Archives for November 2013

THE WRITING DISCOMFORT DILEMMA

dilemmasIn my other blog, THE SOUL OF SELLING, I often write about the Selling Discomfort Dilemma—but it occurs to me that the Discomfort Dilemma shows up in almost every aspect of life, and especially for writers. I have suffered its effects, and here offer some solutions that have worked for me.

WHAT IS THE DISCOMFORT DILEMMA?
The Discomfort Dilemma is that perilous moment when you stand poised between moving forward and doing whatever is the next step—or doing something to avoid it. That next step might be:

  • Starting a new piece of writing
  • Beginning the next draft or edit
  • Finishing what you are working on
  • Sending it out to an editor, agent, or publisher
  • Just sitting down at your desk
  • Anything that involves discomfort, the possibility of failure, or any potential for rejection—or that you just plain don’t wanna do!

When we’re on the horns of the Discomfort Dilemma, the next step always seems agonizing or impossible. We want to dive under the bed and mainline chocolate. We will do almost anything to avoid the imagined discomfort of that next step—even when we know from bitter experience that trying to avoid it only makes us more uncomfortable.

The problem is, that next step is still before us when we finish mainlining the chocolate. Only now it seems even bigger. It’s later in the game. We feel even more behind the Eight Ball, and we’re not sure we can trust ourselves now. It’s easy to feel as if, in order to make up for having gotten off track, we have to produce more results, better results, and we have to produce them more quickly. Misery!

GIMME A BREAK!
In the midst of the Discomfort Dilemma, almost anywhere seems better than where we are. And there are so many more comfortable things to do! We could call a friend. We need to keep up these relationships, after all. We could play with the kitty. The poor thing needs exercise. We could even pay bills. Righteous activities!

Hey, we could shampoo the rug! Sure, it’s “writing time,” but just last week we read an article on how crucial it is to shampoo rugs on a regular basis to keep them mold-free and extend their life! Come to think of it, we might have read that article during “writing time!” Which only shows how important it is to be flexible about what we do during “writing time!”

Bills need to be paid. Rugs need to be shampooed. But not during the time when we said that we would write. During that time, cleaning the bird cage or fish tank are going to seem like good ideas—to say nothing of kicking back with a cup of coffee to chat with a friend. Knowing that the Discomfort Dilemma will never go away, and understanding how it works, gives us a leg up.

WHERE DOES IT COME FROM?
The Discomfort Dilemma pops up whenever we start moving forward, or doing anything new. These things represent change—however small, and however good. When change of any kind is in the air, mental chatter gets startled and wakes up—on the wrong side of the bed. It scowls and stamps. It pouts, and begins its siren songs:

  • I’m only thinking of you. You need a rest. Take a load off. Relax! You’ll do better in the long run.
  • It’ll sharpen your wits to play computer games. You need that.
  • C’mon, don’t be such a stick-in-the-mud! You’re human. Life’s too short to work that hard. Give yourself a break. Here, try this tiny piece of chocolate…

And before we know it, we’re mainlining.

When mental chatter starts cajoling and nattering, we need to remember that it does not always have our best interests at heart. We can postpone or delay whatever is next, but ultimately we have to do it. The longer we put it off, the longer we prolong the agony and the more uncomfortable it becomes.

NIKE!
I struggled with the Discomfort Dilemma for years, and became a champion computer game player in the process. I also became quite anxious. The stress of backing away from uncomfortable “next steps,” and then running back to fix everything at the last minute, double speed, started to take its toll. Cortisol and other stress hormones surged into my system until, finally, I reached my pain threshold.

I experimented with the Nike Solution: Just do it! In fact, I did the most difficult things on my to do list first! It sounds hard core, but in fact, it made life easier. A lot easier. By noon, I had often written the “hard” material I was going to tackle that day—and had the whole afternoon to knock off “easier” to do list items like research, returning emails, and handling “businessy” things.

About that same time, I came across Annie Lamott’s dictum to “write shitty first drafts.” I embraced this advice, held it to me as I wrote and wrote through my “writing time.” Some of what I wrote was good, some bad, and some mediocre—but I always had something to work on the next day.

The three main benefits were huge:

  • I was a lot more relaxed and enjoyed life more.
  • My self esteem skyrocketed.
  • I became a far more productive writer.

“Just do it” isn’t the best advice in every area of life, but I believe it almost always works to our advantage as writers. It makes me feel good about myself and about my life as a writer. That can’t hurt my work, and it just might help it.

WRITING IN 4-PART HARMONY: Thoughts on Writing, Love, and Barbershop

barbershopLast night I went to my first rehearsal with SF Soundwave, the local San Francisco affiliate of Sweet Adelines International for women’s barbershop.

Two facts:

* I adore the sound of close harmony, and have longed to sing barbershop since I was a child.
* I am not a particularly good singer.

I have not yet actually tried out for the chorus, but last night’s experience of being involved for 2.5 hours in something I loved, but do not do well, got me thinking.

WORLD OF “SHOULDS”
Most of my editorial clients beat themselves up for not having written the Great American Novel, really fast, their first time out. Or for not having more nonfiction publication under their belt. As we all know, the “shoulds” for writers are unending and unbounded.

Here’s the truth: Most of us will never write the Great American Novel, and most of us never achieve the acclaim we imagined we might when we left school clutching our English degrees. Most of us don’t make as much money writing novels or articles as we would writing code in Silicon Valley. And many of us aren’t even as good writers as we’d like to be.

Does this mean we should stop writing, or stop writing what we love? Obviously, no. That’s what day jobs are for—to keep us up and running even if we don’t get rich and famous writing what we love.

HARMONIC EPIPHANY
For forty years, I’ve made my living as a freelance writer. I’ve been blessed with projects I’ve enjoyed, and with an amazing group of clients. But in the past few years, I’ve also started writing fiction—a huge adventure, and again, something I have longed to do since I was a child.

I am so not as good at fiction as I am at nonfiction! When I edit or write nonfiction, I am usually spot on, very fast, and very facile. When I write fiction, I am very slow and still practicing. Plus, it turns out that Chasing Grace: A Novel of Odd Redemption is not the Great American Novel!

Does this mean I’m not supposed to write fiction? No. I’ve come to see how important it is to write what gives me joy, whether or not it brings me a lot of money or acclaim. I keep my day job—editing, book doctoring, and ghostwriting—so that I can write fiction without needing to turn myself into a pretzel in order to promote it. I promote at my own pace, and only when it’s fun.

The point is, I wish I’d started engaging in my heart’s delight a lot earlier, and a lot more frequently.

WHAT I LEARNED
I’m beginning to see that the things I’m really good at are not necessarily the things my heart craves. I didn’t spend yesterday evening showing off my terrific backhand on a tennis court. I spent it standing on risers in a grammar school gym with 30 women I’d never met, singing poorly music that I’d never seen—and I had the time of my life!

For me, writing fiction is like singing barbershop. I’m still learning, but my heart sings when I do it. So I say, let’s do what makes our hearts full-throated, regardless of whether or not the world is beating a path to our door. Happy is the most important thing.

DANCING WITH THE MUSE

dance with muse mailchimpWhen I was in undergrad, most weekend nights were spent at campus watering holes (translate: dive bars) drinking and dancing. I did fine with the drinking, but was very shy about getting out on the dance floor.

I would hover in corners, escape to the Ladies Room, start can’t-leave conversations—anything to avoid dancing. Eventually, I would become one of the very few people who was not out there having a great time, burning calories, getting high on the music and the crowd’s energy.

AGONY TURNED ECSTACY
Slowly, it would dawn on me that I could stay where I was and have a terrible time for the rest of the evening—or I could take myself in hand and get out there with everybody else. I scanned the crowd, looking for people who were particularly good dancers. I watched them intently, put myself in their heads and bodies, got into their groove. Cautiously, I stood and edged toward the floor, or accepted the next invitation I got to get out there.

The first fifteen seconds were horribly embarrassing—even though it’s unlikely that anybody else noticed—but after that, I felt at one with the music and the people, totally involved and expressive, and had an absolutely great time.

Here’s the thing. I don’t even have two left feet. I’m a terrific athlete, comfortable in my body, and actually a pretty good dancer.

So why was I so shy? I think it was just a change. A change from the mental and physical rhythm of sitting in class, studying, meeting people for coffee, and not dancing all week. A change from serious person to wild woman, flailing away with all the other beer drinkers. A change from familiar to less familiar. A change from the comfortable status quo, to something imaginative and potentially revealing.

MUSIC TURNED MUSE
Sometimes I encounter this same dynamic in writing. I don’t want to start a new piece. I don’t want to go back and restructure that book, or even edit it. I’m afraid I’ll be awkward and sticky-outy, less than fast and cool. As with dancing, I’m afraid I won’t look good—even if just to myself.

I start to develop a block. Nobody has a gun to my head, after all, just as nobody had a gun to my head to get out onto the dance floor. I don’t have to do it. But, as with dancing, I know I’m in for some serious misery if I don’t get out there.

So I turn on the computer, open the file, and start typing. Strangely, the same thing happens as happened back in school. Just getting out on the dance floor seems to call the Muse. There may be a few seconds of awkwardness at first—but very quickly, I know just what to say, or just how to fix what I said before. I get into what I’m doing and have a wonderful time.

I’m dancing! And all it took was standing up and walking out onto the floor. Or sitting down and starting to write.