet, as I was reading this list of “aspects of our agency” as outlined in the blog post, it occurred to me that there was another level to all of this: the act of writing a creative work itself. In other words, being the pilot of the creative process.
I believe this is true with fiction and creative non-fiction, poetry and scriptwriting. It is the application of these same four principles, except, I suddenly saw these four principles in a different way.
Instead of intention, forethought, action, and self-reflection, let me use four different words, and see if this doesn’t sound familiar:
- Inciting Image – This is the change between what Michael Hyatt lists and what I am proposing that is the most drastic. The inciting image, the trigger or “abiding image”, for our creative work is that thing we cannot shake until we have written it. It is the moment that moves us to put pen to paper or start typing at the keyboard. This sounds very different from “intention”, but if I look at what Michael Hyatt writes in that line (“set our minds to a particular outcome and work with others and within our circumstances to achieve it”) I see that “intention” and that creative impulse which sets us to action can be considered to be very similar, especially when that abiding image that compels us to write is something we can identify as uniquely OURS and that we are specifically capable of pursuing: If it is a story that I can tell from a unique or different perspective than anyone else I know. There are a lot of triggers or images that I collect which I think would make a good story, and very few that ever actually compel me to action. Once I pick up the pen, I have intention. It is more than just a passing image. It is the start of momentum, and I must then use the other three aspects of artistic agency to honor that momentum and feed it.
- Plotting – Plotting and “forethought” are much more similar, even from the get-go. Visualizing what we know about the story and identifying the things we still have to work out, then setting a course to fulfill those story telling needs is always necessary. There are two kinds of writers: those who plot meticulously beforehand, and those of us who jump in with both feet and little idea of where we are going. But even for those of us who START without a road map, there comes a time in the process when we must start to assess what we have and think critically about where we are going. Maybe, in a short piece, that is after the first draft is completed. But at some point we must step back and assess: What is this story about? What does it really MEAN? And how do I best present that meaning? We can then look at the words we write (or have written) with a new lens: The things that compliment the meaning STAY, and those that do not, have to GO. (This is also part of #4, below.)
- Write – I don’t know about you, but I have projects that were never finished—never even properly started—because I never got past the initial image or the plotting phase. Dreaming of, talking about, thinking about writing is not actually writing. In fact, those things can be detrimental to actually writing, if we tarry too long. I have to sit (or, sometimes, stand) at my desk and write. Pen to paper. Fingers on the keyboard. Action. Movement. Progress. I have to will myself to re-start if I’ve stalled. I have to go to my writing spot so the muse knows where to find me. For some of us, that means every day, at the same spot, the same time. For others, it means scheduling a time for the work and sticking to it. But we cannot have written, until we spend the time writing.
- Revise and Edit – Here, we need more than self-reflection. If we want to know how a reader will interpret the letters and symbols we’ve put onto paper, we have to have competent, constructive feedback. And, once we have it, we have to look back at our intentions for the creative piece, and find ways to modify and refine it. We have to strengthen those parts that lead the reader to where we want them to be, and minimize or remove those things that distract, confuse, or dilute the white hot center of our story.
In my writing, when I am successful, these four areas highlight how the process of writing works. There are external ways to focus and give boundaries to the writing life, but this is the internal mechanism of creation, for me.
I do think there is a bit more fluidity in this structure for the creative than there is in the intention/forethought/action/self-reflection model for the business leader. In my experience, there is less of a strict delineation between these phases of work in my fiction writing than I find in my business goals. But I find it very interesting to re-frame this paradigm slightly, to see how it applies to my creative writing.
I hope you found it interesting, and useful, too.
Happy writing, everyone.
P.S. I realized about half-way through writing this post that I refer to Michael Hyatt as “Michael”, almost as if we are friends. And other than the fact that my best friend’s wife worked for Michael Hyatt many years ago, when he was the CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers, I have no legitimate connection to him. We’ve never met. He wouldn’t know me from Adam. (Except in all of the visual representations of Adam I’ve ever seen, the dude was in way better shape than me…)
Why is it, then, I fall into a familiarity with someone I don’t actually know? I think it has something to do with the effectiveness of his online presence. Michael Hyatt is able to project both authority and familiarity as he virtually mentors and adds value to the lives of his hundreds of thousands of readers.
And this is one of the ongoing lessons I try to take from folks like Michael Hyatt: present yourself online in such a way that people both respect you, and feel you add value to their lives, all while keeping a focus on the reader’s needs and remembering there are individuals out there reading these words, not statistics.