The South Indian Monkey Trap is a method to catch monkeys trying to steal food from local villages. The simplicity of this trap belies its genius. A coconut is hollowed out and chained to the pole. Some sweet rice is placed inside as bait.
Food is often scarce and monkeys learn at an early age that if they can get their hands on some food, they shouldn’t let it go. You can see where this is leading. The monkey reaches into the coconut, grasps the rice and tries to dash away only to find itself trapped.
The mind of the monkey is unable to reevaluate the instinct to hold onto food. Even as it watches people approach to capture it, the monkey will not release its death grip on the rice. Mentally, it values food over freedom.
Writers and artists fall into this trap all the time. We value the work we’ve already done over the value of the whole story or painting.
This sort of value-rigidity often rears its head during critique sessions. Another writer or artist will offer creative criticism only to be flatly rejected by the artist. Why? We all know that art can’t be done in a vacuum.
It’s that monkey mind we all share. The very idea of going back and redoing what we have already sweated and anguished over is loathe to us.
Much of this attitude comes from artists wanting to race through a project and get it done quickly. I know I fall victim to this a lot. I’m looking toward the next scene, chapter, book and not appreciating the words going onto the page right now.
One fix to this trap is to slow down and revisit your work. See if the things you thought were important, actually are. Just stare at your work. It may take a while, but eventually you’ll get a notion as to what needs to be changed.
We are so conditioned to believe that progress has to be measured in words on the page or drawings churned out. How many times have you cringed at those Twitter posts of writers listing outrageous word counts?
Sometimes your most productive work happens when you’re not working at all.
Be there in the moment. Get interested in the words or brush strokes you create. As you inspect your work, ideas will nibble at your mind. Often these ideas will lead you in different directions, usually improving your work.
So the next time you feel like you can’t improve what you’ve already created, let go of that instinct. Pull your hand out of the proverbial coconut and escape. Freedom in your art is worth more than a handful of rice.