Writers: when was the last time you went for a walk?
Some of you may do it every day. Some of you might go to a gym so what do you need a walk for? Others? Pfft, that’s what I bought a car for, son. Pedestrians are bonus points to me. I decorate the grille of my Audi with the finger bones of hippies too stupid to get a vehicle themselves.
Probably not that last one so much, but the point is walking is something we all do and are all capable of. Also? It’s one way to meander right past so-called “writer’s block.”
This is especially true if you live near a major city. There’s some saying about there being a thousand stories in it. Feeling stuck in your current narrative or unsure of how to start one? Go find one of those stories.
It could be anything. A gaggle of tourists. A toothless hobo. Some trendy gal in jogging shorts pulling a small yappy dog along at the end of a leash signed by every cast member of the Jersey Shore. A bunch of guys at a halal food truck. The old church on the corner unruffled by the ultra-modern apartments next to it. A street that suddenly changes from macadam to cobblestones. Inspiration can come from any of these things. Or all of them.
Maybe the tourists get jumped by a werewolf. Maybe that hobo is the werewolf. Or maybe it’s Miss Trendy, and she dreams of going furry on The Situation next time he pops a girl in the mouth. The church on the corner my house a weathered by deadly monster hunter and those cobblestones stay there because it’s holy ground.
That’s just an example. But none of these ideas would have come to fruition if it hadn’t been for the stroll you’d taken.
So what are you waiting for? Grab some tunes, some water, an umbrella if it’s raining. Walk a few blocks, or just around yours. As the body moves of its own accord, the mind’s free to do whatever it wants. Let it. You’re only as fettered to your limitations as you choose to be, and if being in your chair feels limiting, get the hell out of it.
Chances are good that, if you’re reading this, you’re a human being. I mean, you could be an automated online process looking for SEO terminology, but if that’s the case you won’t get much out of this post. I tend to write more in coherent thoughts than barely-connected keywords. Anyway, the majority of my audience are human beings, and if there’s one thing all human beings do, it’s make mistakes.
Okay, all human beings do a lot of other things too, but I don’t have much of a knack for poop humor.
When mistakes happen, as they inevitably do, a lot of energy is generated. Disappointment, rage, confusion, dread; all of these emotions tend to fall towards the negative end of the spectrum. But like any energy source, it can be redirected. But how, and to where?
When you fail, there are two questions that need to be answered. The first, and perhaps most obvious, is “Why?” Provided that your failure isn’t due to some sort of natural disaster, there’s a human being that can be referenced as the cause for the failure, be it yourself or someone else. Note that this is not about assigning blame, it’s about understanding the cause that lead to the effect of you feeling at least somewhat drained and broken.
Examine the circumstances. Was it something you said or did? Does the product you’re offering require more polish? Did you miss an essential bit of data in the process of assembling your solution? Did you approach the wrong audience? Was your timing off? Did you forget anything?
Quite a few of these questions, all expansions upon “Why?” are largely personal. There may be some navel-gazing involved. However you appoaching answering this first overarching question, as you hunt down the causes you will collect data. Your failure may be time-sensitive and require a rapid response, so you might not have too much time to gather all the facts. Still, the more data you can reasonably collect, the better you can answer the second question.
That question is: “What now?”
The impulse in light of failure, especially repeated failure, may be to quit. Why band your head against the wall repeatedly? You won’t get anywhere, it tends to start hurting and someone else might own the wall and sue you for damages while you nurse that concussion. Better to quit and do something less frustrating with our time, right?
Quitting is the only true failure. It’s surrendering, admitting defeat. It’s saying that whatever it was you were trying to do, that you had devoted time, energy and talent to doing, simply isn’t worth that expenditure, and you were wasting it before you decided to run up the white flag.
Now, not everything we do is going to have a profound impact if we keep at it. The world isn’t going to end if you decide a puzzle has stumped you or a game is too difficult to overcome even on the easiest settings. However, creative endeavors and the potential fruits of labor at the workplace tend to have deeper meanings, even if it’s just how we’ll be seen by those who write our paychecks.
So more often than not, I would encourage you not to quit. Tenacity is a virtue that can be hard to find in an age where more creature comforts, distractions and products focused on ease of use help people become lazier. There are those who simply don’t see the point of doing something they can’t excel at or aren’t the least bit passionate about, and quit before they’ve even begun.
In other words, they’ve failed without even giving themselves a chance to try.
This isn’t to say that everybody shoud do everything they can or have the inclination to try. There just isn’t time. But people who develop ideas for a narrative, or a career, or a new artistic endeavor, or a unique community initiative, or an unexplored workplace solution and do nothing with it after it’s emerged from their imaginative centers tend to baffle me. Why don’t they do something with their ideas? What’s stopping them from seeking further inspiration, time to develop those products or at least finding a partner with whom to collaborate?
If they’re anything like me, they’re probably reminded themselves that they suck one too many times.
It’s imporant to be humble, there’s no doubt about that. Having the attidue of “I don’t know everything but I want to know more” when it comes to creating something or playing a game or being a better driver or just about anything is a much healthier one than “I know everything and am always right.” But the exact opposite of that unfavorable mentality is “I don’t know enough and never will so I’m just going to give up.”
I mentioned in yesterday’s post how demoralizing the realization of just how much you suck can be. You get schooled in a game. Your art or writing doesn’t turn out how you thought it would. You get nowhere in a project at work, and the deadline is breathing down your neck. Encountering resistance is going to happen, and when it does many people (myself included) feel the impulse to just give up.
But I’ve learned to do something else with that impulse. Other than kicking it square in the teeth.
The Internet Is For More Than Just Porn
We are more connected to one another than we have ever been. While the world is running out of space and resources for the human race, it’s also shrinking in terms of distance between people in terms of communication. People who might never have met just ten years ago can now trade information, pleasantries or insults instantaneously.
It’s one of the best tools you can use for turning your failures into fuel.
Chances are there’s a community based around your area of enthusiasm. Find one and start asking members for help and opinions. Since the community is full of other enthusiasts, chances are at least a couple will share your passion, understand your struggle and have advice to give. There’s all sorts of help and encouragement available to you, you just have to hunt it down and ask for it.
The Path Ahead
Again, I want to stress that you should not feel obligated to treat every single one of your failures like this. Time is a limited resource and we each only have so much in our lives. Choose what truly interests you, what makes you come alive, and leverage that into a hobby or even a career. And when you fail along the path to achieving your goals related to this empassioning interest, that’s when you should ask yourself why, figure out what’s next and seek help and encouragement. To me, that’s how you succeed at failure.
If you have any other thoughts or suggestions, I’d love to hear them.
This was an image I originally hunted down for use in the potential video project of turning the IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! review of Emperor’s New Groove into an entry in the Escapist’s contest. However, it’s feeling more and more like I won’t have time to even think about seriously working on such a project. More to the point, to work on that project would take time away from the frustratingly gradual process of refining a novel to its publishable form. It’s been bothering me for days, sometime to the point that I can’t even stand to look in that folder’s general direction.
The query for Citizen in the Wilds has been the major struggling point for me. A lot of the sentiments and experiences I’m about to convey are going to feel like a pale echo of stuff that’s been said before and in a much better and more useful way here. And, at the expense of tooting my own writer’s war-horn, I’m making progress. I’m confident enough in my skills to say that what I’ve written (in the novel, mind, not the query, that’s still kind of meandering around) is good. I just worry that it isn’t good enough.
I feel I may be too close to it.
Hence the Police-flavored title. See what I did there?
Anyway, my big fear along with the usual little ones of not being good enough, smart enough, charismatic enough or prompt enough to grab and hold the attention of an agent is that I’m too close to the work. I’ll be looking for grammatical errors, hunting down darlings and re-examining passages with such myopic focus that I’ll miss some big glaring issue that will keep this from getting published. I think it’s part and parcel of being the sort of person who fixates on games along with being a general media sink: I’ll zone in on something of a particular interest to me, at times to the exclusion of all else. In other words, expect my blog posts to be a bit less substantial in content when Cataclysm actually releases, in other words, provided I haven’t decided to play through the Mass Effect games for the seventeenbazillionth time instead.
I’m wandering off my point again, but this is less of a coherent advice-focused blog post and more of a stream-of-consciousness infodump. I’m sure you’ve picked up on that already, and if you didn’t you’re either on some other, better-written site or looking up an old ICFN to hear me rant about how badly something sucks because we just don’t have enough Internet critics yet.
My point is that I am aware of the fact that this myopia is a problem inherent with geeks in general, gamers in particular and me most of all. Compounding the problem is the fact that I don’t know what the Achilles heel of my own work is, because in the act of creating it I have inextricably put myself in very close proximity to it. I’m not about to run to the mountaintop declaring that the salvation of fans of high fantasy is at hand with this tome, fuck no, but I’m also not operating under the impression that it’s absolute shit. What I will say is that my goal is mostly to have it not be mediocre, the sort of easy-to-crank-out guaranteed-to-sell-to-morons schlock I’ve decried on many an occasion here. But my dilemma is while I strive to avoid those things that piss me off about said schlock, I may be writing a different kind of schlock entirely and not even really know it.
I can say “this doesn’t work and needs a rewrite” or “this is unnecessary and I need to bypass it before I take it out back and put a bullet in its brainpan.” What I’m struggling with is saying “Overall, this book is really about X in the context of Y but element Z undermines or detracts from that central theme or narrative throughline.” This is probably why the query is such a tremendous hurdle for me to clear. Ultimately I am unsure if the proper course of action is to hand it to someone I trust to read critically from start to finish or to put myself through the editorial process as many times as it takes, but the fact I can’t shake is that I might just be too close to it.
It’s a “forest for the trees thing.” I can tell this tree is an oak and that over there’s a pine, but I have no idea how big the forest actually is, how close the nearest river or roadkill-strewn freeway might be or how much (if any) of it is on fire because I forgot to stamp out my stogy properly and now HOLY SHIT IT’S SMOKEY THE BEAR AND HE’S PISSED OFF AT ME RUN JUST GODDAMN RUN. I wouldn’t see it coming. I’m nose-deep in bark and needles trying to get the sticky sap out of my beard and the sharp plantlife out of my eyeballs. I’m too obsessed with details to realize that the kind and gentle guardian reminding me that only I can prevent forest fires is only wearing that park ranger hat because he ate the last park ranger that trashed his woods.
I really don’t know how else to express this impasse I seem to have reached. Hell, I don’t even know if I’m writing this properly. I’m uncertain if I should be pestering those brave souls who’ve volunteered to test-read the thing to give me more feedback, or if I need to keep to the writer tradition of the bitter isolationist hermitage into the editorial chambers. And I remind myself that no matter what I do I’m likely to still receive a shitload of rejections long before I even remotely grab the attention of someone in a position to help me turn a hundred thousand words of fantasy fiction arranged in a particular order into something that actually pays my fucking bills.
I do this because I’m crazy. I do this because I hate myself. I do this because I’m sick of working dayjobs.
And, deep down, I do this because, frustration and depression and bad metaphors and all, I love it.
I just need to not be so close to it. Otherwise, I may lose sight of how good it actually is.
I’ve been in therapy quite a bit in my adult life.
You’re shocked. I can tell.
One of the most effective pieces of advice I was given by a therapist involved dealing with the internal mechanisms of my brain. Specifically, the phenomenon she called “racing thoughts.” Basically, if a notion came into my head or something bugged me, the notion itself and my thoughts on that notion would begin chasing each other around with little restraint or regard for anything I wanted to accomplish. Something would shock me or blind-side me emotionally, and I’d be a useless weepy rag of a man for at least half a day. It was bad.
Getting a grip on this problem, and by extension myself, was a lot like herding cats. Rather mangy undomesticated ones that that. My inability to properly cope with or communicate important, life-impacting information and events has lead directly to some real disasters. I’ve messed up quite a few things in my life. Some bridges have been burned, never to be repaired. I like to believe in things like redemption, forgiveness and hope, but reality is a lot colder and more harsh than the heavenly kingdom in just about any walk of faith.
See? There it goes. My mind starts chasing its own tail in a spiral of, in this case, self-loathing and regret. Nip that in the bud, mind! I’ve done bad things in my life, sure. But they weren’t all bad. And I can learn from the bad things I’ve done in the past and do better in the future. Yes, I’ve lost friends. Yes, I’ve disappointed loved ones. Who the hell hasn’t? We live on. Pain heals, chicks dig scars.
The Only Real Writer’s Block
Going back to my rosy-eyed optimism, I’m fond of telling people that they are their own biggest obstacle. Yes, the deck might be stacked against you in a certain endeavor, be it because of the success of other people or your gender or your current finances or the fact you can’t get your hands on a trained orangutan. But more often than not, the little doubts and tiny bits of self-loathing we all struggle with are the pebbles in our shoes that keep us from taking another step forward.
It’s especially true for writers. You hum along, banging out words, sending queries, pitching articles and sharing your stories with other writers. Or long-suffering spouses. Or confused pets. Or anybody within earshot. Bottom line is, six days out of seven everything’s fine as far as writing is concerned.
Then comes the bad news. Another rejection for the “I’m doing something!” pile. A disappointingly inadequate paycheck, or word that payment isn’t coming at all for another month or three. A collections call. The sound of the repo man’s tow truck hitching up to your car. Your dog leaves you a ‘present’ in your shoes. The roaches carry off the good china you haven’t managed to wash yet. You get the idea.
Whatever it is, however it comes about, you just stop cold. You doubt your worth as an artist, a writer, a human being. A little voice in your head tells you this was a bad idea. You’ll never make is as big as the people out there who have one tenth of your talent but are twenty times as wealthy and popular. You messed up somewhere, and you’ll never recover. The little bastard in the back of your brain drops a tiny bit of red matter into your heart and wham, super-massive emotional black hole. Because that feeling? Sucks.
Herding Cats While Herding Cats
Writers and artists aren’t the only folks who deal with this. Gamers also run afoul of doubt fairies. Get blasted by other players one time too many, fail in the boss fight time and again, mess up the timing necessary to get that elusive achievement after an afternoon of attempts, and the gamer rage takes hold. You fume. You cuss. You quit.
Now imagine that frustration duplicated at least a few times, in the personage of fellow gamers with whom you have direct contact, but it’s all directed at you. That’s what it means to form a guild, clan or similarly titled organization of gamers within a given game. You not only have to deal with your own anxiety and desire to get your goals across, but you also need to respond to the needs of other gamers. Some are easy to please, some are passive-aggressive in communicating what they want, some just don’t want to play by the rules and some think they’re entitled to special favors just because you’ve made the wise decision to include them in the club (which, by the way, they’re not).
Basically you’re putting yourself through the wringer not only of proving your own self-doubts wrong but weathering the slings and arrows of the outrageous expectations of others doing the same. Egos are projected. Friends become whiners. Any ideals you had get swept aside as people scramble for bits of recognition and validation. It feels like the original notion has been picked up and carried in a direction you don’t like. Red matter, center of heart, black hole, suck. The feeling that comes from herding the cats in ones’ head is aggravated by herding multiple additional cats.
So how do you wrangle these rampant felines?
Catnip for the Brain
The best advice I can give for situations like this is to keep things in perspective. As a writer, there’s nobody else in the world who can tell your story the way you want to tell it. Sure, concepts or themes or plot structures replicate themselves all the time, but the nuances, the fine details, the character ticks and turning points are all you. You’re the teller of that story, and if you don’t get out there and tell it it won’t be told.
As for gamers, games are supposed to be fun. A joy and a delight, a distraction and a touch of escape. We shouldn’t drag our personal problems into our entertainment to the degree that it stops being entertaining. That said, I’m as guilty as doing it as anybody, starting over and ragequitting with the best of them, taking a game too seriously. So I’ll be right there with you, struggling to remember that I’m in the game to have fun. The people that prevent me from having fun, that try to take that fun away to fulfill those false feelings of entitlement, are people I really shouldn’t associate with. Maybe they’ll get over it, giving the gamer form of a cat’s look of “I meant to do that.” And maybe they’ll wander off, hindquarters high in the air in that “I’m the most awesome and everybody else is an idiot” prance cats do so well.
The phrase “get back on the horse” usually refers to someone getting “thrown” from said horse. A tragedy occurs, a heart is broken, a house burns down or a car is totaled – it’s something that throws the individual in question completely out of whack. Equilibrium is shot. The status quo’s out the window. The only way to get back on track is to get back on the horse, even if it just threw you.
However, it’s not just the earth-shattering events that cause us to leave the back of our steeds. Sometimes, things just stop for a bit. The horse needs water or caught a rock in their hoof. We swing down from the saddle, tend to the horse, and take some time for ourselves as well, to grab a bite or take in the scenery. I’m speaking metaphorically, of course, but the bottom line is we stop our progress in our journey.
One of my favorite Westerns of recent years is Hidalgo, and not just because Viggo Mortensen’s in it. Towards the end, Frank (Viggo’s character) goes through a somewhat trippy sequence. He and Hidalgo have fought tooth and nail to persevere in the punishing race across the desert, and the horse is so exhausted that Frank considers putting his companion down. However, he experiences admonitions from his Lakota ancestors to finish the journey and that he and his horse need each other. Emerging from the dream, Frank turns to see Hidalgo on his feet and waiting for the rather thick human to get back on so they can win the damn race. (If you haven’t seen this film, it’s a lot of fun and a classic adventure steeped in Western trappings, so check it out. Also, horses!)
Our desires and dreams are a bit like that horse. We might think that they’re daunting or even impossible to complete. We may exhaust ourselves trying to pursue them at the same time we struggle to make ends meet and address practical matters of living in the modern age. Bills need to be paid, clients need to be appeased, debts need to be settled and obligations need to be met. A lot of needs shove and yank us hither and yon, leaving little energy for ourselves. Sometimes we don’t want to put that energy into something that seems like it’ll go nowhere, considering there are tons of others out there already doing what we wish we could. Better to bear those ills we have, etc.
Besides, a lot of creative people including myself are a bit like magpies. We may want to get from A to B but between those two points are shiny things. New movies, favorite games, comfortable stories and old favorites. We flit to and fro in our free time, especially if we’ve spent ourselves on a creative effort that is either seems too daunting or returns little gratification. The keyboard, the controller, the popcorn bucket, the remote for the TV – they’re security blankets, things to cling to when the phone calls from collectors begin and we want to just forget about deadlines for a while.
But we get a nudge. Like an impatient horse standing behind us whose gotten their water and taken some time to rest their hooves, our desires don’t leave us alone. We can’t stay in idyllic wilderness settings forever. We’re on a journey, here. And while the journey itself is often just as interesting as the destination, if not moreso, we won’t reach our goals if we stand in the middle of the field staring at them. We have to move there. We have to make the effort. We have to get back on the horse.
It could be argued that a lot of this “writer’s block” stuff comes from us blocking ourselves. It’s an excuse to stop expending effort, burn a little less lean tissue, invite less stress into our lives. I stopped work on Acradea to finish the Blizzard contest entry, and then… played more Warcraft. Got some fresh air. Saw Scott Pilgrim. Cheered for the Union. And it was fun, refreshing and relaxing.
But my manuscript’s still here. It’s waiting for me. If it were a horse, it’d be looking at me somewhat impatiently. It wants to move forward, continue the journey, get to a place where it can be hand-fed some damn oats by a pretty farmer’s daughter. It’s not going to get there while I stand around wool-gathering.
For my part, it’s past time to get back on the horse. Have you had moments like that? Has a project, a work in progress, given you a mental nudge to remind you it’s still there? Have you ever taken a break for longer than you expected, only to find you need to pull yourself back into working on it?