Thursday, October 16, 2008

Work in Progress: What to Do When There Is None

No work. No progress. Or, perhaps even worse: lots of work to do, but no enthusiasm to progress on it. How to cope? Perhaps it’s just the post-vacation blues, but I’ve been finding it hard to feel motivated lately. It doesn’t help to tell myself that everyone goes through these patches, that no time is wasted because I’m “thinking” or “collecting material,” that things will be better if I can only “relax.” (Funny how when I pass along this advice to others it all makes perfect sense…but to have to listen to it myself isn’t at all helpful. Note to self: Stop saying this to other people!?)

I knew things were verging on dire when yesterday this is what I used for motivation: I told myself that I would have to spend the evening in immense self-loathing unless I worked on my new novel. Given the choice between the carrot and the stick for self-motivation, I seem to choose the stick every time, which probably says something, though I’m not sure I want to know what exactly that “something” might be.

So, I grudgingly opened up the file for Chapter Two of the new novel, which I hadn’t looked at since early September. Read over the 6 pages I’d written—didn’t love it, but didn’t overly hate it—and just started trying to work. A mountain of laundry was a welcome distraction (the “bing” of a finished load in the basement sent me off my chair like a shot), but even with that chore, I still had to spend a certain amount of time just sitting here in front of the computer, coming up with something. “It doesn’t have to be good,” I reminded myself. (Not to worry…it wasn’t.)

And yet. I did make progress. I wrote more pages. I figured out some new aspects to my characters. I discovered a surprising direction that I hadn’t anticipated. When I stopped for the day (clock-watching all the way), I was at a point where I knew that something interesting would have to happen next, and my exact thought was, “I’ll think of what that is tonight and then I’ll write it tomorrow.”

Write it tomorrow. The stick worked. And I think the trick was that I never told myself that I had to write well…I just had to write. Once I sat down (in fear, yes, but I sat down)—once I sat down, the work came.

Consequently, I was able to spend my evening NOT in self-loathing, enjoying the finale of "Project Runway. " (What presidential debate?) And I was struck by something that happened as the three finalists stood before the judges. As they’d been asked several times in the past—and surely as the finalists must have suspected they’d be asked yet again—the question came: Why should you win Project Runway? (I’m paraphrasing.)

It seems a simple question, and one that anyone should be at least semi-prepared to answer in such a high-stakes situation. And yet two of the women merely blundered on with vague reasons such as “this is my dream” and “this is what I want more than anything.” Only one woman had a half-coherent answer that sold herself as confident and added important information about her collection. Guess who won?

And maybe that was coincidence (I did think her collection was the most visionary and intriguing), but I found myself jumping to my own question: Why do I write? Yes, “writing novels is my dream,” and yes, “writing is what I want more than anything.” But that’s everyone’s answer. Why do I write? Why do I write? Why do I write?

Certainly not for the opportunity to threaten myself with self-loathing. So why?

I think it’s important to periodically remind ourselves of that core question, because that, more than fear of self-loathing, more than hope for fame and fortune, is what keeps us at the desk. So I’ll be pondering that personal question for a few days.

And, in the magic that is coincidence—or the greater magic of the universe providing what one needs—I received via email a newsletter from a small press (Kore Press) this morning that contains a link to an essay that beautifully and perfectly explores this question: Why do I write?

Here’s an excerpt from Kim Eisele’s piece, but please go read the whole thing here. Try the carrot today, not the stick:

“Some days the thought of going to my desk gives me a stomachache. I’ll wish instead that I worked for an insurance broker in some cramped, carpeted office. At least then I’d know what to do. Because sometimes I arrive at my desk and sit there in the doldrums, nowhere to go and no way to get there. If I scream for help, my voice comes out tiny and insignificant; no one at all hears it. When this happens, I can stay away for a few days, a few weeks, months even. Thinking of my work makes my stomach tighten, my heart rate accelerate. Nothing moves. I sigh a lot.

“But then I’ll see something—the edge of light behind a cactus, a grapefruit on a park bench, a forgotten dog on a chain. Or I’ll hear something—the bees in the pepper tree, the slap of rain on the desert pavement, a news story about yet another Mexican migrant dead of overexposure. And a split-second of breeze will blow over me. It will nudge me closer to the horrific or the beautiful and remind me that there are things that must be said. I will recall the elegant swoop and curve of the letters, the gentle rock of sentences in a paragraph. The images and the sounds and their urgency will lift me up and carry me back to my desk.”

And, if you can stand it, there’s another tiny happy ending here: I really did figure out what happens next in my novel, and I’ll be working on Chapter Two in just a few minutes.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.