Monday, November 30, 2009

On Shorts and Things

No, not skivvies, I’m talking short stories.

A few weeks ago, I proposed a get together with one of my great friends, that is to pop over and commit acts of writing. In this instance, have a go at some short stories.

We have both been interested in writing for the longest time. In fact we both have blogs, and have both tried our hand at producing works of fiction. My friend and I are so completely different on so many levels, yet we found common ground on our most basic human qualities. Nevertheless, we are both fighting the same demon it seems: motivation.

I’ve stated quite a few times in this very blog that motivation is what escapes me most as a writer. I seem to have plenty of ideas, some of them even creative in nature. I’ve been observing my friend’s process, and his creative process never ceases to amaze me. He is nothing short of a genius at it. As a point of reference to back up my claim, he is actually terrific at improvisation, and I’ve seen him in action.

I can produce text at a rather incredible pace, but he can produce ideas much faster than I can compile. When we are together we encourage each other, we play off each other so very well, we get some mojo going and we are eager to write. We do make a good creative pair.

For weeks now I’ve been looking forward to seeing him for both as a friend and as a primer. We’ve been working at this short story concept since last night. I’ve been my usual resistive self, but the enthusiasm we’ve managed to generate is, low and behold, impressive to me. I knew it was a good idea to invite him over.

This morning we started on a short story about a typical day in a poor schlep’s workaday life. Boy did that bring back memories. My buddy has been typing away furiously all the while we’re debating and distilling this “crap”. The onus is to write a 2000 words short of creative realism with no regard for quality, hence the crap. The mission is to finish this one story as an exercise, or more probably exorcism.

I am marvelling at how this is developing, which is a good indication to me on how I do love writing and the creative process such as it is.

So it seems by working together we’ve easily vanquished the original motivation demon. It’s not all rosy mind you, as after a couple hours of intense work, we’ve come to a bump in the road, a wall of sorts. This is where the going gets tough.

I’ve noticed this phenomenon on many occasions, throughout many disciplines actually, not just writing. Athletes talk of a second wind, which is a valid analogy. Others speak of stamina or having “go getter”. Regardless of the term used, it seems clear to me that there are two stages, at least, to producing something non trivial.

Many times I’ve heard, “the blank page is the writer’s worst enemy.” This may be true in a sense, but oddly enough, the blank page has never been an issue for me.

Back in grade school we were directed to write short stories, or projects, or some form of research. This was maybe a bi-weekly assignment so getting stuck on a blank page was quickly overcome as a matter of course. Hell I can fill a blank page with nonsense faster than anyone I know.

So no, the blank page isn’t my issue, and never has been. Continued creation is. When I ask myself the question, “where will this go?” I falter. “Where am I going with this?” is a death knell. Maybe the solution isn’t to ask, although that has proven time and again to lead to unfinished stories.

No, indeed that second wind has to be something of an effort, but what kind? By god this one is continually elusive, even to the most positive people. How many positiveniks have stopped just short of finishing something because of loss of interest? It’s no longer fun, or “what’s the point”, or moved on to other things. Endgame motivation? Oh great, now I’ve stumbled upon another phase of the work. Say third wind?

I’ve never run a marathon, so I’ve never subjected myself to the 2 or 3 or more hours of gruelling physical and mental challenge this brings. But I do know intimately the sense of loneliness and isolation that occurs just before catching that second wind, just before getting into “the zone”, where training, or habit, or force majeure, or determination, or pigheadedness plays a major role. I know intimately too the sense of having to keep going “just because”. In that blind spot, you lose track of time, sense of self even. Basically, you’re high. Runners know exactly what I’m talking about. Those adept at Tai-Chi as well. Believe it or not, writing is the same.

You can get into a zone where words pour out of your mind into a computer, or pen and paper, or Dictaphone, and you look up to take a breath and you’re already clocking over 873 somehow. You’ve made it through those first hurdles and you pat yourself on the back. But there are still 1127 words to go from when you last counted and then you become a little depressed knowing you aren’t even half way.

What’s the point? you ask yourself and all your little foibles come haunting.

The first is so obvious as to often be overlooked. “What if it’s crap?” This one we were wise enough to disarm before we got started, thank goodness, because it’ll stop you dead in your tracks if you let it. Oh sure you can convince yourself that it isn’t crap, that it may be worthy to read down the road, but you’ve already mined yourself.

We are taught to do our best, always. “What if my best isn’t good enough?” True talent takes a kick in the teeth with this one. On the other hand the truly talented and the truly talentless seem to have a knack for never asking themselves this one question. Funny how that seems to work out.

“What if no one likes it?” For a writer of any genre, that’s a death sentence right there. If no one likes the novel, it won’t get sold, if no one likes the poem it won’t be inspiring, if no one likes the short story it won’t get published, if no one likes the blog it… well… anyway.

“What ifs” are the domain of fear. Fear of inadequacies long instilled in us since childhood and beyond. Fear of real life failures that we’ve had difficulty in overcoming. Fear of punishment real or imagine, either by ourselves or others: rejection!

Psshaaw! No fear but fear itself! Yeah, but not quite.

Creative writing is much like having a child, but with the small caveat of external approval. It never enters a mother’s thought that her child could be rejected by the world at large. Not for a single moment! Yet for a writer this is a very real possibility, the fear is genuine and totally justified. A novel, for instance, is a labour of love. It can take years to develop and edit, and with a single bland note, can be rejected off hand!

The writer has poured heart and soul into creating this work of art, it is very much like a baby. Push comes to shove a mom can always say, “I don’t care, this is my child and I love him/her.” The reality for a writer is somewhat different. The endgame in that act of creation is to get published. Yeah, you can always publish yourself, but that doesn’t count for much, in fact it is frowned upon by publishers and does not count as any kind of writing credit and doesn’t count at all in trying to get a job as a writer in any publication. I other words, someone else has to give you approval. Always. Argh!

If as in this instance we are writing for the sheer hell of it, producing crap as an exercise, then the rejection is somewhat diminished since the goal doesn’t lend itself to the subject of rejection. It is, thankfully, a clear defence mechanism used to sidestep and get some words down. Kudos to for empowering ourselves!

So we keep writing. But then comes time for that third wind. The end is in sight, but much to far away tom contemplate. Say at 1441 words, the next 559 prove to be difficult, more so than seems possible a moment ago when you were still in “the zone”. At this point, you’ve expended all your ideas, you energy is waning, but still you must keep going. You don’t actually know why, except that was the goal you set out.

But, but, but, I’m not a goal oriented person! Fundamentally I hate goals. I actually despise the whole concept or having to set goals. It entails the stigma of failure if it isn’t reached. In my not so humble opinion, the premise of the goal was invented to sate the appetite of people like my sister and brother in law, who are ultimately competitive by their very nature. Indeed many of these people cannot fathom those who aren’t! The solution to everything is “you start by setting a goal…”

Yeah, NO! I just hate that. I understand it all too well being a former technical manager was the mainstay of my diet for too many years. On the other hand, I don’t have a good alternative, and find this to be arguably even more frustrating than setting a goal in the first place.

Then there’s that truly worthless exercise that we learn in corporate surroundings, that when you get to an impass, declare victory and move on. Seriously, how the hell can you just “declare victory”? There definition of victory is: achievement of mastery, blah blah… see that word “achievement” there? If there ain’t achievement, then there ain’t victory is there? No victory, no goal… boneheaded mutherf… !

And thus, as one can easily tell from the above, I get to my fallback device for completing a task. Anger. I’ve talked about this in previous blogs, a potent device if there ever was one, but which comes at a serious emotional cost, no matter how reigned in you think it is. But I don’t have an easy, or hard, alternative. Motivation is such a fleeting bitch.

I’m at 1774 now and that previous chunk of anger is already expended. I could fire up some more, but unfortunately, it is logarithmic in nature. That is to say its effectiveness is cut in half every time it is used. It might be enough to just finish something like a short story, but would leave one frustrated because, of course, I’ve now failed to motivate myself in a clean and wholesome manner, haven’t I?

So anger isn’t the ultimate answer either. At this point I’m pushing myself, as I have done for so many years, just to see it all through, just because. (See how that last bit of anger wells up again but isn’t quite as effective?)

Deciding to write a blog about this process, the emotions and what really goes on throughout such a seemingly simple task as a short story seemed like the thing to do. I’m not quite sure why I did that. Maybe it’s comeuppance, or maybe it was just to make myself feel good about the exercise? I don’t know. Not that I haven’t looked for an answer, have I ever though! Foibles, fears and all questing for a holy grail of motivation. Maybe like the holy grail it is the work of a lifetime.

And then maybe, just then, you have to take a beating and say "ah fuck it.”


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