I’m an impatient person by nature, but watching Richard Linklater’s film Boyhood made me reassess the value of creative patience. For those who don’t know, the film was made as a series of five-day shoots over a period of twelve years, depicting a boy as he grows from six to the age of eighteen. The film is engrossing (if not quite the stone-cold classic I was led to expect), and has already picked up numerous awards from critics keen to praise its experimental approach and humane worldview.
What gave me pause was the fact that the director was roughly my age when he started the project. Where did he get the patience and confidence to keep pushing through, year after year? Would I be able to do something like that? In interviews, Richard Linklater seems supremely relaxed, and his personality type has clearly contributed greatly to his ability to deliver. He’s a filmmaker who I admired greatly even before this latest film, and he’s only gone up in my estimation since.
In books (especially literary fiction), there's a definite culture of “slowest wins the race”. Consider the twelve years that J.R.R. Tolkien took to write Lord of the Rings, or the glacial work pace of writers like Donna Tartt or Jonathan Franzen. And yet, when these writers do finally produce new novels, they are lorded as instant classics of towering literary achievement. For these writers, patience definitely seems to bear critical fruit.
By contrast, I find myself constantly frustrated by my own unrealistic expectations of how quickly creative work can be completed. For instance, I’m still writing the first draft of a relatively short children’s book, nine months after I started. And don’t get me started on how long it takes agents and editors to respond to submissions! Yet, other writers seem to zip relatively quickly through the publishing process – I was at a talk by Julia Golding on Wednesday, where she explained that she writes so much that she needs three different pseudonyms to manage it all. I was, needless to say, rather jealous.
Perhaps I’m not comparing like-for-like. I have a full-time job in addition to my writing, whereas Julia Golding has to write that fast in order to survive as a full-time writer. And then there’s all the thinking time required for writing a novel, the exploration of world, character and plot that makes an invisible, but vital, contribution to the finished work. Richard Linklater had the luxury of almost a year’s worth of thinking time between filming instalments of Boyhood, though he was hardly slouching around in the meantime - in the period between starting the project and finishing it, he directed another eight films and a feature-length documentary!
So, what are my lessons here? Well, short of quitting my day job, perhaps I could improve my work rate by reducing procrastination, setting better targets and interleaving projects more successfully. I’m also very outcome-focused, and (regular readers will sense a familiar refrain here) I need to nurture a love of the process rather than the results. I’m quite sure that Linklater didn’t approach each year’s filming of Boyhood with a fearful pain in his stomach, wondering what would happen if he died before finishing the film (in fact, he had a contingency plan where actor Ethan Hawke would take over). Each 10-15 minute yearly segment of the movie was approached as a short film, which was later built together into a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
I don’t think I’m about to embark on my own epic project, but I can definitely go easier on myself and others in terms of how long stuff takes. The important thing is to keep (sustainably) busy, and with that in mind I’m sure I can find plenty of creative challenges this year to occupy myself with. After all, I’ve written complete flash fiction stories in 0.025% of the elapsed time taken to produce Boyhood!