You need space from your work if you want to perfect it.
I know this, because I am only the tiniest bit obsessive about my work and I can still spend hours and days fine-tuning paragraphs and pages and finding new things to fix far beyond the time when the fine-tuning is actually improving the situation.
This is a problem, and it’s not a thing you can simply “turn off”. While you’re in the thick of it — editing, in my case, or whatever your chosen discipline does to self-correct errors in the first drafts — you can’t detach.
You reach that point where you have to let the thing sit for a while. Let it mellow. Let the dust settle. And if possible, have somebody who isn’t you have a look at it in the meantime.
Coming back to my novel after letting it lie for a month? The edits are coming fast and … well, I won’t say easy (because editing is never easy). But paired with notes from a couple of faithful readers whose input I believe in, the editing process feels about 90% less painful than when last I left it back in January.
Moral of the story: let your project rest for a little while.
It flew under the radar this week, but I finished a thing.
Actually it’s not true that it flew under the radar… it was all over the radar. I just wasn’t quite sure how to process the jumble of feelings I was having about it.
I finished the novel that I’ve been in permanent purgatory with for the past … I don’t even know how long. Two, three years? Lost chapters, stalled edits, a shattering of my confidence in my abilities as a writer, a return to form, another stall, getting overwhelmed with other projects, uh, COVID… it felt like I would never finish.
But I finished. And I’m actually going to let some people read it.
And I told myself I’d take at least a week off to decompress but … spoiler alert, I did not do that. I started immediately writing something new. But not a novel. Not that I’m done writing novels, but I wanted to get back to my roots, maybe do something for my students. So I’m working on a new play.
It’s nothing much yet, but it’s got me writing like crazy again the past few days. (After so long in the revision phase, it feels like flying to be drafting something NEW again.)
Anyway, I’m still here, still working, over in that dark corner where you can’t see me.
I don’t usually do this, but I was editing and adding a much-needed section to my novel-in-progress and enjoyed it so much I just thought I’d post it. (Incidentally, it allows me to update the site and prove that I’m not just wasting time over here. Well… not all the time, anyway.)
It may not make the cut in the final version, but it was fun to write, and, you know, sometimes that matters.
“This place really needs a name,” Dina says. Linc peeks out around the potted ficus he’s managing. “What do you mean?” “I mean, it’s lame to just go on calling it ‘the hideout’ or ‘the lab’ or whatever you’ve been calling it. You’re a proper villain now. You need a name for your place. You know. Fortress of Solitude, or whatever. But for bad guys.” “That’s stupid.” “No, it’s practical.” Tonya sets the couch down in the corner, blinks to the fridge for a soda, and blinks right back onto the couch, kicking her feet up over the armrest. “Besides, I agree. So that’s two to one. We gotta name it.” Dina shuffles off to the kitchen herself, kicking her shoes off on the way. “Two to one.” Linc wants to point out to them that this isn’t a democracy, to remind them that this place is his, that Vector is his, that the plan to bring the Academy low is his, but it doesn’t seem worth it. “What do you have in mind, then?” “You’re a nerd, so it’s gotta be nerdy sounding, you know? Strike fear into the hearts of everybody with an IQ below 150. Something like … The Motherboard.” Dina tosses Linc a soda. He fumbles it before catching it by his knees. “Why The Motherboard?” “Because it’s where we keep our chips.” Dina rattles a bag of tortilla chips at him before gashing the bag with her ring and spreading a thick layer of chips on a plate. “That’s terrible.” “I kinda like it,” Tonya says. “It’s got some kind of ring to it.” “Nope. The two of you can vote to name it, that’s fine, but I’m holding out veto power over the name. We’re not calling it The Motherboard.” Dina has sprinkled cheese over the chips and tosses the plate into the microwave (stolen, along with the 70-inch television, from a Best Buy a few hours away). “That’s okay. I got a bunch of ideas. How about The WreckTangle?” “The Rectangle?” “No, the WreckTangle. As in, Wrecked Angle. Get it? Because math, right? Plus, you know. Get wrecked.” “Nice.” Tonya lifts her soda can in salute. “I dunno.” Linc leans against the counter, scanning the bank of monitors for news, or updates. Vector’s display shows the robot cheerfully making rounds on the mountainside. “I got one,” Tonya says. “The Trapezoid.” “I don’t —” “Ooh, I like that.” Dina flings the microwave open for her plate of nachos. “Right? Because it’s a trap. Plus…” Tonya glances around. This sounded cleverer in her mind. “Plus it’s got that z in there. That’s cool.” “There’s nothing in here that’s even trapezoid-shaped,” Linc points out. “And by the way, I’ll give you a dollar if you can tell me what a trapezoid is.” “I don’t know that.” Tonya crumples her can in one hand and tosses it at Linc. “Who even needs to know that after high school? Or in it, for that matter?” “If you’re going to call your hideout The Trapezoid, you should at least know what a Trapezoid is.” “It’s your hideout, not mine, damn!” Dina raises her voice around a mouthful of nachos. “Vector, what’s a trapezoid?” Vector’s screen types out an immediate response. Trapezoid: a four-sided shape with only one pair of parallel sides. “That. It’s that,” Dina says, pointing. “You owe me a dollar.” “That doesn’t count.”
I want to talk about my contributions here of late, partially to make excuses for myself, but also partially to justify myself. And I know, justifications are basically excuses, but I’m coming to understand that what I once thought of as excuses for myself are actually perfectly reasonable and acceptable justifications.
Here’s the critical worry in my mind over the last several months: I’m not writing enough. I’m not! For a guy who fancies himself a writer, I am decidedly not writing enough. A few years ago I was writing every day, bragging about it in more writing here on the blog, churning out short stories almost every weekend … I was capital-W WRITING. And then in the last several months here, not so much. My current novel project is stalled (I’ll circle back to that, but it’s totally mud-stuck and has been for a while), my blog posts have been rarer than Bigfoot sightings, and as for short stories, well, let’s just say I’ve come up short.
The obvious net result of all that is: I’m not writing enough. And I had something of a depressive episode several months ago — which I did write about — that I think must have been triggered, in part, by my feelings about not writing enough. It gets to me. It burns me up. Makes me question myself.
And I know I’m not the only one who thinks that way. Feelings of inadequacy, I wager to say, are rampant in the writing community, if not an understood part of the package. I wouldn’t make the mistake of thinking I’m special for going through it. But I did want to think that I might be special by dint of finding a way to overcome it. (Spoiler alert: I’m not over it yet.)
Which brings me back to those justifications.
I was at work the other day, taking a little break. We (my students and I) had just gotten finished hanging and focusing lights for our spring musical (I have an incredible group of students who always want to give up their time to come down to the theater and help out, and we were working during their lunch periods.) Hanging and focusing is tiresome and tedious work (up the ladder, down the ladder, forgot the wrench, find a burned-out bulb, up to the booth, up the ladder, remove the instrument, down the ladder, replace bulb, up the ladder, re-place instrument, focus, down the ladder, repeat). So they were on the stage listening to some music and I was parked on the backstage sofa just sort of watching and zoning out before heading up to write cues for the show.
And revelation struck, as revelation tends to do, while I was lying there not thinking too clearly or too intently about anything: that this is where my creative energy has been going.
I’m a fairly convinced believer in the school of “you only have so many Fargos to give in a day” (Fargos of course is a stand-in for another F-word I shouldn’t be using as a government employee paid to educate children), and I think that goes double for your Fargos related to creativity. Being creative is hard. At least, I should say, doing something with your creativity is hard (daydreaming is easy). Sitting down to write is hard! Laying down a blog post is hard. Working on a novel is hard. Editing a novel is … well, don’t start.
These things suck up all the creative Fargos. And, well, when I started this writing journey, I was an English teacher. There’s an element of creativity in that, but mostly my job then left my creative Fargos untouched, so I had a lot of them left over.
But my job now? Teaching theater? I’m tapping deep into my creative Fargos just to get through an ordinary day of class, let alone to do work on the musical, or help an actor find their motivation, or coax a design out of a scenic painter, or collaborate with my techs to find the right look for the lights, or work with my props crew to wrestle the bloody plant prop that we’ve fixed five times already but somehow, somehow keeps finding new ways to break. By the end of the day, my creative Fargos are tapped out — and I’m already overdrawn on tomorrow’s balance as well.
Which, here’s where I circle back (finally!) to the point of this post — leaves me utterly exhausted and unmotivated to write. Because I have no Fargos left.
And I was upset with myself about that. (Still am, actually, but I’m getting better.)
But the revelation I had, lying on that couch backstage, had another revelation hidden within it, like the gooey center of a Cadbury’s egg (the caramel kind, not the gross frosting kind, you monsters).
And that revelation is: It’s okay that my creative Fargos are going into my job. In fact, it’s good that I have a job where I get to use my creativity. That’s an enviable spot to be in.
After all, I get to work with young minds, helping them tap into their creativity, helping them find ways to express themselves, giving them the freedom and the safe spaces to explore who they are and how they experience and create art. And that’s pretty Fargoing awesome. And not to take anything away from how awesome that is, but I think it would be selfish of me if I continued to be uptight about spending my creative Fargos in that way.
So I think I have to be okay with maybe not writing as much as I was. Which is not to say that it won’t upset me — it surely will, as critiquing myself is one of my favorite pastimes. But I’ve now got what I feel is a perfectly legitimate excuse — no, a perfect justification for my slackitude, which isn’t slackitude at all.
It’s just a re-distribution of Fargos.
But here’s the other delicious secret: making this realization? Shedding light on this re-distrubition of Fargos? It’s a little like hacking the Matrix.
Because as soon as I made the connection that this is where my creative Fargos has been going, I started finding myself, shockingly, with more creative Fargos. I’m filled with desire to work on my current novel again, whereas for months I dreaded the prospect. I’ve been writing in the mornings again for the last two weeks, pages at a time — writing not fit for human consumption, mind you, but writing nonetheless. And that’s creating even more Fargos.
Overcoming and accepting my hangup with my own productivity has actually opened the gate to more productivity.
Or, viewed from another angle, the roadblock to my creativity was mostly just me thinking there was a roadblock.
The problem, as they say, seems to have been located almost entirely between the ears.
Luckily, that’s a space I seem to have plenty of access to.
So here’s what’s going on with my current project:
It’s a Superhero story (I’m currently reading Save the Cat, which, if you haven’t read it as a writer, I can only encourage you to pick it up right away, even if you’re not writing screenplays) about a guy in a family of supers who has no powers himself. So he’s a little jaded. When he finally develops an ability of his own, he quickly finds himself at the top of the food chain and sets about a plan to wipe out supers forever.
It’s an idea I love that I kicked around in the ol’ brain for a good couple years before I wrote the first words, and once I did start writing it, it really took on a life of its own, as they say. Lots of twists and turns grew organically out of the thing, which is just one of the measures I use to tell me when an idea is worth pursuing.
And now, as I find myself neck-deep in rewrites and edits, the story is growing out of control like a Mogwai tossed in the deep end of the pool. Every day or two, I have an idea for something I want to add to the story, some twist to throw in the road. Every time I re-read something, the characters seem to be speaking to me: that doesn’t make sense, I should be doing THIS instead.
Playing whack-a-mole with ideas like this is frustrating: obviously not everything that springs to mind can make it to the page. Every widget you add over here throws things out of balance over there, and if you’re not careful, the story will go to pieces trying to accomodate everything. But it’s also encouraging, because it makes every writing session exciting. Every page is Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get.
So every day is taxing work — pruning here, shaping here, splicing here, all without end — but it’s also fulfilling and of late, it’s actually been enjoyable. Like I wrote yesterday, the words are coming easier and faster of late. Given the loggerheads I was at with my other project, I’m taking all this as just another sign I’m on the right path, moving in the right direction.
Maybe I’ll even set a deadline, soon.
(I haven’t given myself a deadline in over a year.)
*flies into panic*
*jumps out the window*
This post is part of Stream-of-Consciousness Saturday. Today’s prompt was “the 6th, 7th, and 8th word of the page of the nearest publication. That happened to be “at the top”, from my current read, Otherworld, by Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller.