Writing Progress + Practice

“A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”
Thomas Mann

Got my butt (and the rest of myself, too!) to Starbucks for writing. Mark is working from home today. Intermittent, remote meetings means he can’t necessarily get out of the house. What do I want to do? Get out of the house, of course. So I went with my college-ruled notebook and my aging MacBook Air to Starbucks where I write.

Two days at Starbucks does not a writing habit make, but it’s a start. I have to start somewhere, don’t I? For some reason, I seem to keep going back to the start, to the beginning instead of holding steady and making progress. It’s so frustrating! I started out the year with writing at the forefront of my mind, and then I let it go and refused to pick it up again. That’s how I fail. At some point, I pick myself up and begin again.

I want to get back into writing, all sorts of writing. I can work on a novel, sure. But I have also written poetry and short stories. Working on different styles of writing can cross-pollinate your creative works. I heard about a writing contest for a 1,500 word short story. By Monday. Putting it out here so maybe you can give me a kick in the pants. It’s totally doable. I have a 6K+ word short story that I could totally adapt and make it work, or I could write a new one.

When I worked at the Berklee College of Music, I took some online creative writing courses. I still have the digital and physical materials. I was thinking about going through them again, doing some of the exercises, practicing. I did review some of the work that I did. And I thought: You know, the topic is a bit silly (I wrote about cats in more than one assignment) but the strength of the work itself stood. If you asked me then, I would have been like, Yeah. So? Now, I see that my writing skills were evident. But I need the practice.

Writing Practice is just like any other kind of practice. There is nothing in the world, no activity, that does not require practice. This means doing for the sake of doing. Sure, you’ll get better – over time. And you might be able to look back and point out a specific time where your work changes and you’ve improved.

What you cannot do is look at a single moment and declare it a failure of creativity. I mean, I guess you could. You could decide ahead of time what you wanted, measure your current effort against it, and judge it a failure. I understand that in one context – the car you designed won’t run or has a poor design that causes wind drag and increased gasoline costs.

But in terms of the fine arts, that’s a terrible approach to take. How can you immerse yourself in your work if you’re busy judging and knocking yourself down? I put that question out there as if I don’t do it myself, but I do. I am both perpetrator and victim of my creative failures. I am not calling any particular thing I do a failure. I call my inability to carry forward my dreams with the same commitment that I bring when I employed by someone else.

The great thing about this life is that the earth continues to rotate, the sun comes and goes across the sky, and that I can pick up a pen or open my computer and start putting down words that spring from my consciousness that want to escape into this world for us all to see.

Here’s to continued writing progress!

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When Setting Goals Backfires

All my life, I have worked in a goal-oriented manner: get A’s in school, get to college, find a job. If the task did not start off good and go in a straight path towards getting better, then I abandoned it. I needed to make money! I needed to support myself! I needed to protect myself (via money)!

I did not have the patience for things that did not result in perfection. Each thing I did had to show results, goals, achievements. I had to do so. I was driven to prove myself to everyone about everything I did. I was jumpy, angry, and constantly worried about what others thought of me and what I did.

What I wanted to be, deep in my heart since I was a child, was an artist. I wanted to draw like my sister Madeline and like my second grade classmate Kevin W. I wanted to make arts and crafts like my mother’s best friend Rose F. I wanted to paint and make a living painting like my fellow BU student Heather Morgan and like my first painting teacher, Peter.

I had wanted to act. I wanted to sing. I wanted to dance. I wanted, wanted, wanted, but did nothing that lasted. Each time I tried, fear sizzled in my veins. After several times, the sizzle would steam and choke my lungs with panic. I would retreat into boredom, wasting time with time wasters. This start-try-stop cycle went on for years, often with month- and yearlong gaps in between attempts. Meanwhile, I needed to work and found jobs that I rationalized I could do.

Two-and-a-half years into my college studies of Business Administration, I took painting and drawing classes for non-art majors. I loved painting. The first few sessions, my still life objects were floating all over the canvas. I noticed other students were sketching first with some brown paint and linseed oil before they started. I decided to try it.

My teacher Peter F. saw me sketching and said: “Who taught you how to do that?”

I stopped and said: “No one. I just looked around and saw other people doing it. It looked like a good idea so I thought I would try it.”

My teacher just nodded and said nothing more. Later in the semester, I asked him for his opinion as to whether I should switch majors from business to painting. Did he think my paintings were good enough to apply? Ultimately, he said, it was up to me. What did I want to do?

What did I want to do? That question has plagued me my entire life. Whatever I did want, I told myself it had make sense, to be practical, and I had to be good at it as quickly as possible. The fear was hard enough to take when I went to work for something that I did not really care about.

What if I gave my heart to something that mattered to me, and there was something wrong with it? What if I was criticized? What if I was not good? What would I do then? The only thing I could think of was that I would be forced to give up what I loved to do. What was the point of life then? Given my low self-esteem, I could not adjust.

Instead, I put myself in positions where my work was not a reflection of the true me and so, even if the criticism hurt, I had the core pain of me protected against future pain. The trouble was that I also kept the internal pain from being released.

So how does this all relate to goal-setting? Because I was hyper-focused on goals, I wanted to rush through what I was doing. I could not stand the messy process of writing for pay, for work, for anything other than perfection. My 2008 NaNoWriMo novel Butterfly Wings is so, so far from perfect. If I wait for perfect, then I will never do anything.

This came up today in this Huffington Post article about success and motivation by James Clear.  The only thing that will help you achieve goals, if that’s what you need, is to do something – anything! But achieving a goal is and must be a by-product of doing what you love. And you must do what you love often. Get it wrong, get messy, learn from your mistakes, and do it again.

For me, it is writing about things that matter to me and sharing my thoughts with others. I also love fantasy novels and would love to write a fantasy story. That will have to wait. After Butterfly Wings (or whatever it is that it will end up being called), I think I have a sequel to that story in me. I am finally excited to say that I am looking forward to that process.