Tag Archives: sticktoitiveness

How Not to Backslide


I talk a lot about how hard it is to do the thing, and especially how hard it is to start the thing. There are endless ruminations — here and all over the web — about how difficult it is to start: how scary and intimidating the blank page is, how difficult to even step out the door in the morning, hell, just the challenge of getting out of bed itself, of reaching for your shoes instead of the snooze button.

And there are endless examples of people asking how to start. Looking for the magic bullet, the one piece of advice, the secret techniques to start them on the path. (s if there were just one. Or even a collection that might work, that wouldn’t require retooling and retweaking every time you go to employ them.)

And you know what? That’s fine. Starting is hard, it’s arguably the hardest step in a project, because you have to get past all that built-up doubt and insecurity, you have to give yourself permission to suck, and all that. Starting the Thing is basically like a mental version of the twelve labors of Hercules.

But Starting the Thing is only one piece of the puzzle, and as important as it is — and it is important, super important — it’s actually one of the smallest pieces of the puzzle.

The bigger piece? Probably the biggest piece? Maintaining.

Maybe this is on my mind because so many of us are entering another week of quarantine — be it self-imposed or otherwise — and we’re getting a little squirrelly. Week 1, we panicked and then we locked it down; week 2, we started getting some routines in place, now week 3 … we’re starting to feel the grind. This is when you need to focus on that other piece. When you have to focus on Maintaining.

See, when you Start the Thing, there’s this bait-and-switch that happens. Yes, it’s difficult. Yes, it seems impossible. Yes, you can’t see the end from where you are — you can’t even see beyond the first turn in the path. But the moment you do Start, there’s this incredible positive feedback loop that kicks into action. It’s immediate. “Oh, man, I wrote a few words on my space zombies fighting dinosaur pirates novel and it turned into two hundred — that feels great!” Or, “Whew, I was dreading starting this run, but I had to take my dog out to pee anyway and it turned into a mile before I knew it.” That happens. It happens often. You do the Thing that you’ve been building up in your mind as SO HARD, then you do it, and you get this great big payoff.

But dopamine is a kind of drug, innit? And like any drug, the more you get, the more you need. The high still hits as you keep Doing the Thing — as you keep adding to your word count, as you keep running the miles, as you keep making that progress — but it’s not like the first time. So you do a little more — you go harder, better, faster, stronger — and that picks up the slack. Sooner or later, though, you hit your limit, whatever that may be. You can only carve out so much time in the day, after all, and the body and mind can only take so much strain … so you can’t just add to the workload ad infinitum. For me, I peaked out at writing for two hours a day, and at four miles per run during the week. That’s what my schedule would allow, and that’s about all I really wanted to do.

That was enough.

So when you’ve reached “enough” — what then?

Then you move to the next phase: Maintain.

And Maintaining is hard. Way hard. Super way harder than starting. Because Starting comes with its own reinforcement. But Maintaining does not.

Gone is that rush of GoodFeel from just showing up, from just getting something done; you know what you’re capable of, so you now have a series of expectations for yourself. You don’t get bonus points for opening your project up, or from just jogging to the end of the street. You’ve got a quota to make. It begins to feel more like work than a new, exciting project.

Worse than that, when you Maintain, you’re by definition doing the things you’ve already been doing. I’ve been stuck in edits on a series of three chapters for the last several work sessions, because there is just so much to be fixed in there. And I’ve run the 5k loop near my house, and all its sundry variations, more times than I can count. These things are no longer new and shiny and exciting. They have become routine.

And to face that every day? To cope with the harsh truth that this thing you wanted to do — this thing you Started full of hope and excitement and a deep sense of purpose — involves, in no small part, drudgery? That’s a harsh truth.

It’s so easy not to maintain the progress, to let slip the work rate. Ahhh, I wrote extra yesterday, I’m gonna let it slide today. Well, I ran long this weekend … I can take it easy during the week. You know, I’ve been plugging away on this project … I’m gonna take a day off. You can be forgiven for thinking that way, and in truth, you’re not wrong to think that way. Accomplishment merits rest. Getting things done should earn you some downtime.

Problem is, you let it slip a little bit, and it becomes easy to let it slip a lot. That rope starts to pull through your fingers and all of a sudden, it’s moving too fast to grab hold of as it whips itself away. The rock rolls past you down the hill, and it’s all you can do to get out of its way as it crashes down toward the bottom.

The only way to Maintain is to return to the work with the same perseverance, the same sense of determination and drive that got you to Start in the first place.

How do you do that?

Simple. You don’t.

Whatever it is that got you to Start the thing carried with it a little spark of magic, a little shock to the system that spurred you to motion where you were once at rest. Like a germ that hits your immune system and forces it to adapt (to use a really troubling though apt metaphor), once it’s struck once, it won’t hit you the same way again.

What you have to do is re-evaluate. Remind yourself why you are doing what you’re doing. Check in on yourself now and then, see if you’re still on the path you want to be on, if you’re still making progress toward that goal you set so long ago, or whether you’re simply coasting along. You stop being driven by the dopamine hits and you start being driven by knowing that it matters.

Turns out all those jerks who told you all your life that hard work is its own reward were right, even if they never explained why (or if they could even articulate it themselves).

There’s no easy way to flick this switch. It comes only from introspection and from a willingness to look yourself in the face and tell yourself the hard truth: that you’re slipping, that you could be doing more, that the work still needs doing and nobody is going to do it for you.

There’s no secret, no magic bullet.

I know, I know. I wrote this whole post out only to reveal that I don’t know a damned thing about how to stick to it, how to keep coming back to it, how to keep your head down and keep pushing forward when it gets hard. Fact is, the only secret that will work is the one that’s buried in your own brain already.

And you’ll either find it, and keep putting in the work … or you won’t.

(I hope that you will.)


Metaphor Monday: Flower on the Vine


Our new house has this great, spacious backyard. Gently rolling, wide open, grassy (even if that grass is a bit aggressive and strangling), fenced. Sort of ideal if you have little kids who like to play outside — and surprise, we do! — which made this little feature not insignificant in the buying of said house.

But there’s a corner of that backyard which isn’t quite in step with the rest of the yard. Here, our idyllic little plot of land is beset by vines and leaves and weeds that spill over the fence from a neighbor’s yard and threaten to engulf that little corner. Which is metaphor enough for the writer’s soul: a mostly pleasant little suburban yard with an untamed corner at war with itself. But it’s even more better than that!

I headed back to that corner a few days ago with shears and Roundup in hand to assess the situation, ready to clear out the offending growth and banish it from my little private Idaho. But I noticed a thing:

wp-image--245996620There, in the midst of the encroaching green, a tiny little bloom. Brilliant and red and proud, striving for the sun from the clutches of the thicket.

All around it, a sea of green. Worthless, ugly, and choking out whatever else might try to grow there. Spreading like a wildfire across the drought-blasted California countryside. Threatening to completely eclipse the very fence it took root in, that held it up to drink up the sun and the rain. Running roughshod over everything in its path.

And out of that voracious scramble to consume, to grow, to dominate? This single flower. A speck of beauty in a cavalcade of ugliness. A spark of radiance in an ocean of banality. A glimmer of vibrance in the blank expanse of mere existence.

But why? Why just the one flower against the whole wall of leaves?

Bearing in mind that everything I know about plants and horticulture and the science of growing things could fit into the table of contents of your average Pete the Cat book, a few thoughts occur to me:

Leaves and vines are easy; they’re the engines of their own creation. (Leaves photosynthesize sunlight to make fuel to make more leaves, repeat ad infinitum — aka why 3/4 of Georgia is covered in kudzu.) Flowers require a dedicated effort to create which might or might not pay off. (Certainly the flower doesn’t help the plant itself survive.) Not for nothing, then, it takes a ton of leaves and vines and sundry greenery to muster the resources to create even a single flower.

The other side of that coin, however, is that the vine’s entire purpose is to create the flower. The vine can grow all the leaves it wants, it can engulf my entire fence and maybe even my entire yard, but the vine will never escape this one geographical space, this one spatial-temporal neighborhood. To truly spread — to cover the world in its overflowing verdance — it needs flowers, which create pollen, which hitches a ride on a bee’s butt and finally stands a chance of sprouting anew miles away.

Without the flower, there’s no point to the vine. Without the vine, there’s no hope for the flower.

And so it goes for the writer, right? (Writers write, right? Hopefully, writers write right, right? Or even, right writers write right, right? Right.)

You can write an entire fence’s worth of absolute crap, utter tripe, hopeless drivel without ever seeing a single flower emerge from the bramble. You can bang your fingers to bloody nubs against the keys, churning out words upon words upon neverending waves of words, and you may well engulf your entire yard in viney, leafy growth, before you see the bloom that means something has taken light.

But the flower is why you write. Just like the flower on the vine, the flower of the perfect story, the perfect idea, doesn’t just spring fully-formed into the universe. It needs the framework and the support of a field of ivy — an expanse of drivel — to have a prayer of blooming. You can’t get to the perfect story without the drivel. But drivel for its own sake is pointless — you need the flower that breaks through to keep the vine truly alive.

All of which is to say that I’m not cutting back the ivy on that fence. Because even though I don’t know much about biology, I know that it’s rare for a thing to bloom on its own, out of nowhere, and all by itself. Where there is one flower, there may soon be several. Where one idea blooms, another may soon follow.

Even if you have to hack through a forest of drivel to find it.

Metaphor Monday is about pointing out how things are like other things and appreciating the interconnectedness of all things. Got an idea for next week’s post? Let me hear it in the comments.


The Weekly Re-Motivator: Panning for Gold


I remember, when I was in school, learning about how during the gold rush — you know, old west, Manifest Destiny times — people would pan for gold. Scoop some water out of the river, sift through it, see if any nuggets were floating in the runoff. Or they’d just take big handfuls of dirt, toss them on these screens, and slowly sift away the big rocks, then the little ones, and so on, in hopes of separating out something priceless from the junk.

And I always thought that was kind of BS. You dunk your little pan into the river, hoping to get rich off some crumbs floating downstream? You dig up your backyard, hoping that in there among the rocks and the sand, there’s a gold nugget, just waiting to be discovered?

It’s the sort of ridiculous hope that keeps people buying lottery tickets. The overwhelming odds are that not only will you not find gold, but you will have wasted hours — if not days or weeks or worse — of time which you could have used for, you know, useful things otherwise.

Not incidentally, one of my favorite snippets from Sam Harris (a prominent atheist/philosopher/neurologist and pretty smart guy) has to do with a guy who spends his weekends digging in his backyard for an enormous diamond. “It gives me great pleasure, seeking this diamond,” the guy claims, though there’s no evidence that the diamond exists, nor is there any good reason to believe that it might. And regardless of whether this diamond does exist, the believer “wouldn’t want to live in a world where there wasn’t an enormous diamond buried in my backyard.”

Panning for gold in that way takes something maybe even stronger than an act of faith.

But lately, that metaphor strikes me in another way.

If the first draft is the rushing mountain stream, then there are definitely some gold flakes floating in it, lost amid the smashing rapids and festering cesspools of word vomit. (This is, incidentally, why I’m not totally soul-crushed after losing about twenty thousand words of my latest project; because I know that most of it is crap.) Problem is, there’s no knowing where they are ahead of time. And there’s no guarantee that, if I dive into that stream of bland, meandering word salad, I’ll come away with anything approaching usefulness.

But I keep doing it. Every day I wade into the waters and pan for gold, screening the water and the dust and the lumps of calcified cow crap in hopes that somewhere among the detritus is a nugget that I might one day parlay into a car payment.

You know. The sort of blind, hopeless faith that I usually rail against.

But with one key difference.

The poor saps panning and sifting for gold or digging for diamonds in their backyards are putting their faith in things they can’t see or touch or know in any way. The gold is either flowing in the river, or it’s not. It’s either mixed in the dirt, or it isn’t. The diamond is either buried in the earth to be found, or there is no such diamond. But the words I churn out every day? It may not be much, but at least I’m in control of those words. And I know that, even though most of them may be crap, the potential is there, hiding behind fossilized feces or drifting downstream.

The faith a writer has to have is a faith in himself (or herself!). Some would argue that it takes a hell of a lot of faith to return to the blank page, day after day, to deface it with your imperfection. There’s certainly something of the devotional in it.

But I don’t think it actually takes much faith at all. The stories we’re sifting for are there, hiding just below the surface, winking at us from behind the river of crap.

We just have to have the patience to screen out the garbage.

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.


The Weekly Remotivator: The Mission


We all suck starting out.
There’s an old saying about nothing worth doing being easy. That may be true, but I’d wager that a lot of people trying something new for the first time never get far enough to find out just how difficult the thing is. You pick up a guitar, plunk out a few discordant notes, maybe plug away for a week or two until your fingers get sore; then you listen to Freebird, realize you’ll never shred like that, and suddenly the guitar is gathering spiders in the attic. You lace up your shoes to give running a try, and you manage to power through some really painful stumbling outings; then it’s a few weeks later and you just can’t bring yourself to head out in the eighty-degree heat, and once you miss a workout, missing the next is easy.
You set out to write a novel, thinking (rightly) that anybody can do it.  You pound the keys for a good solid month before you realize that your characters are boring, your setting makes no sense, and your plot is as dead as a shark that doesn’t swim. Then your manuscript goes into the abyss of unfinished novels and you maybe start over, or you maybe just quit.
When you start something new, people say you should have a goal. Something to work toward, something achievable. And that’s well and good: you should have a goal. But there comes a point, when you’re up against that wall where the thing goes from hard to STUPID hard, when you need something even more than a goal.
You need a mission.
The difference is subtle.
A goal is something clearly defined that you want to accomplish.
A mission is something clearly defined that you MUST accomplish.
With a mission, failure is not an option. With a mission, obstacles are unable to stop you; they can only delay you. With a mission, it’s success or death.
The Blues Brothers were on a “mission from God.” NASA’s headquarters for space missions is called, unsurprisingly, Mission Control. Failure is not an option.
So, the next time you try something new, don’t set a goal.
Set a mission.

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.


Get Up and Go (A Gramble About Gumption)


By the way, “Gramble” is just a word I made up. I wanted to keep alliterating with “G”s so I stuck one on the front of “ramble”. Don’t be afraid of my Frankenstein’s monster of a word. Its literary thirst for blood can only be satiated with ink.

Anyway. Gumption. Where does it go?

Some days the gumption is there; it burns away in your belly, it secretes its smoky certainty through your pores and fills you to the tippy top with vigor and optimism. Other days, the fire goes out, and all that’s left is the ashy residue of a bonfire, some empty beer bottles, and a few condom wrappers from where all the cool couples disappeared into the woods.

“Gumption” itself is one of those outdated words that you don’t hear much anymore, but there’s no word quite like it. We’ve got the newfangled Play-Doh lump of a word, “sticktoitiveness”, which is not so much a word as a philosophy. There’s “tenacity”, which has something to do with gumption, but isn’t the same thing. Then you can go and get all negatively-connotated and toss out “stubborn”, which, again, rubs up against gumption but doesn’t take the prize turkey home.

“Gumption” is homey and colloquial and down-to-earth. It’s a don’t-give-up mentality that somehow runs the gamut between boundless optimism and pigheaded refusal to back down. It’s a quiet, determined certainty that with hard work, anything can be achieved.

Maybe it’s one of those things that’s impossible to define, but you know it when you see it.

Gumption is a concept that has resonated with me since I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. I first read it in my senior year of high school, then again in my sophomore year at college, then again in my fourth year of college, then again shortly after graduating college, then again after I graduated college again, and it’s recently been in my brain that maybe I ought to read it again. It’s a fascinating little book that’s not actually very much about Zen or motorcycle maintenance, but rather about the world at large and how you choose to view it. If you’re philosophically inclined at all, you’ll probably get some mileage out of it. One of its defining moments for me is a scene wherein the protagonist fixes his buddy’s misfiring motorcycle with an old beer can. The protagonist is pleased with his ingenuity; the buddy is flustered and ultimately unable to live with the notion that a piece of trash could fix everything that’s wrong with his bike. He’s too caught up in the idea of what the bike should look like and what fixing it should entail to realize that the chemically-treated, rust-proof surface on the inside of the can provides all the fixing his bike could ever want at a fraction of the cost and time needed for a “proper” fix.

Anyway, I love the idea of gumption — that inevitable, inescapable quality within the self that just knows how to buckle down and get sharknado done — but I’m faced with a terrible truth lately. Mine is gone.

Like, a few months ago, I had it. I knew right where it was. In the left lobe of my brain, next to the wrenches and the repository of dangling participles. But now it’s gone. Misplaced? Stolen? Dried up?

I’m reminded of an Aerosmith lyric: “My get-up-and-go must have got up and went.”

Seriously. I’m behind on the novel. I wanted to finish the first edit by the end of January, and now it’s trailing off into March and I’m always “just a few weeks away.” I’m behind on grading papers at work and have been since… well… January. Even my posts on the blarg have been fewer and farther between since… ahem… January.

What happened in January?

I have no idea, but whatever it was ran my gumption right out of town. But, see, that doesn’t make sense. Because gumption is a part of who you are. Right? It can no more leave you than your wits, or your good looks, or… maybe these are bad examples.

The point is, my gumption is missing lately. If you’ve seen it, please tell it I would very much appreciate it if it would return home. I have a lot of work to get done. And a lot of get-ups that need to get going.

This post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday.


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