Monday, June 20, 2011

I have no nuts or bolts

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.


linda said...

Great post! I can relate. I totally struggle with expecting myself to be uber productive and then feeling guilty or discouraged when I fail to be. I can't even tell you how many times I've wished I could program myself to do things so I don't have the option of slacking off.

I don't know much about pushing through either. Sometimes guilt-tripping myself works, but more often I feel better after taking a break. I think your method of allowing yourself to do something else for a while is a great idea.

Dr. Cheryl Carvajal said...

I just need to get in the right place. And late at night that is really hard for me. It's hard when the hubby is home, especially when it's his birthday AND father's day on the same weekend.

I am itching to write at this very moment--well, shred (aka revise)--and yet I know once the kids are up it won't be possible, for then I have other obligations like finishing my kitchen backsplash, doing laundry, etc.

My goal is always to use the breaks I get as opportunities, and not to waste too much of that time doing stupid things instead.

Anonymous said...

Erm...yes. This.

*high fives*

Sarah W said...

Oh, this is exactly what I needed to hear!

I set a personal deadline for finishing a first draft (this past Friday) and missed it by a few chapters. And then I got a migraine aura yesterday from pushing myself too hard.

The whole thing was definitely a Learning Experience.

And I'm okay with that (except for the part about going blind for an hour), but this post definitely helped. Thanks, Tawna!


Wait until you're 65 like me and not only are you fighting all that you mentioned but then you have to throw in the aches and pains and the spouse who has the same.

Still, those of of us write and love what we do, persevere. WE struggle on. WE might not like it and have to get away from the work to take a walk, stand on our heads awhile, do some yoga, but we get up and get going again.
That's just how we creative people create. We're not machines and there are times that I wish I could perform like a machine. But then we'd lack the emotion for our work.
I'm a mom to three adult daughters, grandmom to eight grand kids.
I'm still writing and complaining about not getting enough time to write or wearing out before the job is done. It's the ebb and flow of life!
Let's take it one day at a time and figure it out as we go.
Blessings, Barb

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

When the going gets tough (which is pretty much all the time) I think about ghost writers. No, not hiring one to do my writing for me. I think about how they exist. They make money by taking someone's book idea and turning it into a novel. They just do it, because it's their job. They aren't emotionally attached to the books they're writing, because it's not their ideas, the books aren't their babies, their very souls. Sometimes I have to distance myself from my writing, especially when it comes to editing. This doesn't mean I scrimp on story quality, or good word writing. It's just a little trick to keep me going, when life gets in the way. Or more important things crop up.

Linda G. said...

I hear ya, sistah. I'm working my way through my first editorial letter (I just typed "edititorial," which should give you an idea of where my brain isn't) right now. When I try to stretch myself beyond a certain point on any given day, my ms snaps back like a giant rubber band, and smacks me a good one. It stings!

Wise words from Gaiman. Thank you, Neil.

Hang in there. You'll get through it. :)

Matthew MacNish said...

I don't have this problem, mostly because I only write when I feel like it, which fortunately for me, is often. But then I'm not published, and have no deadlines, so it's really not a fair comparison.

Delia said...

Right there with you. I ended up going strawberry picking.

Patty Blount said...

I feel so much better. *mops brow*

Danica Avet said...

Tawna, I feel your pain! I think this kind of goes with the advice you gave new writers last week. When you're still a non-pub, you can play and write when you feel like it because there are no expectations, no deadlines, nothing holding you back. You're like a kid hyped up on red dye #4 and your parents let you run wild in Toys R Us...that never happened to me, but it kind of feels like that.

As a published writer, you're an adult and you have to do the adult thing and you know, work. *sigh* It can sometimes kill the creative flow, but reminding yourself why you're writing in the first place helps. Sometimes, just reading what you've written and ignoring the edits can help too. It puts you back in that story and when you look at the edits, you can see how they would improve the feeling you were trying to convey in the first place.

If that fails, try chocolate or alcohol. Or both. Beer and Milky Ways are my I-suck-as-a-writer comfort food.

Patrick Alan said...

My cat CAN levitate! *opens window*

lora96 said...

I'm appalled, Tawna. You excerpted the awesome post but left out the essential line:

"Gareth, George RR Martin is NOT your bitch."

Now, babe, that said it all. :)

And yes, we can set goals--usually the freakishly ambitious kind that ignore our needs to bathe and shop for food--but they just make us twitchy and sad.

I know we can't sit around painting our nails and write "when we feel like it" but the imagination is like a naughty child--you can't ALWAYS make it sit still and complete its task.

Jason said...

I'm a big believer in that some days just aren't the right days. Obviously as someone with no real deadlines on my writing other than the ones I place on myself, I can work with that. If I'm not in the mood or too tired or distracted or dinner needs to get done or the dog brushed or whatever, to me that's an indication whatever I end up writing is probably going to be not that great anyway.

But when you have a real deadline it's different. If you have to turn in something by x time on x day, you just have to do the best you can. I've been there. As a journalist you have to turn in copy at a certain time, and it may not be your best work ever because of a zillion different factors, but it has to be the best you can do at that point in time.

I absolutely feel better about certain chapters or scenes or writing projects than others. If I can sleep in, have a good breakfast, enjoy my coffee - I'll write something good. Unfortunately not all days are Sundays, so when it comes to writing at 7pm on a weekday after getting up early and working for nine hours that burn up the best of your mental energy, you just do what you can.

Now, about those levitating cats...

Claire Dawn said...

Perfect timing.

I just gave up on an MS today, because it was working. I have to figure out what was wrong with it, because I want to tell that story. But I'm glad not to be beating myself into the ground to tell it at this time, in this way.

Bethany Elizabeth said...

Thanks for this wonderful post, Tawna. Sometimes it feels like I can never find the time or energy to focus on writing, and it's good to know that, so long as I still try, there's hope. :)

Kimberly Sabatini said...

Awesome post Tawna-sitting down with my revisions now and working on my WIP and I've been thinking a lot about how I can't write faster than I can live my own books. Some people do it different, but I've learned that I am who I am. Sending you ((((hugs))))

Kait Nolan said...

This is absolutely something I struggle with. I'm still balancing writing with two evil day jobs, so my time to write is pretty limited and I feel like when I sit down I need to maximize productivity. Sometimes that means I stress myself out so much that I get NOTHING done. I have to constantly remind myself that as long as I do SOMETHING every day toward my writing, that's still progress.

Great post!

kah said...


Oh, I don't even know where to start. Good to know you're not perfect. I'm envious enough as it is. ;)


Anonymous said...

You're singing my song. There are days people on the other side of the world can hear my roar. Other days, I drag around whimpering that maybe I really am stupid and talentless. And, then, there's all the in-between days. Thanks for this. :D

Susan Flett Swiderski said...

Your instincts are good. You have to replenish yourself emotionally before you can spit out the words like a machine.

Jen J. Danna said...

Oh yes, I'm definitely guilty of this one. Why is it that we work full time and try to write full time and still think we'll have time to have a social life/raise a family/get divorced and still be able to do everything perfectly? And what often suffers (at least in my case) is anything that required creativity. I can do dishes when exhausted, or pack lunches, or check e-mail, but heaven help me if I need to come up with a plot twist, a love scene or some lyrical prose. Not going to happen. I think you handled it beautifully - you gave yourself a break and you gave yourself permission to slow down to make sure that you did the job right. Good for you!

Lisa Ahn said...

Oh, how this rings true. I am relentless in my expectations until I crash. Thanks for the post, the quote and the reminder. I'm off to look for levitating cats because how cool would that be?
~ lisa ahn