Friday, January 24, 2014

Bathroom Monologue: Twenty Years

They were the high school sweethearts who didn’t know they were in love. They ran the school blog, spending long nights figuring out HTML and never so much as touching each other’s hands. They were each other’s default guest at parties.

They were running jokes for all their friends, through college and into work places. No one spent that long on the phone with somebody they weren’t screwing – except they weren’t. They were starting up a company that was going to revolutionize non-invasive ads, a topic that was only exciting for the two of them, and an excitement that everyone else understood differently from the two of them.

Too broke to buy houses, they pitched in for rent on one apartment from which to launch their venture. They did each other’s laundry, drove each other home from surgery, and patiently faced down accusations from each other’s parents about the location of sin and their proximity to living in it.

It was almost twenty years before a college intern shoved one of them on New Years Eve and demanded they kiss. And they might have been drunk, and they might have been hiding things, but they did and it lasted an eternal seven seconds – they both knew because it made them so nervous they couldn’t focus on anything but their watches.

Then they were quiet.

Then one of them said, “We should do that more often.”

So they did. They spent another twenty years together starting the next morning, and another twenty after that.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Bad Good Habits

I’m bad with goals. On January 8th I started writing my next novel with the goal of a minimum of a thousand words per day, but with my attention on writing scenes, chapters and arcs – of getting the text right. I write much more when I focus like that, which became the problem, because on the first day I wrote about 2,900 words. On the second day, I wrote about 2,900 more. On the third, I wrote 2,300, and felt exhilarated, having never started a novel so quickly, but also like I’d cheated and profoundly failed.

Do you recognize the problem? Do you have it, too?

Last week I managed to drag my chubby butt to 2.54 miles on the elliptical machine. It was the farthest I’d ever gone, and was so hard on my body that I was trembling for the next hour and felt exhausted the next morning. When I climbed on the next day and didn’t match that all-time record, my heart sunk. I was sweaty, and spent, and my neuromuscular syndrome flared up so badly I couldn’t bend my knees, and I felt like I hadn’t done enough.

I've habituated expanding my goals to a cancerous degree. We often talk about failure in terms of not reaching goals. Figuring out what you can achieve and what’s reasonable to push is vital. You have to learn to make a routine, and then to push. I fail in these ways all the time – it is, allegedly, mortal. But there are other ways to fail. Victory can defeat you.

It's a good line. ... Shut up.
Goals can’t remain static. It’s ridiculous to teach a baby to take her first steps and then never expect her to perform more than that. In writing, you want to push you productivity up if you can. If you can write 500 words in a weekend for months, then it’s healthy to try for 1,000. If you can bench fifty, try sixty. Sure.

But figuring out the limits above those goals is essential, and it’s something I’m terrible at. You can psychoanalyze me as the boy who learned to walk again, who didn’t readjust into school well enough and was brutalized for it, who wound up with nerds who all pulled better grades, and thusly craved to exceed his performance. I don’t think the mind is that simple, or that one reason is ever trustworthy for a whole personality. But I knew within seconds of seeing “2.56 miles” on the elliptical’s panel that I was going to guilt myself over not hitting that again tomorrow. And I knew I shouldn’t, and that it wasn’t healthy, and that I couldn’t stop it.

This is part of why I hate critics who backbite at authors for having a slow pace. It took Harper Lee a lifetime to make To Kill a Mockingbird, and then she was done. Truman Capote, of significantly faster work and greater output, supported and championed Lee. They weren’t competitors, and one wasn’t failing for not having the process of the other.

Goading people into rushing risks breaking them. Screw breaking their work – and yes, dashing towards word count like #NaNoWriMo ruins plenty of decent novels – it can damage their development.

No one browbeat me into writing 33,700 words in my first two weeks on this novel. That I am now significantly ahead of schedule and feel the dread of being behind is a doom of my own making.  It’s hardly fast composition – I have friends who are self-publishing books like they shed manuscripts. But today, after writing two emotionally demanding chapters in separate time lines, and having difficulty even sitting up in the chair afterward, I didn’t feel accomplished. I felt sicker and I felt like I’d failed.

Don’t do this. And if you’re like me, let’s talk it out.

There are authors I respect who advise to lock everything up, to be cold, and be as productive as possible. As someone who won’t fall asleep tonight because the mere strain of writing has jacked up his health problems such that he may not fall asleep tonight, please take my advice: ignore those authors. Mind yourself. Mind your goals and your limits.

And if somehow I become the Capote to your Lee, trust me that I will be overjoyed to share your one book with the world.
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