Sketchbook #11

I’m thinking about fiction.

I’m thinking about writing. I’m thinking about how I beat myself up over it, how all I can see are the plot holes and frustration and I swear I’m never going to do it again. I’m thinking about how I manage to keep that promise for a year or so at a time, until the urge creeps back to read over those old abandoned drafts.

They’re never as bad as I expect.

They’re never as good as I’d hoped they’d be when I started, but they’re nowhere near as terrible as I believed when I gave up.

It just takes me a year to see that.

And when I see that, I get tempted to start writing again, even though I know it’ll end in tears. Just like the last time.

I’m thinking about painting.

Not art (though I’ll get to that in a minute). I’m thinking about painting walls. I know by now that it takes three coats of white paint to cover the awful beige the management company thinks goes with everything, but that doesn’t go with anything I own or love.

When I’m working alone, it takes a week to paint a room: a day to tear everything down and clean up, a day to do the cutting-in, three days to paint, one day for the trim, and one to touch up and clean up. It stops being fun after the first day of painting. But I get up every day, and after coffee and email, I go to work. I take a break or two (mostly to feed the cat), but other than that, I work all day—all week—until the room is painted.

I never get frustrated. I never wonder why I’m doing it. My perfectionism doesn’t disappear (three coats, remember?), but it doesn’t gnaw away at me like it usually does. Like it does when I’m trying to write, or when I’m sorting through my photos, or when I’m drawing, or thinking about the painting—on canvas—I want to be doing.

I just do the work until it’s done.

For years, I wrote (almost) every day.

I’d get up in the morning, and after coffee and email, I would write. Depending on how I was measuring my progress at the time, I would write until I hit 1500 words, or 2000 words, or 5 pages, or two scenes. I’d aim for four days a week: I took weekends off, and I’d give myself one day to accommodate outside plans that couldn’t be changed, or just a lack of motivation.

The trouble was… the work was never done.

I’d finish one project and immediately start another. I’d finish that project and go back and edit the first one. I never got to a point where I was happy—or even content—with a story, where I could say that I’d achieved what I set out to do. Eventually, I’d just abandon drafts entirely, hoping that I’d like the next one more.

(Now. It should be noted that I was the only one who ever hated these stories. The few stories that made it past my insecurities and into readers’ hands received nothing but glowing feedback. Even my beta readers—good beta readers, writers themselves, who pointed out genuine problems and helped me come up with ways to fix them—never saw the systemic flaws in my work that I did.)

Still. I’d write (almost) every day. And I’d hate it a little more every day, because there was never an end in sight, never a real target that I hoped to hit.

Eventually, I had to stop entirely. It was making me too miserable. (I’ve talked about this before. So. Many. Times.)

I’ve drifted back into it a few times, trying to find ways to tell the stories I want to tell without letting perfectionism get out of control, and it never quite works. The stories never go away—I’m constantly thinking about plot and characters and trying to make them fit together—but I’d sort of accepted that they were always going to be in my head, rather than on the page.

I thought about painting again: a short, intense burst of energy with something tangible to show for it in the end. And then, through an odd twist of fate and Twitter hashtags, I was reminded of National Novel Writing Month: a short, intense burst of energy with (hopefully) something tangible to show for it in the end.

While I was thinking about that, one of the stories that I’d been thinking about clicked into place; a structural problem I’d been trying to solve made perfect sense, and I suddenly wanted to write again.

And, so… I’m going to do NaNoWriMo this year.

And I’m not going to do any serious writing before that.

I’m going to prepare—do some free writing to get myself back to a place where 2000 words or so doesn’t take all day, and turn this idea into an outline that makes sense—but I’m not going to try to write any real stories, not going to force anything.

I still believe that, for some people, and at some times, the key to creativity—writing, art, anything—is just showing up. Putting in the work day after day until it’s as natural as breathing. There have been times in the past when that was exactly what I needed to do. But I think that sort of process is only helpful (for me) when there’s something to show for it. It could be a finished product (or at least a draft of a finished product), or it could be genuine progress, or it could be simply creative or technical improvement. Otherwise, it’s just writing for the sake of getting the words on the page, and then it becomes just another chore.

I’ve run into the same problems with photography. I don’t do 365-Day projects anymore, because eventually they just turn into boring snapshots, taken just so I can check it off my to-do list. I’ve been much happier with my weekly photo project, even when it frustrates me: it gives me just enough structure to keep me focussed, and it’s got a built-in deadline. (I’m still looking for something to do with the photos that’ll give me the same satisfaction as a finished manuscript….) Drawing is still something I can do for a few minutes every day, because I’m seeing progress (however minor) every day.

Right now, if I want to write (and I’m slowly coming to terms with the fact that I do want to write), I need limitations. I need structure and a goal and a reason. Deadlines are good, too.

I’m doing NaNoWriMo this year. I don’t know if it’ll get me out of the rut I’ve been stuck in. I don’t know if I’ll like this particular story any better than the others when it’s done. But it’s a relatively small commitment, and I’ve got plenty of time to prepare. I’ve had success with it in the past; I only stopped doing it every year because it would have meant losing momentum on the other projects I was working on. That’s not a problem right now.

Six months to get ready, one month to do the work. No problem.