Metaphor Monday: Carpet Conundrum

The new house has these great wood floors in it. They’re lovely — dark and smooth and soothing. A real upgrade over the carpet we had in the old house, if you like that sort of thing — and, as it turns out, we do.

There’s a problem with them, though. If you have similar floors in your house, probably you already know what I’m about to say: they are a bear to keep clean. With the little kids and the pets running around, our floors get (and pretty much stay) filthy.

It’s all manner of stuff. Crumbs. Dust. Pet dander. Hair. Little pieces of paper. Tiny gobs of this slime stuff the kids are playing with lately (god I hate toy manufacturers). Cat claws. Grass clippings and dirt from the yard. Dried-out bits of Play-Doh (god I hate toy manufacturers). Toenail clippings. Laundry lint. Scraps of candy wrappers. More crumbs.

Yesterday, I swear, we opened the back door and the little breeze stirred up a tiny cyclone of detritus. A tumbleweed rolled through the kitchen. And I’m thinking to myself: “I just swept yesterday!”

Turns out that, though we love the look of the wood over the comfort of the carpet, the carpet was comforting in other ways too: it hid the disgustingness of our existence from us. But now, if we don’t clean it up every day or two, that dust is gonna show out, and there’s no hiding it from anybody.

But here’s the rub: in the old house, with the carpets, sure — we could go a week or so without vacuuming. Most likely, nobody would notice — sometimes, not even we would notice. (“When’s the last time we vacuumed?” “I dunno, March?”) But that doesn’t mean that the gross stuff wasn’t there. It was just disguised. Camouflaged. Trapped in the fibers underfoot. Out of sight and out of mind.

Which seems like where you want it — out of sight — until you consider that the longer it lurks there, the more it piles up. And every step kicks that stuff up into the air, into every room in the house, into your lungs. Where it lurks and festers and crystallizes and congeals into gunk that’s got you coughing and sneezing and feeling cruddy year-round and you don’t even know why.

Not so good after all.

When it’s out on the hardwood, we can see it, so we can clean it — as unpleasant and tedious as that may be — before it has the chance to pile up and do damage. So the floors might look dirtier than ever, but on balance, I know that in reality, they’re cleaner than we’ve had in years.

So I wonder:

How much crap is hiding in the carpet in my headspace?

Well, a lot. Probably an unconquerable mountain of it, if I’m honest. These are troubling times we live in, and unfortunately, a lot of the feelings and thoughts and shock and awe and disgust and sorrow and anger and regret … all of that stuff gets swept under the carpet. Mass shootings. Bigotry out in the open. Injustice and indifference to the common man (and woman). Death and destruction and general bad behavior everywhere you look. (And that’s just the past weekend in Trump’s America.) To say nothing of the everyday stuff in my own neighborhood. Work. Parenting. Neverending effing yard work.

All of it piles up, and unfortunately, it’s got nowhere to go. So it just gets pushed around. Pushed out of sight and … well, in this case, decidedly NOT out of mind. It just sits there, grinding itself deeper into the fibers, suffocating the productive thoughts I want to have and making the air unpalatable for the new thoughts I haven’t had yet. Which probably explains the drought I’m in — have been in — during this terrible, awful, no good, very bad year.

And while I usually like to take a positive tack here in these posts, I’m not sure where it is in this instance. I don’t know how to rip up the carpet inside my own head.

It sure does seem like I could use some hardwood up there. Even if it’s a pain in the butt.

Who Ever Wanted More Deadlines?

Nothing motivates like a deadline. You put the thing off, put the thing off, park it in the backyard, let it grow a few weeds. A family of squirrels takes up residence. Winter comes, the squirrels leave. Then the deadline looms and, hey, holy crap, it’s time to clean that thing up. Pull the weeds out. Excise the dead squirrels. Somehow this work gets managed in the relative blink of an eye, not because you want it to be done, but because it has to get done.

Or else, what? Or else, there are consequences.

Getting the house ready to sell was a perfect example of this. We had a leaky toilet. A dripping faucet. Tons of little dings in the drywall. Junk in the garage. Sagging gutters. All of these, things which I wanted to get done someday, but which I was not interested in actually doing. For years. Then, we have to get the house ready to sell, and I manage to do them all in about a week.

I was motivated from without by a deadline of sorts: you can’t sell the house until you fix the broken things.

This is the problem with my writing, of late: I’m a hobbyist at this point, and as a hobbyist, there are no deadlines. If I finish a thing? Great; I get my dopamine hit, but that’s about it. If I don’t finish a thing? I haven’t lost anything besides my time. I may feel bad about myself, but there are no tangible, concrete consequences.

Which is why it feels like my projects are stretching out and piling up like rusted-out cars in the backyard. Like a house full of honey-do’s.

Of course, I do have deadlines in my actual job, so it’s easier and easier to let those narrative toilets keep leaking. With writing, it’s all-or-nothing — I’m either thinking about it all the time, consumed with it virtually every waking minute, or I can’t keep my mind on it at all. With the deadlines flying around like a swarm of angry bees, it’s more of a nothing writing phase.

What I need, then, is obvious: I need some good, external, consequence-riddled deadlines for my projects.

I hear there are apps and services that will provide this motivation for you. Like, if you haven’t done what you said you’d do — lose fifteen pounds by the summer, finish that first draft — they donate to a political cause you hate with money you staked on yourself back when you were full of piss and vinegar about doing the thing in the first place. But that feels gimmicky and cheeky and disingenuous. I need the carrot, man. I need the stick.

Actually, what I need is to be finished with this school year — the transition has wreaked havoc on my writing habit — and get on with getting moved into the new house. (Upshot: we have accepted an offer on our current house, so we can start looking for a new place in earnest, now.) Maybe when I can silence those deadlines, I can start imposing some weird and crazy deadlines on myself.

Like, I dunno. If I don’t finish the first edit by x date, I’ll have to eat a live spider, or something.

Oh god.

I’d better get to work.

This weekly remotivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every weekend, I use Linda G. Hill’s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results.

Running and Writing: Two Great Tastes that Taste Great Together!

It’s been a long time since I had a running post, and I wondered if I was done with them. After all, this is primarily a blog about the writing of novels and the tribulations of a writer of novels learning that he doesn’t actually know very much about the writing of novels. What does running have to do with that?

Well, a lot, actually.

I take a bit of a Dirk Gently approach to life, always trying to keep in mind the interconnectedness of all things. A hummingbird flaps its wings in Taiwan and creates a hurricane in Florida, or an angry old man sends back soup at a deli and the next thing you know, skinny jeans are going out of style and cats are scooping their own poop.

And if there’s one thing I’ve learned about writing, it’s that it’s hard. Really hard. I’ve called it a Sisyphean effort before, and that’s not hyperbole: take your eye off the work and it can backslide on you, rolling your project and your will to work on it all the way back down to the bottom of the hill you spent five months climbing. And that’s when the wind is at your back, when things are going your way and you feel really truly in touch with what you’re writing.

But those are the rare days.

A lot of writing (the biggest part of writing, of late) is writing when your heart isn’t in it, when you fear the work is crap, that you’re crap, that every idea you’ve ever had or will ever have is crap, and that the paper that might have been used printing out your manuscript would be better used as paper that’s actually designed for cleaning up crap. Authorial self-doubt, the fear of rejection, an inability to find the time to focus or the right circumstances to concentrate… all these can add up to make the prospect of writing as daunting as an ant deciding it wants to cut a tunnel through the Rocky Mountains. On those days, you really have to be clearheaded, you have to train your mind to block out all that negativity and self-sabotage.

Which is where the running comes in. Say what you will about the dubious benefits of prolonged cardio exercise or how bad it is for your knees (or better yet, don’t, because I will just laugh at you), but any activity that gets the blood flowing to your body proper is by its very nature going to get the blood flowing to your brain. All that fresh, hot, oxygen-laced, endorphin-riddled blood hitting the brain is like a cool breeze in the middle of a Georgia July, like stepping into a heated storefront after being out in a New York winter, like the first pop in a fresh roll of bubble wrap. It gets you focused, it gets you clear-headed, it gets you calm.

Add to that, of course, the fact that with running in particular, it’s just you and the road (or trail or track or whatever) and the low, rhythmic shuffling of your feet. If zen masters advocate focusing on the simple infinity of the “om”, then there’s a wealth of universal truth to be found in the relentless slap slap slap of your feet on the pavement. There is no better way to get some alone time with your thoughts than to lace up your sneakers and go out for a few meditative miles.

If you’re a regular reader, you might know that I’ve been struggling with a foot injury for the last year and a half that’s made it difficult for me to fully enjoy my runs. It’s been impossible for me to cover long distances or to push my pace much above a brisk jog without setting myself back something horrible. But I’m muscling through, perhaps idiotically so (especially if you ask my wife) because of one thing:

I write better on the days when I exercise than on days when I don’t. I write better on days that I run than on days when I “work out”. I’m clearer, more at peace, less stressed, less consumed with doubt. If I can start the day with that one accomplishment under my belt, it makes any other goal — from writing a few hundred words to grading a stack of horrible essays — seem that much closer to my grasping hands.

Problem is, there’s only so much you can say about running, right? I mean, sure, every run is different: the melodies of the birdsong, the low lullaby of the cars rumbling past, the poemic abuse from passing motorists weaves itself into a unique symphony every time you step out. But by the same token, of course, every run is pretty much the same: laces on, one foot in the other, tromp stomp tromp stomp, have a shower, go on with your day.

So on the one hand, I hesitate to write too much about running, because I fear it gets monotonous. Then again, I wonder if I don’t beat the writing about writing horse to death, as I fear I may have done of late.

Nevertheless, running, as I said before, is a part of my process. Which means it belongs here.

Oh, and: I went for a run yesterday. It was good. Probably go for one tomorrow. I think that one will be good, too.

Image from Avicii’s Levels music video.

The First Draft: The Shape-Shifting Target

Writing, as I think I’ve mentioned before, is an exercise in futility.

You work so hard to craft a story, to chisel characters from the soft stone of imagination and breathe life into their formless husks. You try to communicate themes, to send messages, to tie up loose ends, to suggest ideologies, but it’s all a mug’s game, really. I was reading the other day another blogger’s dismay that her father refused to read the Lord of the Rings series, or watch the movies, on the grounds that it was “satanic”. For all the work that you put into a story, all that matters at the end of the day is what other people make of it.

Which is kind of a bummer, because you can only involve other people so much in the writing of it, which is to say, you can hardly involve them at all. I mean, research aside, 99% of the writing of a story is completed by the author himself, probably in a dark room with no windows, certainly removed from most human contact, except for the plate of gruel that gets pushed through the slot in the door a couple of times a day.

So you try to write a story for other people, but that’s a mug’s game, too, because you simply can’t control the headspace that another person lives in, you can’t sit there over their shoulder to tell them this character is blowing up the village because she really wants everybody to love her. You can’t be there on-call to answer questions your readers have. They make their own meaning, and that’s that, so there’s not much point in trying to steer their interpretations — the best thing you can do is write the story you want to write, and write it as best you can.

But even that’s next to impossible, it seems, because a story has a life of its own. You set out to write a science-fiction thriller and end up writing a teen angst comedy. You set out to write a romance and end up with a twisted love-hate psycho-suspense novel like Gone Girl. My current project has changed from the seedling I started with so many times, I can’t even keep track. It’s a post-apocalyptic horror book. No, wait, it’s a sci-fi mystery. No, never mind, it’s a YA coming-of-age.

It doesn’t stop there. My protagonist is a nerdy guy who has never lived anywhere for more than three months. No, she’s a photography student with a project from a whimsical art teacher on deadline. No, I have three protagonists. And there’s a wild-eyed scientist who may or may not be directly responsible for the apocalypse that we’re living in post of. But he’s really a good guy. No, he’s really a bad guy. No, he’s really a bad guy who pretends to be a good guy. No, wait, he’s just this guy who really doesn’t care about the protagonists, and concepts like good and bad are a little bit like asking whether I want chocolate or vanilla ice cream for dessert, because the answer is inevitably “yes please, a little of both.”

There’s a time machine. No, there are time portals scattered around. There’s an evil robot. No, there are lots of evil robots. There’s a robot that gets captured and reprogrammed to allow the heroes to thwart the system. There are no robots at all, but everybody has biological implants that make them act like robots.

My first draft contains elements of ALL OF THE ABOVE, thrown together and mangled like the lump of junkyard metal that used to be my ’99 Chevy Malibu (god rest that train wreck of a car).

Because the story keeps changing on me, the target keeps moving. Not only does it move, it changes shape and size and color and even, in this case, blinks in and out of existence as it dances through different dimensions of my unsettled imagination.

And there are two ways to feel about that.

Way number the first: get incredibly frustrated. You start a story with a certain idea in mind, you should stick to that idea. Deviations from the path are a waste of time and counter-productive. Bang your head against the wall until the poisonous ideas go away and you find your way back to the one true path that you started with, no matter how long it takes.

Way number the second: Fargo the target. Write what feels good, allow the story to change and shift its shape, allow it to tangle itself up in knots and to contradict its own existence, until it figures out just what the hell it wants to be, anyway.

I feel like I should feel the first way, because that would make me feel more powerful as a writer. You set out to write a story and you end up with pretty much that story, plus or minus a few unexpected elements along the way.

But I’m starting to feel okay about the fact that, deep down, I really feel the second way. Because it’s a lot less stressful writing when you allow yourself not to make perfect sense, when you allow yourself to make mistakes and detour down all the dark, twisting paths in the maze.

Because writing is one of those rare things that you don’t have to get perfect the first time. You get a second bite at the apple, and a third, and a fourth, and in fact you can get a whole other apple after you’ve chewed the first one to bits, because until you’re published, it doesn’t matter if the apple is green or red or golden or filled with worms or made of plastic.

I think it’s okay if you set out to build a tree house and end up building a coffee table instead. Maybe that’s your subconscious telling you that what you really needed, deep down, was a place to put your coffee cups. And magazines. And remote controls. And dirty diapers.

Okay, things got too real there for a moment. Point is, if the target is moving, maybe it’s not the target moving at all.

Maybe it’s you.

And you can argue against it and rail against it, or you can accept that the picture has changed, take aim, and keep shooting.