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Are you messing up enough to be your creative best?


Write drunk.  Edit sober.

Those words have often been attributed to Ernest Hemingway over the years. No one really knows if the quote is real, but we do know Papa was a prolific writer and drinker… so we can imagine him saying it.

But I don’t think Hemingway was suggesting we keep a bottle in our desks.

If we take the quote too literally, we miss the power of what it’s teaching us. It’s a lesson that applies not only to writing, but anything we’re trying to create:

  • A new product design.
  • Our latest blog post.
  • A game-changing approach to service.
  • The next version of our website.
  • Our new org structure.
  • That looming sales presentation.
  • A ground-breaking business model.

In each of these circumstances, two distinct sides of creativity are at play.

‘Write drunk’ means creating from a stream of consciousness.

Here’s another Hemingway quote:

“The first draft of anything is sh*t.”

I think he meant that the first execution of our ideas needs to be as unfiltered as possible. Hemingway is urging us to begin, to simply start, without regard for where our ideas take us. This will lead to some crap: false starts, sloppiness, wrong turns, messy inroads, mistakes.  Fine.  But get it all out there, now.

(This post began in the hot tub a couple of weeks ago. I’d read about Hemingway and was letting write drunk; edit sober rumble through my brain, under the stars. My mind was soon racing. I scrambled inside and scratched out my ideas on some scrap paper in the laundry room. The result was… gibberish.)

When we create with reckless abandon, the possibilities are endless. Writing drunk fills our canvas with run-on sentences, unlimited code, lousy designs, incorrect assumptions, any ideas, even the wrong ones. It won’t be our best stuff. It may not even be good. But the goal is to get something, anything, into play.

Terrible first drafts aren’t just okay; they’re necessary to kick-start the process.

‘Edit sober’ means cutting the B.S. and honing our craft.

Once we have a drunken mess on the page (or spreadsheet, canvas, screen, whiteboard…) it’s left to our sober self to sift through the junk, and find the kernels of what’s worthwhile, practical, usable.

This side of our brain doesn’t particularly like what it sees of the other.

So we edit, refine, and subtract. We take our drunken mess and pare it down. We throw away the things that in our initial thinking we might have considered good… and make room for what’s essential.

As we subtract, we might sprinkle something else in, but carefully.  Gradually, the final form takes shape – and it’s better.

Creativity means strapping into the roller coaster.

Adam Grant, best-selling author of Originals, has a great description for the creative process in any endeavor. He says we progress through six predictable zones:

1   This is awesome.
2   This is tricky.
3   This is crap.
4    I am crap.
5    This might be okay.
6    This is awesome.

Writing drunk helps us see the possibility of awesome. And editing sober alerts us to the improvements necessary to make the awesome doable.

Creativity is hard work.  Be patient with yourself.  Celebrate your wins.

And remember: no matter what you’re creating today, this week (or next month), your best work will probably come when you somehow find a way to balance your two sides of creativity:  the drunken one that can do anything, and the sober one that’s your strongest critic.

So ask yourself:

  1. Are you creating with reckless abandon?
  2. Do you see that “I am crap” is part of the process?
  3. Are you refining with your strongest critic?

~ Craig