Root Cause

Root Cause

Some folks say that the hardest part about writing is starting. It’s difficult, to be sure, but I reckon the harder part is continuing. So let’s get both of those ducks in a row and discuss the importance of motivation, the lucrative subject that really doesn’t need to be monetized nearly as much as it is.

I guess we’d have to start with the age old question, “What compels you to write?” There are a lot of answers to this ranging from the dismissive (“Because I have the sickness.”) to the delusional and grandiose (“Because I’m rad at it.”), but nearly all of the answers fall into either internal or external motivations.

External

In a lot of ways, writing was easier in an academic setting because you had teachers giving you deadlines and feedback. There are rigid rules– I need to write a short story, because I’ll fail if I don’t. Or, I need to edit this short story, because my teacher will make fun of me in front of my entire class if I don’t. I had a good writing professor. Those are external motivations, but they are contained in an academic setting. There’s no assignments in life (unless you give them to yourself) and no grade (except Amazon reviews). Yet there are still external sources of motivation to write.

There’s a lot to be said about the support of friends and family. These people love you and want you to be happy. I hope. Accept their support. Ask them if they want to read something you wrote. Make it perfectly clear that they don’t have to. Also make it clear to yourself that they support what you’re doing and they’re going to have your best interests at heart whether they read the piece or not. So then you might need to question why you want their approval.

Perhaps you have the need for attention. I’m going to go ahead and say it’s OK to be driven by self-validation. It’s OK to use your talents to impress people. Some people will disagree, but those people aren’t funny. Perhaps you want to connect with your readership, in part because you find it hard to communicate your ideas any other way. That’s also fine. Maybe you’ve got this grandiose vision of Truth and this book is your way of clearing the wool from all these damn sheeple’s eyes, and you want people to recognize your genius 100 years from now in the annals of literary history. That’s… yeah, whatever, that’s cool, too. You might be kind of a pretentious asshat, but hey, I’ve been one myself a few times.

But there’s a limit to external sources. Because inevitably, you will fail somehow. You will get a bad review on Amazon. You will write a story your partner thinks is stupid, because it’s really stupid. A friend or family member will tell you to focus on a real job with health benefits. That can all be crushing. But were you writing for them?

The other problem with external motivation is that its currency is usually imaginary at the beginning. Sometimes it’s a helpful fantasy to keep you going. The rest of the time you might find that there are easier ways to validate yourself– like Twitter, or Yoga I guess. Point is, you might find yourself entertaining the fantasy of success instead of making moves towards it. I know this, because I’m not what you’d call a “successful” writer and have “entertained” a lot of “fancies.” And I know that kind motivation has an expiration date if you want to complete your projects, because it’s easier to dream than to write.

Derek Sivers strikes the notion that by stating your goal out loud, you are less likely to follow through with the goal, because you’re brain interprets the fact that you said it out loud with actually doing it. Now, if you’ve already spilled the guts to your novel, there’s a good chance that you did it for social recognition. Again, that’s fine. We need social recognition to maintain sanity. But you could’ve also shot yourself in the foot if you haven’t gotten that idea down on paper. I’m guilty of this too– a lot of would-be projects are lost to the wires of long distance phone calls and late night hooliganism when a friend inevitably asks, “What are you working on?” And I bank on the immediate gratification of having formed a good idea and I feel like a good boy and get a pat on the head for being super smart.

Internal

But to maintain a consistent work ethic, you need to dive into the well of internal motivation. The primary example that I keep going back to is a pride in quality– that if a work sits unread in a vacuum, I can still enjoy it for what it is. Not perfectionism, not necessarily feeling like it is even good, but a sense of satisfaction that follows labor, concentration, and thought.

Another: the love of reading– a reminder that I’m participating in a creative capacity that involves my favorite, and perhaps, most meaningful activity. It might be trite to repeat that good writers read, but, there you go. When I delve into works of fictive masterpieces I try connect to the author writing it and remember that, often, they think that it’s utter garbage. They aren’t attempting a grasp for fame or acknowledgement, but that they are simply trying and their efforts spilled brilliant minds onto pages.

Then there’s the practical approach: the old, “ass-in-chair-time” as it was once described to me. Making time for this can be hard but whether or not the motivation is there, there’s work to be done. The mind resists aggressive creation when it would rather be passively ingesting digital gossip from Facebook. I’ve been progressing towards setting an amount of time apart in the day to write, instead of word count quotas, à la Chuck Palahniuk’s egg timer method. The quota is still there if I get distracted, but by and large, human eyes detest empty spaces.

More often than not, forcing oneself to work leads to a genuine joy of writing. It creates a mental space that’s separate from the rest of the world, a workshop wherein one can place intense focus into solving logistical problems and turn a clever phrase, a place where the rules of Hell are reversed: agonizing labor becomes pleasurable and a certain sense of freedom is regained. In a world where meaning is constantly being questioned, it feels liberating to be able to create content that speaks Truth to the author as well as, one hopes, a readership.

Capitalzing On Your Joe Job

Capitalzing On Your Joe Job

Every one knows that you’re not in it for the money. The money might come, but it’ll come later, years later, after you’ve amassed a small library of classics. Or it might come biweekly if you work in media or journalism.

For everyone else, there’s the Joe Job, the daily necessity of labor and exertion to fuel your creative career. For a lot of us who were trained academically to write, this is also a necessity to improve value of our work.

When I was taking fiction courses in college, I mostly spoke with people in my own age bracket. After college, I was unemployed for quite a while. And you know what? I didn’t get much writing done. There was very little stimuli, outside of media. I wrote one piece that I’m horrified to revisit. It’s flat. It works as a cerebral exercise and only that, as there are few things in the story that resemble real life interactions or motivations. Once I was brought into the fold of the workin’ Joe, I couldn’t stop writing. I figured I could use my daily experiences to aid my creative process. It worked. Because, hell, you have to work a job, right? That much in life is certain until Robots replace us all. So until then, you may as well utilize your 9-5 the best you can.

One aspect of trying to create a career out of fiction writing that not a lot of people consider is what kind of job you need to have to make it work. I’ve watched a few of my fellow creative minded friends walk into a demanding (sometimes satisfying) career and hang up their paint brushes. Now, this could be irrational, but I admit that I’m afraid to lose that freedom, so I stick to employment that allows my writing life to exist– staying out of offices and school rooms and maintaining flexible schedules (At least that’s how I frame it. You could also say, poor job market, Millenial work ethic, yada yada. Clam it). These jobs might not pay as well as I’d like, but there are lessons inherent in any professional capacity. Let’s take a look at some that I’ve learned:

When I was employed before college, I wasn’t looking for anything I could use. I wasn’t writing then. NEXT.

My first job out of college was as a barista. It was a seasonal job and I was terminated after three months. I didn’t get much out of it writing wise, other than a sense of schedule. I slowly became more consistent with the time I set aside to write because, well, I had to. Simple lesson, but an important one. Now that I wasn’t writing for a publication or for classes, I had to motivate myself to get things done. During my period of unemployment, however, I didn’t value my time as effectively as I did while holding a position somewhere. Once scarcity was established, I began to value my personal time exponentially– and began understanding how to use it effectively to start and complete writing projects.

The next job I got was at a home improvement warehouse. I liked it. It required a lot of physical labor, a few tasks that required quiet concentration and a lot of talking to people. And people get chatty at those stores. It helped me connect with blue collar Americans. My co-workers and customers fed my imagination and gave me grounded details of their rural lives. It was stuff that I could take back to my desk and fold into scenes, enriching the sense of realism. One of my supervisors found out that I was a writer and joked that I was going to make him a villain in one of my books. And then I did, as I could perfectly account for how he’d react in any given situation. That job also helped my dialogue immensely. More on that in a bit.

Third job? Makin’ sandwiches. Everyone should hold a job wherein they don’t give a single, solitary doo-doo about at least once in their lives. And then they should quit. I’m not sure I learned a writing lesson at this one, but I did learn how far I could push my writing schedule while phoning in a work performance. At the frenzied height of one of my novel revisions, the daily schedule looked like this:

3 PM – 9 PM: Make sandwiches, go home

9 PM -4 AM: Write

4 AM – 8 AM: Lucid dream about writing

8 AM – 10 AM: Write down the passages I wrote while asleep

10 AM – 2 PM: Nap

And repeat for nearly two weeks. Then I got sick and had to tone it down a little. Maybe I learned a lesson about my own boundaries and limits. Maybe not. NEXT.

I did tech support for Apple products at a call center. Not only did I get an education in pacifying aggravated customers, I got the opportunity to chat with every geographic region in the USA. It not only gave me a crash course in regional dialect, but also how different communication methods provide insight into how people think. I came into that job with the bias that New Yorkers were a pissed off, curmudgeonly people and that Southerners were a simple folk. I was delightfully proven wrong. New Yorkers speak fast. They live in a fast-paced world, even when they aren’t in a hurry. There’s no reason to take offense to that. They’re also probably the most generous people I spoke with– I’ve been invited to dinner no less than five times by New Yorkers and Jerseryans, every time in an aggressively friendly manner. Meanwhile I learned that while Southerners speak at a slow pace, they’re not slow witted. I held that bias longer than I’d like to admit. Then I had a call where I was walking someone step by step through a reboot process, and usually by step 3 or 4, I let the customer take it from there. He didn’t. I asked him if he knew the next steps in the process and he said that he did but was waiting until I told him to do so. It wasn’t that he, or Southerners generally, was a dum-dum, he just respected my authority on iPhones. How this relates to writing (you may have wondered 200 words ago) is the dynamic of effective dialogue. It’s my opinion that dialogue, in addition to any narrative information conveyed, should reflect an attitude. In that respect, this job was a goldmine. I figured if how a person asked for help with iMessage could sketch a small portrait, then every tiny line out of a character’s mouth should be another brush stroke of a mural.

I’m going to skip all the other jobs, the gigs, crawling back to previous employers, and other months of unemployment and go straight to my currently held position:

It’s pretty great. It’s physical, so I don’t resent sitting at a computer for hours at a time at night, provides enough critical problem solving so I don’t go completely insane, and since it requires following procedures, I have the opportunity to day dream and mentally review what I’m working on creatively, fix logical issues, revisit character relationships and figure out the next step, all while performing my daily paid duties. Or, I listen to podcasts (some about writing, some not) to keep myself up to date in the goings on in the world without that biting into time after work so that I’m prepared to dig into my projects in a creative mindset when I get home.

The point is, you shouldn’t despair at your job. There are opportunities to expand your creative life everywhere. Keep your mental note pad open and figure out a way to keep writing, even when you’re not writing.

 

 

Tuning to Harmony

Tuning to Harmony

I remember that the two dirtiest words in an English course discussion were “author’s intent.”

Summarily, the discussion basically the cuts the same way every time: one side says that author’s intent is negligible, creators aren’t always cognizant of the significance of what they’re creating and the other says that we must respect the genius inherent to the craft, every little thing is in its proper place and there for a reason.

Good rule of thumb is to be a middling son of a gun. Writer’s aren’t gods, but the good ones ain’t slackers either. (Except for me. I wear my hat backwards and am late to stuff).

Anyways, this discussion generally leads to another popular discussion: “Is symbolism intentional?”

Again, it depends. And I’ve found that the answer can be yes and no about any particular symbol.

In an episode of Radiolab, Paul Auster describes what he calls “rhyming events,” and he uses the real world example of a girl he dated in college that had a piano with a broken F key and later that year, on a trip to rural Maine, they encounter an old (abandoned?) Elk’s lodge with a piano… that had a broken F key.

Uncanny? Sure. Does it mean anything? I think Auster mentioned it because there’s a certain unworldly profundity to the circumstance that he doesn’t understand. And a theist could point to the hand of God underlining a certain meaning and an existentialist would write in their own meaning as to how it’s to be interpreted and a rationalist would say that it’s just the hazard of coincidence. And so forth.

I think this question is one that Murakami plays with often. In Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World there’s a little, non-assuming detail about the main character– that his most prized possession is his whiskey collection. That the narrator is a heavy whiskey drinker is featured prominently, but when he describes the bottles he values, he lists Old Crow and Wild Turkey (among others,) the former being generally low shelf, the latter being middle shelf. Did this mean anything? Does it speak to a sense of emptiness that the highest possession of value is some of the cheapest bourbon on the market? Or was this just a sign of 1980’s Japan, when the foreign whiskey market opened up, thus making Old Crow a hot item of the times? Does Murakami want me to be asking these kinds of questions?

I’ve also argued (in my head) about the recurring motif of lice in Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. [cue montage to every line using the word “lousy”] Does this speak of Caulfield’s paradigm? That the world is a louse-ridden, filthy place? Or is Salinger just tapping into the common verbiage of an angsty teen? Am I cheated out of anything if the second turns out to be true? Does it make it the first interpretation any less true? History has shown that it’s not the best idea to overthink Catcher in the Rye.

Another quick example: IS PAUL DEAD? Quick take: No, but The Beatles sure loved to keep the meanings of their songs ambiguous, and probably played into the hoax as it unravelled the minds of acid tripping college radio DJs.

Ahem.

For writers, it would seem that woven-in symbolism is optional because it might happen anyway. Disregard the question of intentionality entirely because, successful symbolism and underlying conceptual themes ask the reader questions, instead of attempting to define anything concrete.

That doesn’t mean you should stop trying to massage meaning into your own work. That means that you first have to keep it open.

Riffing of Auster’s terminology, I’ve noticed that there are resonating frequencies in my own work. In the first draft, it’s my job to create opportunities for these moments, these scenes, details, dialogue to resonate. Just like Auster’s example, I’m writing about circumstances that appear to have profundity, even if I can’t quite place what’s so profound. It might not be the author’s job to place it, either.

Going back over them in the second draft, it’s my job to see which frequencies work together and tweak them so that they harmonize, and cut everything that’s singing out of key. The idea is to normalize a certain sense of complex language that it’s barely noticeable– casual readers can enjoy themselves, and thoughtful readers can dig in to some juicy concepts.

But when in doubt, it’s best to stick to basic storytelling first. Don’t carry the burden of making the cleverest, densest and heavily layered piece of fiction in the world. It’s been done and it sucks.

It’s also helpful to remember that a cigar can just be a cigar.

(Bonus round: Did I include the Kanji symbol as the header because it has some sort of significance or because I thought it looked like a haughty bird person holding a basket?)