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Writing: First It’s Muck

It’s a writer’s nature to assume that what pours from our fingertips will be the brilliant story in our heads. When we read a book, we see the polished outcome, not the deadly trudge it took to create it, and when it’s our turn we forget.

Instead of polished prose streaming from our minds, it’s more akin to the green soup steaming in the concrete waste canal in a springtime milking barn back home in Wisconsin. Not even usable as fertilizer.

At least, that’s what we think.

Truth is, it’s probably 80% excellent, and all we see is the 20% green soup.

The 20% is 80% easy to fix. That is, once we dig in (to the words, not the mucky green soup) we find that most of what’s less than stellar in that last fifth is easy to fix.

Before you start thinking about another kind of fifth, do the math: 80% + (80% of 20%) = 96% done.

Now you’re down to the 4% that’s excruciating.

That’s where writing happens: the choices you make, and the fervor and grit to slog through that 4%.

No, you never get to 100%. If you can cure another 80% you’ll be at 99.2% which is closer than any of us have a right to expect.

Defining Resistance for Yourself

I recommend The War of Art to every single writer I meet. I have yet to get any response except “life changing!”

I fall squarely between Pressfield’s thinking and process (Resistance is a dragon, slay it) and Seth Godin’s (Resistance is an ally, use it.) I say Resistance is a bully, make it irrelevant. Note that I can’t say “ignore it” because you can’t ignore a bully. But if you defuse them, do things to take away their power, they are no longer a threat.

This, perhaps, stems from being a very small kid, reading at college level in kindergarten, skipping a grade early on. I ran home a lot in junior high school to avoid getting beaten up. Also I have two brothers, both aggressive, both bigger than me even though one’s younger.

I have far more experience dealing with bullies than with dragons. Or, truth be told, with allies, particularly dangerous ones.

Your own wording of who Resistance is and how to overcome it every single day is more useful than blindly accepting anyone else’s version.

Including mine.

Bad Writing: When Your Scene Is About What It Seems to Be About

I recently shut down a writing forum I was involved with. I gathered up some of my longer posts (usually responses to questions) and I’ll be sharing them here. They may not be precisely on topic (Resistance) but they have value. Or, you can skip them.

Subtext is the most important part of storytelling.

When we let the listener or reader finish the story, it’s their story now, and everyone wins.

For instance, take a simple joke, like “What’s the difference between a surgeon and God? God doesn’t think he’s a surgeon.”

The initial microsecond response is “What? Of course not. So what? Do surgeons think they’re—” Boom.

As Robert McKee, said “If your scene is about what it appears to be about, you’re in trouble.”

Bill and Sara Coming Apart

Subtext requires setup. If you go into the following scene knowing that Bill and Sara have an unhappy marriage, we’ve seen Sara eyeing another man, and we’ve seen Bill stocking up on sleeping pills, it’s not about the words at all:

When he walked into the living room, Sara was sitting at the table by the window working on a puzzle. Bill flopped into the chair by the fire.

“I’m tired.”

She didn’t look up. “Then go to bed.”

He flicked a glance her way, then stood.

“I just didn’t want you to be alone.”

Now she looked up.

“Being alone doesn’t make me lonely. I’m fine. You look tired. You should rest.”

Bill looked into the fire, then down at the slippers she’d bought him on their honeymoon.

“I think I will.”

He took a long, slow look around the room, and slowly climbed the stairs to the spare room where he slept these days.

Pressing the last few pieces into place, Sara looked at the puzzle, then shoved it off the table into the box, put the lid on, and turned to look out the window into the darkness.

If this were about a happy couple, it’d be banal to the point of nausea. Build some setup, and it’s a different scene, which is not in any way about the words but about the subtext.

Off the top of my head again, that scene, written as a beginning hack would have written it:

When he walked into the living room, Sara was sitting at the table by the window working on a puzzle. Bill flopped into the chair by the fire.

“I’m really depressed and it feels like you don’t care.”

As usual, Sara ignored him. Her attention was elsewhere.

He watched her, hoping she’d try to stop him.

“I need you to love me, Sara.”

Now she looked up.

“You’ve had what you needed all along. Now I’m going for what I need.”

Bill looked into the fire, then down at his slippers. She’d bought them on their honeymoon, when she used to love him.

“I can’t do this anymore. And I’m not going to.”

He took a long, slow look around the room, then slowly climbed the stairs. He hadn’t shared a bed with Sara in a long time, so he’d been sleeping in the spare room.

Sara thought, I’m through with him, just like I’m through with this puzzle.

Besides for being even worse writing, there’s almost nothing here but a bit of shoe leather or staging that’s worth keeping.

Yes, just as a pure pantser can find story structure, foreshadowing, etc. by rewriting their entire book 14 times, one could do it this way. It would require rethinking every single word of dialog, finding ways to not say the vital stuff, the way Coltrane or Parker might play every note except the melody.

I think knowing in advance where I plan to go makes for a more efficient trip, without taking the spontaneous fun out of it.

Entropy is Our Natural State

When you plant flowers, you get flowers.

When you plant weeds, you get weeds.

When you plant nothing, you get . . .

weeds.

In the absence of effort, weeds naturally grow.

Have you forgotten that everything is running down or growing weeds?

When you get frustrated that writing doesn’t come easy, that what’s in your mind doesn’t end up on the page, are you remembering that being less comes naturally, being more is very hard work?

Rudeness is easy. Manners take effort.

Fat and disease are easy. Health is hard work.

A friendless life will happen all on its own. Close long-lasting relationships can be the most difficult things we create.

Next time you feel the growing frustration at how your art is so much harder than you want it to be, you’re so much less than you wished, others aren’t doing their part, and everything is against you, remember entropy.

And remember that our purpose is to reverse it, to plant flowers and pull weeds, to create love and art and stamp out loneliness and pointless emotional pain.

As the good G. Matthew Sumner sang, when the world is running down you make the best of what’s still around.

That can be you, “the best.”

Fight entropy. Create art.

A Myth and a Puzzlement

I’ve often heard creative folks claim that producing art quickly or in bulk leads to lower quality.

It’s not true.

Creativity is like a muscle. Use it more, make it stronger.

Yes, muscles get tired. When’s the last time you spent so much time in creative pursuits that you were in any danger of creative burnout?

I just spent February writing 25 songs besides working on my novel and writing here and at my personal blog. Being more creative leads to being more creative. I’ll be physically exhausted long before I’m creatively exhausted.

Quality? Sure, some of the songs I wrote aren’t keepers. That’s the nature of the beast: not every song is. But when I write 14 songs in a month, 3 or 4 are excellent. When I write 25 songs in a month, 7 or 8 are excellent. Not only more excellence, but a slightly higher percentage.

I believe that if I wrote 100 songs next February, I’d create 20 or more that were as good as anything I’ve ever written.

Are You Not a Writer?

The first thing writers tell me when I say “blog weekly, two or three times if you can” is “I don’t know what to write about.”

You’re a writer, aren’t you? If the goal is to get people to part with their money for your writing, how about showing them, often, what you’re capable of?

Wrote a nonfiction book? Blog about all the stuff that didn’t make it into the book, about everything you’ve learned since it was finished.

Fiction author? Easy: make up new fiction. No, I didn’t say write a batch of deathless prose every day. Just write.

Blogging regularly is not that hard—you’re a writer.

Ignore Willpower. Create Habits.

drip, drip, drip“People who are good at self-control … seem to be structuring their lives in a way to avoid having to make a self-control decision in the first place.”—psychologist Brian Galla, quoted by Brian Resnick in the article Why willpower is overrated.

From the same article:
“Structuring your life is a skill. People who do the same activity, like running or meditating, at the same time each day have an easier time accomplishing their goals, he says — not because of their willpower, but because the routine makes it easier.”

Willpower gets used up and simply cannot be used until it is replenished.

Habits, once established, require no willpower.

I’m planning more articles on developing the writing habit. In the meantime here are some I’ve already written:

This is an area where knowing your specific struggles will help be research the best advice to share.

Where do you struggle to create the habit of writing?

Why Willpower Isn’t the Answer

Because I’ve already written extensively about willpower here, I’m going to point you to those articles and some posted elsewhere by various experts in the field.

  1. Willpower is a limited and exhaustible resource. This article I wrote includes some meaningful quotes and a few links to other useful resources.
  2. A good general article at Grammarly. Not long, well worth reading.
  3. From Wired, The Willpower Trick. (The trick is exactly what I’ve said for years: make it irrelevant.)
  4. From Psychology Today, How to Boost Your Willpower. Practical processes and actions.
  5. What I Think of Willpower

    In the end, no matter what you do to strengthen, preserve, ration, or otherwise control your willpower, it is not the solution to a lifelong habit of writing.

    And I just gave away the answer to “What is?”

    More on that tomorrow.

Commitments, Goals, Dreams

People selling seminars love to make claims about small goals equaling small gains, and that we have to think big, dream big, have grand goals, even big hairy audacious goals, to ever accomplish anything.

As I am wont to say, balderdash. Poppycock. Piffle. The power of small wins is irrefutable. Check out anything written by Teresa Amabile.

Rosanne Bane explains in her book the solid brain science that we should have firm commitments, and that they should be so small that reaching them is a doddle, and that we should also have goals that stretch us, but which we’re not committed to. In that way we can stretch when it’s good without teaching ourselves to fail by constantly falling short.

It’s popular to tell people to shoot for the moon and even if you miss you’ll land in the stars. It makes good poetry and sells seminars. But brain science says that a goal you can reach is infinitely more motivating than one you can’t, plain and simple.

Those “goals” Rosanne talks about—I call them dreams. I have huge dreams. I take baby steps all the time toward those dreams. If I didn’t have a bright light on my horizon, what would I aim for? But delaying happiness, contentment, the feeling of accomplishment, until “someday” when I get there? Nonsense.

Why This Fear Matters to Us (Even if We Think it Doesn’t)

Humans share a handful of fundamental fears. The psychology of fear is complex enough that searching the internet for “fundamental human fears” will provide a million websites by a hundred thousand experts sharing a thousand lists of the true absolute definitive fundamental human fears.

These, though, show up consistently, right after fear of death and dismemberment:

  • fear of rejection
  • fear of shame
  • fear of loss of control (sending our creative work out into the world to be eaten alive by critics, for instance)

You have these fears. No matter how well-adjusted you are, no matter your support network, self-esteem, accomplishments, social status, level of confidence, or anything else, you have these fears.

And just as you can’t choose not to feel the pain when you stub your toe or get punched in the head, you can’t simply choose not to feel the pain of rejection, shame, or loss of control.

Because they’re the same pain.

Let’s ask a UCLA professor of social psychology to weigh in, eh?

… more … “Why This Fear Matters to Us (Even if We Think it Doesn’t)”