Impatience of the Momentary

I don’t like work. I think it’s safe to say that most people feel the same way. Generally it’s not the work itself that I oppose, but rather the time spent on it. I’m impatient, especially when I picture the intent or idea so clearly in my mind. I don’t want to wait, and I don’t want to risk having it come out differently than I’ve imagined.

The thing is, I know my first efforts are weak. I understand that any attempt to shortcut or rush a project—whatever that may be—degrades the end results, and quite probably makes the outlay of the time I did put into it rather pointless.

Part of the problem is a lack of appreciation for the process itself. In gaming terms, leveling up a character in a roleplaying game is often considered grinding—as if efforts to strengthen the character is work, boring work, and it’s only done to get to the end levels. This is in a game, something that should be fun throughout.

Finding enjoyment in the activity makes a significant difference. Back in art school, my mindset evolved from trying to create a finished piece to simply doing—painting (or drawing, etc.) for the sake of painting. It was not a mindless activity, but the goal shifted from an end-thing to a momentary experience.

I’ve found it harder to fall into this mindset when it comes to writing, though every once in a while, when words just seem to flow, I edge nearer to it. It’s quite possible that my writing habits keep me from this sense of process—I edit while I write, trying to hone words and sentences as I write them. I feel the effort, the work, and while it’s not quite a slog it isn’t really a game, either.

Of course, it also depends on what I’m writing—blog posts (like this one here) are more work than play; stories that I can’t get out of my head come much closer to an enjoyable process.

But when I struggle more than flow, I still find ways to appreciate it—or at least the gains. I anticipate the end results, and see them after the fact. Repeat this often enough and I begin to train my mind, like a Pavlovian experiment, to equate this kind of work with finished pieces (and possibly even lubricate future efforts). Along the way, I’m more aware of what I’m doing (sometimes agonizingly so), and that awareness allows me to see the flaws more clearly. This awareness also sticks in my mind, helping me see patterns I fall into, and traps I can attempt to avoid.

Ultimately, though, I need to learn how to relish these moments, to find enjoyment in all acts of writing, and bring out the game of each effort. I’m confident the secret lies in the process. I should explore other ways of working on this craft, or other environments, maybe give myself different challenges, or push my writing style in various directions. Shaking it up is good. What it boils down to is that I—and you—should enjoy what we choose to do, or choose to do something else.

Don’t Listen to Your Peers

This is, of course, a hyperbolic statement. Perhaps a better title would be Don’t Always Listen to Your Peers, or rather Sometimes Listen, Sometimes Really Listen, and Occasionally Stop Listening Completely.

There are a number of good reasons why you should listen to your fellow writers—you can learn from their experiences, many know what they’re talking about when it comes to writing skills and the publishing world, and if you like their work you’ll know where to find more of it. Those are all valid, direct benefits from listening to your peers.

But that’s not what this article is about.

No, sometimes, you really should not listen to your peers.

First, writers love to tell other writers how to write. Overall, this is a good thing, but it’s hard to sort fact (or accepted style guides) from opinion. If you read a lot of writing advice you’ll discover that there’s often contradictory information out there, and some that’s outright bad (I’m not naming names, and please don’t go to my blog…). Beginning writers are often the worst offenders, probably because of the you must blog! attitude, and what better topic than writing about writing?

But there’s reasons to be skeptical. Just because something works for one writer—even a very successful one—doesn’t mean it’s right for you. Find the sources that ring true to you and listen to them. Develop your own skills and practices that keep you producing. Occasionally listen to dissenting views, see if there’s something to it, and forget it quickly when it doesn’t pan out.

The bigger point of this article is envy.

In certain ways, writers are like gamblers—when a gambler wins, everyone hears about their big payday. Likewise, writers toot their own horns when it comes to their publishing successes. Some writers are prolific, and good, and publish frequently—and they often announce new sales. We all tweet out a congrats, and cheer them on, and do it again for the next writer friend a few hours later. Everyone is selling something, somewhere, and we’re all happy for all of them.

But some of us have other thoughts, too. Dark thoughts, maybe even hateful thoughts. That should have been me, these thoughts whisper. Or they’re not that great, I could do that. Sometimes these thoughts take aim at your own abilities. I’m crap, they say, or worse—give up now.

The first kinds of thoughts are competitive, though in a negative way. Sure, when you get down to it, writing is competitive—there are only so many spaces in a magazine or anthology, and each publisher will only publish so many books in a given year. But the real competition is not with each other, but with ourselves—to do better, you need to write better than you have in the past.

The second kinds of thoughts are defeatist—self-doubt will keep you from doing things. Too much of these, and you’re done. Hang up your writer’s hat, and start asking people if they like fries with that.

I could go on about how to work through this—you will need to, it only benefits you—because there will always be someone better than you. Someone will always sell more, earn more, produce more—except for one person, and this article isn’t for them anyway. This is how the word “better” works.

But there’s another easy option that brings me back to my overall point—don’t listen to your peers. You don’t have to know what hundreds of writers have done in a given day. Ignore the “new sale!” announcements or the #amwriting wordcount updates. Limit the amount of time you spend on social media outlets.

Writers write—a lot. They tweet, they post, they blog. All. The. Time. You don’t have to read everything, and in fact you don’t have to read anything. Sometimes it’s just good for your own productivity to tune it all out. Focus on your own efforts first. Take whole days—or weeks—away. Really, you won’t miss much.

(Also remember that those who do sell a lot still get a lot of rejections—just like gamblers who never talk about all of the money they’ve lost, writers rarely talk about how often a story is rejected, how many times they’ve submitted to a particular magazine, or their sale-to-rejection ratio. But that’s a different article…)

So there you have it—don’t listen to your peers. At least, don’t listen to them all of time, and maybe even most of the time. Of course, this applies to me, too—hell, you probably shouldn’t listen to the advice in this article. Really, stop reading now.

That’s better.

The Strange in Your Past

One of my earliest memories is of rolly pollies (Armadillidiidae, pill bugs, etc.), the small bugs that roll up into balls when handled. I played with them often as a young kid, but there’s a particular event that stands out—my baby sister, laying in a crib on her back and wearing only a diaper, and me maybe three years old, putting a small handful of rolly pollies on her chest. There was no malice intended, at least none that I can recall now, but rather a desire to share these amazing things.

Some of my most accessed memories for writing are like this—not the extreme highs or lows (though I draw from those as well), but the weird, the strange in my past. These visceral experiences are often my most inspirational.

When I was twenty-three, I helped my step-father and older brother with a house renovation. The house was old, and probably had not been occupied for a few years. As I was the youngest, and possibly the most wiry at the time, I got the privilege of doing work in the attic. It was a small ranch-style, and the attic was one low space I crawled through, rafter by rafter. It was dirty, hot work, and I’m sure I hated it at the time. But I don’t remember it that way—instead, what always comes to mind is the dozens of mouse bones I found in there. Most were skulls only, but many were full skeletons. Each were bone-white, either extremely old or possibly baked away during the heat of summers past.

I collected many of the skeletons, and decorated the dashboard of my car with several of the skulls. Morbid, sure, but a great memory to tap into as a writer of fantasy, horror, and the weird.

In my younger years I was a bit of a pyro. I have many distinct memories of burning things—frozen hotdogs blackened to a crisp on the outside and still cold in the middle, stormtrooper figures melted into creative disfigurements, or setting a small fire at the edge of the school yard during recess (where I hid the burnt matches in the sandbox, and a few girls dug them up to turn me in). The strongest memory, though, was a small fire out in a field behind my house, nestled in this hollow of trees and wild growth. What we were burning was scavenged wood, underbrush, and leaves, and it grew to a pretty good size. We kept it under control, though, and when we left we made sure it was out. However, because of all the leaves we had burned, a great amount of smoke had built up, and it covered the entire field like a low-hanging fog, just a couple of feet off the ground. I can remember the surreal, serene feeling, the otherworldly nature of it all, even as sirens started growing in the distance.

Once, for work, I visited a cadaver lab at the Mayo Clinic. I was treated to a number of anatomical lessons regarding the heart from a surgeon who removed a few for this very purpose, straight out of a body, and right before my eyes. This happened the day before Thanksgiving (there’s a lot of parallels between what I saw there and what is typically on a table for Thanksgiving, but I’ll spare you).

These kinds of memories are formative. All memories are, really—from the excitement of travel to the mundane of the day to day—but the weird events occupy a special place in my heart. They’re personal experiences with odd little twists, and they’re just right to spark new ideas, or fill in a well-honed detail.

What’s Your Resolution?

It’s the start of the new year and so I thought I should write the obligatory “new years resolution” post. We all do it, right? We resolve to write more, or to watch less TV (or browse less Facebook). Maybe you’ve set out big goals—start a novel, finish one, get an agent?

My wife wrote out a list of fifty-two goals—not specifically to achieve one a week, and most are small, very achievable actions or changes. She’s a very organized person.

So, new year, new resolutions?

I’ll pass.

I’ve never been a fan of big resolutions, and certainly not centered around New Years. For me, new years is such an arbitrary line in the sand. While much of the world follows the Gregorian calendar, it’s no more than an agreed upon system. New years day? It’s really no more or less important than any other day circling the sun. Yeah yeah, we need a system to function, for society to be on the same page, to have at least one socially acceptable “get loaded” day (not counting conventions)—but why New Years? Why not winter solstice, or the spring equinox—those both seem like ideal points of change. Why not your birthday?

I should point out that I have a personal reason for seeing this as arbitrary—my birthday happens to fall on the fifth of January. To me, this is the start of the new year, not the first. Start a new diet on the first? No way—I have a nice dinner and dessert (okay, desserts) planned just a handful of days later. And from a little before Christmas through (and perhaps slightly past) my birthday, I’m in holiday mode—the last thing I want to do is mess up my fun by trying to have less of it.

My bigger objection, though, is the idea of a resolution—your realization that something needs changing so significantly that you have to force yourself to do it. If the need is really there, you should not wait until the new year to make it, nor for your birthday, or even the coming Monday. Do it now. Stop reading this blog and go do it. It’s okay, really—go do your thing. Need to work on your health or weight? Go take a walk, and make the next meal a better one. Do some writing over lunch, or before going to bed, and maybe even first thing in the morning. Skip TV this evening—it’s the same junk that’s always running anyway (you can always catch it later with Netflix or elsewhere).

I’ll fess up to the fact that I don’t always follow this same advice. I mull over ideas; I get excited about something and don’t end up executing it; I know there’s plenty of things I could improve and end up kicking that can down the road a bit. I have goals, some of which I’m actively working on and others I will…soon. But I started a new diet in the middle of October, with both Halloween and a vacation just ahead of it (I’m still on it, by the way, even with the small hiccups of Thanksgiving, Christmas, my birthday as well as a few others). When I first jumped into my exercise phase, it was the middle of May—that was almost five years ago, and I’m still active. I started writing my first novel on the first of April (no joke!), after spending a month or so cleaning up a year’s worth of notes. It took me another eight months to finish writing it, but I did, along with maybe ten or so short stories along the way.

I’m also deadline-oriented—I have to be with the work I do if I want to keep clients happy. It also helps when writing for anthologies and ensuring you get something done before they close to submissions.

There are reasons why you aren’t doing what you think you should be doing—rarely do those distractions or habits go away just because of a resolution. Correct them if they’re a problem, and if they aren’t find a way to embrace them in a controlled, healthy way. Adjust your goals, refine your expectations, and don’t wait for some arbitrary time to make the big changes.

And now, with this out of the way, it’s time for some World of Warcraft—I have goals to work on after all.