No Words Are Wasted

This is not a triumphant blog post. But it’s something.

The worst days are the ones when I just don’t sit down. Then I find myself at 9 PM wanting to get in bed with a book but feeling like I have to try to squeeze 500 words of novel out of a brain that’s already been exhausted by a day of screwing around on my iPhone.

On the other hand, when I do sit down to write, even when I don’t know what’s going to come out I almost always produce something of value. Sometimes something I never expected.

A lot of the time I still don’t get around to working on the novel. It’s been several weeks now. It’s much easier to just write down my thoughts which might turn into a journal entry or a blog post (hi). It’s much easier to avoid doing the work that’s the hardest, that makes us feel the most like despite writing for our entire adult lives we have no idea what we’re doing.

But there’s still no solution that I can see other than just sitting down and starting to write even when we don’t know what’s going to come out and would rather just be looking at the Internet instead.

Take something that’s in your head and get it out of there. Even if it’s misshapen, even if you never share it with the world. It changes you, just a little. You’re not quite the same as you were before you wrote; you’ve taken a step.

That’s why no words are wasted.

The Fear of the Unknown Versus the Fear of the Personal

H.P. Lovecraft wrote a well-known essay called Supernatural Horror in Literature, and there’s a pull-quote from it I remember from the cover of the first HPL collection I owned:

The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear… and the oldest and strongest fear is the fear of the unknown.

It’s true, I’ll demonstrate. Thomas Harris wrote a trilogy: Red Dragon, The Silence of the Lambs, and Hannibal. Maybe you’ve heard of or read them, or seen the movies. They’re all books with serial killers in them.

In Red Dragon, someone’s murdering entire families in a creepy and ritualistic way and when I read the scene near the beginning where the criminal-profiler protagonist is walking around a crime scene imagining how it all went down, I was so terrified I had to get up off the couch and walk around the room, I literally couldn’t sit still.

The murderer was unknown at that point, essentially a force of nature, which somehow makes the fear more visceral: your hindbrain is thinking, “this could happen to me!”

In the course of the story, the killer, Francis Dolarhyde, has a character arc. It’s the sort Gollum has in Lord of the Rings, let’s call it the “broken redemption arc”, where he almost overcomes his urge to murder, but in the end surrenders to it and attacks the protagonist and gets put down. By the end, you’re almost rooting for the guy—this guy who slaughtered families—to overcome his demons, because the story makes you see him as a person. However you might feel about that, the end of the story, while still thrilling, isn’t scary the way the beginning is scary—it was exciting but I didn’t pace around the room.

Because now the murderer isn’t an unknowable force—maybe a force which could kill any of us—it’s this guy, and I might be scared of him but he is just a guy and not a tornado.

In the end, Harris has to pit Dolarhyde against the characters for whom we have even more sympathy, otherwise you might even be sad he gets killed.

You weirdo.

In Silence of the Lambs, the killer is also a damaged human being. You don’t really know much about him except he’s a bad, bad man, and sure he has his damaged-in-youth reasons but you never really feel conflicted when Clarice Starling empties her revolver into him.

This killer, Jame Gumb, is stuck between the unknown and the personal, and so you’re not really either afraid OF him or afraid FOR him, the way you are with Francis Dolarhyde.

Last, we’ve got the shadow looming over the whole series, and the star of the last book: Hannibal Lecter. He’s one more human being who slaughters other human beings because he likes it, and yet not only is he not an antagonist, he’s more of an antihero. So… is he scary?

He’s more fascinating than scary; you wouldn’t necessarily want to be in a room with him yourself, but you get the feeling he isn’t going to murder anyone you care about. In fact, he only seems to kill people who, for the most part “had it coming” in the grey morality of a novel, which is how Harris gets away with having a third white male with a kill count in the dozens who you’re nonetheless cheering for in a way you’d never cheer for Dolarhyde and certainly not for Gumb.

By the third novel, Hannibal is in danger from his own enemies, and you’re perhaps more afraid FOR him than of him. The fear has slid all the way across the continuum from unknown to personal. You fear for him the way you fear for a protagonist: instead of projecting yourself as their victim (I’m afraid of the unknown murderer because I fear being murdered) you project yourself as the character (I’m afraid FOR the protagonist because I fear what will happen to them the way I fear for myself).

I don’t know if I’m totally satisfied with this thesis, but there’s something here. What’s something you’ve read that started off scary but got less so as you grew familiar with it? Has anything ever gone the other way?

When the Levee Breaks

Look, I’m gonna be straight with you: it’s been a bad couple weeks for writing the novel.

The lack of numbers speak for themselves. We could spend a thousand words right here delving into the reasons why I’m not writing right now, and I daresay that’d be ironic—spilling ink on analysis instead of on writing. Not today. Today I’m just setting this assertion down:

I’m still here.

You know what? I’ve still written more novel in the last couple months than in the last seven years. And the thing is, this time? I know I’ll be back. Two weeks, three weeks? That ain’t nothing looking back on the dozen novels that’ll pop up on my shelf over the next couple years.

I never had the attitude to say that with confidence before. Now I do. I might write some novel tomorrow, I hope so, and it’s possible that I won’t. But I’ll be back, see? I’m cut out for this thing, and I know that in a way I never used to. Maybe it’s just that my writing coach told me so—in fact, that’s probably a big part of it—but that’s fine. I’ll take the mindset where I can beg, borrow, or steal it.

Because if I’ve learned anything over the past year or two? Since I decided to take this writing thing for serious again?

It’s all a head game. All of it. Always.

That’s about all I have to say tonight. Not much of a blog post, but a necessary one; at the very least, necessary for me, right now.

And I know it’ll be necessary for the Dan of six months or two years or two decades from now that needs reassurance that stumbling off the path isn’t a header over the edge of a cliff; it’s just a stumble.

And if there’s a version of Dan with another name that comes across this at just the right time? That’s even better.

You stepped off the path? I feel you. It’s fine. Just step back on.

Next time perhaps I’ll share what I have been doing to coax my uncooperative self back into line. But one thing at a time.

Terrible Lure Continued: Time-Blocking

Put writing on the calendar. Multiple people have said this to me, and it doesn’t work at all. That is to say, it hasn’t worked at all so far. I want it to work because I want writing to be my job, but here’s what’s really happened:

  1. One day, put an appointment on my calendar that says “Write” from 10:00 AM – 11:00 AM, for example
  2. 10 o’clock comes around and I’m in the middle of doing something else… so I keep doing it
  3. 5:30 comes around and I never did go and write
  4. Well, that didn’t work
  5. Don’t try it again for a few months

Writing out the above list quickly unearths some problems. First, there’s the problem of giving up on something when it doesn’t work the first time, a corollary or reflection of the pursuit of novelty, where I’m more likely to try some new thing (or, let’s be honest, try nothing) when I don’t see immediate success. But I’ve been building a writing habit for the last month or so quite successfully: writing every day, at least a little, usually empowered by getting up early and writing before I do anything else.

There’s no reason I shouldn’t be able to show up somewhere at a specific time and do specific things; after all, I remained gainfully employed for about fifteen years before deciding to strike out on my own.

Some ideas for making the time-blocking approach more successful:

  • Block out a whole week at a time (that is, a block at the same time every day)
  • If you miss one block or don’t start at quite the right time, don’t worry: just try again the next day
  • I bet you’ll sit down at the given time at least one day out of that week
  • Have a preparation ritual (h/t Atomic Habits, again); if you know you are going to sit down at 10 AM, don’t wait until 10 AM to stop whatever you were previously doing. Realize you have to stop at, say 9:50 or 9:45
    • Wrap up whatever it is you’re doing as best you can, maybe that’s just putting the iPad down or hitting the pause button
    • Do whatever preparations you need to do to start writing at 10
      • So, if you want something on your desk to drink, get it now
      • Go to the bathroom, damn you
      • Even if you don’t want either of the above things, do something consistent to signal to yourself that you’re shifting into writing mode
        • Even if it seems goofy
        • So making a cup of tea or some favourite beverage isn’t a bad idea; associate the anticipation of mmm a cup of coffee with sitting down to write
          • I’d argue part of my problem right now with writing before breakfast is, my anticipation centres on ceasing to write so I can make coffee…
        • I’m 100% in on the idea of having, like, a writing hat or writing sweater, or something you change about your environment (lighting) that you put on or do to say it’s writing time
    • Now when your calendar appointment rolls around, you’re ready to start immediately
      • And, as experience shows me over and over again, starting is the toughest part. Sometimes continuing is tough, sure, but even if you have to switch away from the thing you want to work on and just free-write1, it’s worth it to have spent the time making the words come out
    • Come to think of it this is the same way you treat any calendar appointment with an external party
      • If you have a meeting in the conference room, you gather your notebook and lock your desktop and maybe get another coffee with minutes to spare: you don’t start doing that at the meeting time, because then you’ll be late
      • If you have a date across town you backtrack and think, ok, I want to be there a few minutes early, the travel time is about forty minutes, so I want to leave the house no later than 5:00, so I need to start getting ready at 4:00…
    • So another big part of this is the fact that, sadly, tragically, it’s much easier to break a commitment to ourselves than it is to break a commitment to others
      • There are things you can do here, like ‘accountability partners’ where you tell someone else you’ll do a thing at a certain time, but admittedly this isn’t something I’ve tried a lot, it’s another thing I kind of bailed on when it didn’t work great right away…

I hope something in that brain-dump is helpful! To me, as much as to you… 😉

  1. which is basically what I’m doing right now by the way