Big Ideas, Small Papers

Image: Mel Poole/Unsplash 

One of the most painful things about writing in small amounts of time is the lack of time for re-working. It feels like writing on a scrap of paper that’s way too small. I would wish that I hadn’t spent so much space on that first sentence or doodle. Upon realizing I don’t have enough paper, I’d start to really smush my writing together in the last few lines. (This happens sometimes when I’m taking notes.) 

Of course, making the first mark on a piece of paper is amazing. It’s the start. But the completion is what really matters. 

Writing in small amounts of time is much more like writing with a pen, without any correction fluid. I know I’ve got one shot—this 30 minute chunk—and then I just go. There may be some time for a quick warm up, but before I know it, time is up and I need to step back. 


As an editorial director, publishing this type of writing feels improper. It’s so far from my professional definition of acceptable, that it feels embarrassing to publish. It’s certainly not my best work—not well-considered, could use more fact-checking, and with really rough sections. It’s more a confession than a curation, a burst of ideas collaged together in a post. 

As an author, I also know that this type of writing is essential to the creative process. I intend for this blog to be considered the same way someone might tweet; ephemeral, impermanent, and delete-able. It’s like a stream of consciousness (like Susan Orlean drunk tweeting).

Some people can slog away for years on something before shipping it, but not me. Perhaps I don’t have that kind of muscle yet. I end up distracted, or paralyzed, and discouraged, and the project fades away. Conversely, I work best when I’m shipping regularly; short pieces released with short deadlines

Working in these two capacities professionally feels like a yin and yang, a complete sense of the whole process. The editor knows that to make great work, there needs to be re-work and polish. The author knows that to make great work, there needs to be something to re-work and polish in the first place. The thinker and the doer are one

“When art critics get together they talk about form and structure and meaning. When artists get together they talk about where you can buy cheap turpentine,” is a quote often attributed to Pablo Picasso. Picasso was prolific, creating over 10,000 original artworks. There’s not much space for editing, or fixation and creative blocks, when a person is working at that pace. (That’s one original piece per day for a little over 27 years!) 

If I could remix the quote, “When editors get together they talk about structure, meaning, and ideas. When authors and writers get together, they talk about when and how they make the time to write.” Of course, the editors’ big ideas are also what get authors accepted, but the words and the actual writing is what gets these ideas started. Painter Edgar Degas is quoted as saying to poet Stéphane Mallarmé, “It isn’t ideas I’m short of… I’ve got too many.” To which Mallarmé responds, “But Degas, you can’t make a poem with ideas. … You make it with words.” That’s it! 

I used to be embarrassed when I wrote about writing, a distaste I developed from seeing too many fluffy pieces on the topic, and not wanting to contribute to the waste. But it’s really what matters. Time is a form of turpentine, perhaps the ultimate one. 

There’s a sense of relief, of course, when I know I’m done. Even if I’m not happy with the idea, I schedule the piece, exit the browser, and close my laptop lid. The peace comes from trying, just typing the words, and releasing it. Sometimes, a person needs to realize they will never be bigger than the ideas they want to express, no matter how badly they want to. 

The best thing I can do is to type out one word at a time, in whatever pocket of time I might have. The words might be too big, and the paper too small. But there will be another day—perhaps with more minutes!—and another piece of paper. And in the meantime, fresh from writing, my brain will re-work the piece in the background, while the rest of life happens. It’ll be too late for this piece of paper, but just in time for the next one.
If you enjoyed this article, you’ll love my Best of Books newsletter, where I send three of the best books to your inbox every month. Thanks for reading.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *