Over the weekend, I made a startling discovery:
I am not a machine.
You would think this might have dawned on me at least once in 36 years. I inspect my parts routinely, and should have noticed there were no wires or bolts or screws.
OK, there have been screws. Maybe that’s what threw me.
Nevertheless, my new epiphany came as a big surprise. I had my weekend all plotted out. I would get home from the day job on Friday and work until 11 p.m. on the large-scale edits for the second book in my contract. On Saturday, I’d get up at 6 and work straight through on those edits until at least 11 p.m.
And if I finished round one by noon on Sunday, I could reward myself by spending a few hours with friends before diving back in and editing all evening and all day Monday.
The first sign that my plan might be overly ambitious came late Friday evening when I started to peter out around 9:30 p.m. It had been a long work week, and my attention span just wasn’t what it needed to be. I kept cranking slowly, but wasn’t as productive as I’d hoped to be.
On Saturday morning, I got up early and got busy with the manuscript. Though I moved more slowly than I would have liked, I was doing pretty well until I hit a section of the manuscript where my editor had requested some particularly big edits.
A machine could have done it.
But me? Well, I considered lying down on the floor, kicking my feet, and screaming, “I don’t wanna!”
I refrained from doing this, mostly because the floor was filthy. Instead, I leashed up the dog and took her for a long walk. By the time I got home, I had reached a point where I could grudgingly muscle through the scene.
Then came another one. A scene requiring even bigger edits that triggered another “don’t wanna” response. I tried hard to stay on task. I stared blankly at the screen and willed the words to come.
But I couldn’t seem to force myself to slash ruthlessly like I needed to, nor could I spark any brilliant ideas for replacing whatever I might slash.
So I stared at the screen some more, and that’s when the anxiety kicked in.
You’re never going to figure this out. Do you even want to? Maybe slashing the scene is a bad idea. Or maybe it’s a good idea, but you’ll do it so poorly that your editor will call you up and say, “um, that three book contract? We’re taking it back because you suck.”
Oh, and while you’re sitting here getting nothing done, your lawn needs mowed, your floors need swept, the cats need shots, you need to go grocery shopping, and oh, by the way, you leave for a week-long RWA conference in New York in one week and you have absolutely NOTHING TO WEAR.
A machine could have handled all that. A machine would have powered through and put words on the page and groceries in the fridge and a whole bunch of designer dresses in the closet with just a few clicks of some flashy buttons.
I got up and found my car keys. Then I drove to the store and bought a few groceries, tried on some shoes, and came home feeling…well, a little better.
And that’s where it’s frustrating. No matter how much you might want to, a writer can’t force machinelike productivity. Even if you’re careful and give your brain a break and do all the right things to relax and battle anxiety, you still can’t force it if it won’t come.
I’ll pause here to let you snicker at that last line.
I’d love to be able offer a bunch of wise tips for forcing productivity, but you know what? I can’t.
And one thing that makes me feel better about the fact that I can’t is this blog post by genius author Neil Gaiman. (Scroll down to the part that begins “Hi, Neil,” and take it from there.)
I bookmarked that post over a year ago to remind myself that even authors in the big leagues deal with these issues. This part, in particular, is something I’ve considered tattooing on my arm:
You don't choose what will work. You simply do the best you can each time. And you try to do what you can to increase the likelihood that good art will be created.
And sometimes, and it's as true of authors as it is of readers, you have a life. People in your world get sick or die. You fall in love, or out of love. You move house. Your aunt comes to stay. You agreed to give a talk half-way around the world five years ago, and suddenly you realise that that talk is due now. Your last book comes out and the critics vociferously hated it and now you simply don't feel like writing another. Your cat learns to levitate and the matter must be properly documented and investigated. There are deer in the apple orchard. A thunderstorm fries your hard disk and fries the backup drive as well...
And life is a good thing for a writer. It's where we get our raw material, for a start. We quite like to stop and watch it.
Amen, brother Neil. Amen.
Do you struggle with expecting machinelike productivity from yourself and getting frustrated when it doesn’t happen? How do you push through? Please share!
I’m thinking about the levitating cat thing now. I really need to check on that.