Writing into the ‘Adjacent Possible’

I’ve been a little hum-drum about writing lately—a fairly typical state, what I might call my version of writer’s block (I’m never not writing, so block doesn’t fit right)—finding that most days when I sit down, what comes out is… BLAH. Not that it’s bad (sometimes it is!), but that it lacks that je ne sais quoi, that tszuj, that embodied essence which all good art possesses. Having hung out with this bland state of things for the last several months, I’d grown a bit worried—what if I’d lost my touch?

Worry doesn’t do much good, so I try not to indulge it, but the thought continued to nag. Until I stumbled upon an idea called adjacent possible in Cal Newport’s fantastic career-advice book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love. Adjacent possible, an idea Newport borrows from science writer Steven Johnson, who borrowed it from biologist Stuart Kauffman, “who used it to describe the spontaneous formation of complex chemical structures from simpler structures.” Johnson reshaped this idea for ideas themselves: “We take the ideas we’ve inherited or that we’ve stumbled across, and we jigger them into some new shape.” Newport expounds further: “The next big ideas in any field are found right beyond the current cutting edge, in the adjacent space that contains the possible new combinations of existing ideas.”

Is it obvious where I’m going with this? (I wish it had been obvious to me sooner!)

Sitting in my garden, drinking coffee, this philosophy clobbered me. Here, in concrete terms, was what my writing practice was missing—pushing up against that cutting edge. That edge, for a writer, is partly defined by one’s reading (what and how are other writers doing what you want to do), but it is mainly defined by your own writing. Each day, each writing session, must approach that edge. Some days you might just brush up against it. Some days you might assess it and decide to stay in the bounds you know. But for growth to happen, for advancement, for the next book or essay or story to gain more depth, more nuance, more essence, you must continually push up against this edge and you must, eventually, push beyond it.

How do you push beyond it?

I’ll talk more about that in the weeks to come, but here’s the basic gist: you sit down and you write. Every day. Even when you don’t want to. Even when (especially when) you feel you’ve got nothing to say. Aim for an hour. No distractions. Just you and the page and your thoughts and the words.

Because the story lies just beyond that spot on the horizon where you think the story lies.

My schedule allows me one hour each morning to devote to creative writing work. Previously, that hour was unstructured: I might write, but if I felt frustrated or stuck I might read or cross a few things off my to-do list or meditate or pluck my eyebrows. In other words, I might (and often did) allow resistance to distract me. Since stumbling upon the adjacent possible philosophy, I made a very small, very important shift in my writing routine. Every morning, at 7am, I sit down and I write. If I bump up against a sentence I struggle to articulate or an idea that makes me nervous, I remain in my seat. This moment of internal agitation is an indicator that I have pushed up against the edge. Instead of backing down, I stay put. I write another sentence. I might delete it and write it again. Or I might then write another sentence. And another. Usually, when 8am arrives, I have at least a page of new words. Sometimes more, sometimes less. But the quantity isn’t important. What’s important is that I approached the edge and stayed there, and the quality of the idea on the other side of that edge begins to blossom.

I shouldn’t be amazed at the progress I’ve made from this one small shift. But I am. I think you will be too.