Forward. Not Sideways.

Sometimes we do things because it makes us feel like we’re being productive. Perhaps you do something on a regular basis that is related to what you want to do but, if you’re being completely honest with yourself, isn’t getting you to where you want to be.

Imagine a woman who wanted to be a great painter. At the beginning of her journey she decides, rightfully so, that she should improve her skills in some way. She tries a few things on her own, and she starts to improve a bit, but nothing seems to really be sticking like she thinks it should.

Then a friend of hers gives her a very thoughtful gift: a book of painting suggestions. On each page the scene, colors, and even specific techniques are suggested and recommended. Immediately the woman is able to recognize what a wonderful opportunity this gift is. Right then she commits to doing one of the painting suggestions each day.

In her head she is fully committed to it. And for about three months she sticks with the book, barely missing a day. If she continues working through the book she’ll have spent a year working on it. She’s convinced that if she finishes the book she’ll be a much better painter than she was at the beginning.

As time goes by she dutifully works through the book. Some days she’s not able to do the painting but she doubles up the next time and does two paintings. Then she gets busy with work and family and she misses several days in a row. Now she’s five paintings behind and the thing she used to love and look forward to is starting to feel like homework.

She catches up and keeps going strong for a while but then she misses a few more days and falls back into a malaise caused by not doing what she’s supposed to. Seeing this pattern continue she decides to take a break. She won’t work in the book for almost two weeks but commits to still paint during that time.

The quality and quantity of her paintings during this break are incredible. She paints everyday, though not to a finished product every time, and her joy is back. The few paintings she does finish are some of her best work and she feels an immense sense of pride and joy when she looks at them. She decides to give these paintings away to her friends because she wants to share what she’s created.

After her two weeks is over she is curious to continue with the painting project. She recommits to the same goal again: one page every day. For almost a month she diligently works through the book. Then she misses a day. And another. And a few more. Eventually she returns to that feeling of dissatisfaction and guilt and wonders why she just can’t seem to do the work. A few of her friends ask her for more paintings like the ones she made during her break and one even suggests she try and sell it to an art gallery. She says she’s been working on some but she’s been too busy to finish them.

After another day of not painting she wonders if the project was the right thing to commit to. If she stops would it look like she was quitting and was a failure? How could she commit to working through the book and then just stopping?

—–

This story is near and dear to my heart. For the past five months or so I’ve been working through a book, given to me by my very best friend, called 642 Things to Write About. She knows of my deep desire to become a writer and she gave me the book to encourage me to write more. As a writer herself she knows first-hand that the hardest part is just starting. This book, and the prompts it contained, were meant to be jumping off points to get the juices flowing.

I loved it and turned it into a project. I said I was going to do two writing prompts per day and post them to my tumblr account. Similar to the story above I was very good about doing it for about three months and then I started to slip. It’d be a few days in between stories and then I’d find myself with 8 stories to write. Then I took a break and eventually recommitted to sticking with the project. Now I’m sitting at 12 stories I’m “supposed” to write.

This essay is my admission that something was wrong with this approach and it has to change.

For a while, the project was extremely helpful. I would write the stories I committed to and then I would write what I wanted to. But a pernicious thought pattern started to creep in. I would write the stories and then feel like I had “done my writing” for the day and could do whatever else I wanted. There were some days where I would spend 10 minutes on my stories and then not write anything else. Even though I had plenty to say. Even though I want to be a writer.

Instead of being a help the project had become a hindrance. Those closest to me started to notice my lack of updates on my main blog. When they’d ask me about it I’d say I’ve been busy and hey, at least I’ve been doing my stories. As if doing the stories gave me permission to not write anything else.

It also became apparent that the project was becoming an avoidance technique. Perhaps this is a topic worth diving into in more detail later but I’ve realized I’m rather afraid of failure. For most of my life I haven’t failed at many things. Now I’m seeking a career path that has a high probability of failure and it’s a bit scary. So to avoid thinking about it I start a project that will ostensibly help me but, in truth, isn’t.

Another aspect of this avoidance is the desire that most of have to be told what to do. It can be very difficult to think of what you should do on your own. Much easier to have someone else tell you what to create. After all, what if you pick wrong, screw up, and waste your time? By having this project I didn’t have to think and I wouldn’t have to get in touch with the dark and vulnerable parts of myself where my true greatness and creativity could flourish. But I don’t want to be told what to do. It’s just easier if I am.

As much as it hurts to admit, the 642 Things project is making me busy but not productive. I’m moving sideways and not forwards and I’m not doing and creating the things I want to.

My time would be better spent writing about the myriad topics I want to write about. All the little phrases and openers and ideas I’ve jotted down in my moleskine but haven’t written about because I’m either too scared or believe I’m not good enough.

I’m putting the 642 Things book back in its place: as a tool to help me. I still fully intend on finishing every prompt in the book (and on writing every day) but it’s going to be on a different time table. Instead of doing 2 stories every day, I’m going to do however many stories I want whenever I feel a need to clear the rust and get the juices flowing. Some days that might be one. Others it could be four. Some it could be none. But I’m not going to allow it to become the reason why I don’t write about what I truly want to.

The path to making a living as a writer and creating awesome shit isn’t straight and there will be many distractions on the way.

It’s okay to be distracted as long as you realize it at some point and start moving forward. Not sideways.

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7 Responses to Forward. Not Sideways.

  1. Beth January 15, 2013 at 12:30 am #

    Your conscience is the best consigliere, my dearest friend. Trust your instincts. The book is naught more than a tool, and certainly not meant to be a sinking stone. I was reflecting on your engineer side as I read this, and how it seemed you were looking for a formulaic answer to becoming a better writer. Something whose output you could track with a given and systematic input. While it’s certainly not a bad idea to get the cogs of your inner writer whirring, it’s going to take a much more personal touch to see real progress. Writing is much like falling in love. It’s easy to start, but staying in love and creating something meaningful and enduring is the real mastery. I’ve said it before, but just going through the motions and distracting yourself with temporary security isn’t going to cut it. You’re going to have to dig deeper to truly tend your garden. And you must actively choose it every day. I’m proud of you for having this realization and am proud to be on this path of writing with you.

    • Taylor January 15, 2013 at 11:13 am #

      Thanks best friend. For a while I felt guilty about this decision. It felt like I’d be breaking a promise to myself and, in some ways, to you. You gave me the book and I made the commitment to the project and here I am backing out. But I believe I’m making the right choice. I stuck with it long enough to get past the “hump”, so to speak, and really tested my mettle against it. I do plan to work through everything in the book, but it needs to be at my own pace.

      Something inside me felt like if I could just work through everything in the book then I’d be a good writer. That’s stupid to think (and say) but it sort of crept up into my belief. It was a very safe way practicing writing. For a while it was outside of my comfort zone. But then my comfort zone came to envelope that project and I stagnated. This breaking away from it is a way for me to get out of my comfort zone again.

      Thanks, as always, for helping on this path. It’s scary as fuck but I really do love it. On we write!

  2. Kathleen January 15, 2013 at 1:59 pm #

    This story is familiar to me. Adam had a similar project where he would write short stories online and get feedback. But then he realized one day that his writing progress wasn’t progressing nearly as quickly as it was at the begining of the exercise. Now the challenge has been to write longer and longer stories. It’s a whole new set of skills that he has to learn. The short stories were good for developing his writing technique and getting a good foundation, but now he is learning how to weave plot elements and character arcs into longer stories.

    • Taylor January 15, 2013 at 3:30 pm #

      At least he was getting feedback! Mine was just tossed into the nether regions of the internet without and sort of response (usually).

      I think the biggest hindrance to my progress in writing is going to be critical feedback. There are very few people can say your story sucked and this is why. High on my list after I graduate is to start a relationship with someone who can provide good feedback on my writing. Of course I need to figure out what I can offer them too…

      • Kathleen January 15, 2013 at 7:17 pm #

        I highly recommend Long Ridge Writers Group (http://longridgewritersgroup.com/). They pair you up with an accomplished author/editor to basically give you feedback and help you improve your writing so that it is print-worthy. Adam has grown so much as a writer through this program. You work at your own pace, and they even give you college credit for doing it.

        But, yeah, critical readers are invaluable. Adam would hand stuff for me to read critically that would normally have passed with flying colors in his online postings, and I would red-pen the snot out of it. Then he learned to up his standard of what “done” was. He read some books on self-editing -which I highly recommend. Now he will not let me look at his work until he has edited it at least three times. He has written so much stuff that I haven’t read and quite frankly I don’t want to read, because his edited versions are so much better. He keeps improving. He can tell by looking at what he wrote when he first decided to become a writer. The quality of his work is much-improved.

        • Taylor January 15, 2013 at 9:57 pm #

          Oh wow! Thanks for the resource. I will definitely check that out.

          Can you share what the books on self-editing are? I’ve read several books on writing (On Writing, On Writing Well, Bird by Bird, Zen in the Art of Writing, The War of Art for Writers, etc.) but I’m always open for more :-) Thanks!

          • Kathleen January 16, 2013 at 8:57 am #

            This one especially comes to mind: Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King

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