Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Can I Borrow Some Butt Glue, Please?

This is what the inside of my mind looks like.  Is it no wonder I have trouble starting
and then completing projects, writing or otherwise?

This might sound like a broken record after two posts on the subject in a week (broken record - when will we reach the point when that metaphor becomes completely incomprehensible - after my children have children?), but my weekend was filled with more inspirational awesomeness as well as some good, old-fashioned butt-kicking of the necessary kind.

I spent the weekend at the Missouri Writers Guild Conference.  It was two and a half days of trading business cards, repeating a million times “What are you working on?” and trying to scribble every bit of fabulous writing advice as my hand cramped like Captain Hook’s claw.  Those of us in the audience hoped every session that the über-successful writer/speaker would hand us the secret to making our writing come easily and brilliantly so that the first agent we approached was sure we had a book that would sell a million copies and become a movie starring George Clooney.

They kept telling us in many ways that we had to spread glue on our chair every day and stay there until we accomplished something.  Maybe I need to try a different conference.  That doesn’t sound like some “magic wand” answer.  Maybe I need to follow the right person on Twitter who will, in a surprise move, direct message me with that writing success secret I failed to hear at the MWG Conference.

Maybe I’m just doing what Christina Katz (aka, The Writer Mama) called “living an imaginary writing life.”  Reading about writing, talking about writing, declaring I want to be a writer but not really finishing anything.  “Be projected oriented,” she told us.  Writing more and more builds writing momentum and focuses my “sweet spot.”  All of that hungrily taking in what other authors say about their writing habits or their strategies for building character or their process of finding an agent aren’t really transferable.  We can’t emulate another’s path, she warned all of us novices.

The essential question we have to ask ourselves:  What are the things I want to write about before I’m done?  Katz is all about having a million ideas, but making them distinct and then making choices.  Writers tend to exist in an abstract realm.  We see visions of where we want to be.  Our heads swirl with other worlds, a thousand great ideas, the perfect final lines, entire biographies of characters we haven’t even plugged into stories yet.  We get bogged down in all that “potential” and become too overwhelmed sometimes to even move forward in any significant fashion.  (What?  Not you?  Never?  It’s only me that falls into that “great idea coma” on a regular basis?)

Katz has a straightforward response to that swirling cloud of stuff that gums up the cogs in the writing wheel.  Just ask yourself “What can I do next week?”

It reminds of me the story Anne Lamott (you remember her, don’t you?) told in her fabulous guide to writing and life, Bird By Bird.  Her brother had a school report on birds that he had not touched in the three months since it had been assigned.  On the night before it was due he was paralyzed by the amount of work he had to complete.  Their father put an arm around her brother’s shoulder and advised him, “Bird by bird, buddy.  Just take it bird by bird.”

What can I do next week?  Pick a project and just get to it.  Put some butt glue on my chair and focus, first for one paragraph, then one page, then two.

A writing life is really not so different from any other life.  We writers may spend a little more time in total isolation, staring into space and talking to ourselves, but whether we decide to train for a marathon or change a career or clean the basement, we have to focus on what is in front of us.  Pick one thing, one project.  Set a frame of reference for measuring progress, and then understand that we have to work toward it in increments.

We can’t write a book in one day.  We can’t be qualified to run a marathon the first day we lace on a pair of athletic shoes.  This lesson seems almost too obvious.  But why is it so hard for me to see, not just in writing but in every other area of my life?  Probably I give too much time to visualizing how I want that project to look when it’s completed.  It’s so complex and perfect and awe-inspiring that I’m afraid to even begin the process.  The process can’t possibly be as perfect as the project fully formed in my mind.

However, this weekend Christina Katz had immense tolerance for this one novice writer who asked questions incessantly as if she might hit on the magic one whose answer would reveal all.  And because Katz had a marvelous blend of patience and well-placed butt-kicking I decided to write one page today rather than collapse in a useless heap because I couldn’t write an entire book in 24 hours.

It’s better to accomplish something than be perfect.  I can always revise after I have pages in hand.  Lesson learned.  I better get in a large supply of glue.

Are you someone who has that enviable gene that lets you focus until something is done?  What strategies to you have when faced with large projects or distant goals so you can make progress?  Or have you always been the kid up at midnight trying to make the poster of all the natural resources found in each state in South America, with accompanying data legends and sources (be honest; I know I’m not the only one)? Share in the comments box your fears or your wisdom of just getting it done, whatever “it” is.

This is me with the so-patient Christina Katz.  You can't see it in the picture,
but she's in the process of kicking me in the rear.



Jennifer L. Oliver said...

When you are done with that bottle of butt glue - pass over here!
Good advice though. I just have to sit down and write one page at a time!
Thanks for sharing!

Tami Clayton said...

Bird by Bird - yes. Love that book. When I am overwhelmed with a task, I have to break it down into smaller bits. That way I'll have a sense of accomplishment even if the whole task doesn't get done as quickly as I would like. Kind of like taking things bird by bird, one page at at ime. :)

Christina Katz said...

Julie, you are wonderfully FUNNY! You did not mention a knack for humor as one of your strengths and yet there it is. Right here in this blog post. Seems like your next conference should be the Erma Bombeck Conference. I understand it's popular, so book early. And by all means, don't stop using that wonderful wit! Great meeting you this weekend. Thanks for the praise and the chuckles. :)

Christina Katz said...

Oh, and PS, don't forget to send me that bio. You have until Sunday. ;)

Julie Farrar said...

You see everybody! I have my own personal butt-kicker.

Sara Walpert Foster said...

The great idea coma. Exactly. Blogging has really helped me with the bird by bird thing. Short pieces somehow make the journey seem more manageable. And you are FUNNY. I agree with Christina Katz when she says to keep using that wonderful wit. It makes reading your work pleasurable. :)

Anonymous said...

Julie, how true! Every word can be said about me. The only difference: I can't be that funny. I tend to mop instead (very unattractive sight). Can I borrow your sense of humor, please?

PS. I figured out that the only way I can comment on your blog is if I'm logged into my WordPress account.

Nancy Hinchliff said...

Love your post and the picture with you and Christina. I envy all these conferences you go to. But I am always glued to my chair writing and never go anywhere...I have just the opposite problem you talk about here. I'm not so sure it's a good thing. I guess reaching a balance is the answer.

Becky Green Aaronson said...

Love this post, Julie. Yep, it's all about doing what you can when you can each day instead of talking about what you can't, and all the reasons why.

Got any extra butt glue you can Fedex my way? Or can you send Christina when she's done kicking your butt?

samantha stacia said...

I am SO glad that I am not the only one with this particualr problem! And lately it has gotten even worse with finding some new books I want to read and learning more about writing which just gets my jets going ya know? I LUV our writing lives though, in many ways it has saved my real life and dont ever fall into that trap that you arent a writer. IF you have a blog you are an author pure and simple and if you take a year or ten to finish a novel "Oh well!" lots of writers have taken a decade to finish a novel. no, I dont want to be one of them and niether do you but while you are working you are still a writer and an author! And so am I! Good post!

Julie Farrar said...

Samantha, time spent reading only improves the writing. Unless, of course, you never close the book and get to the computer. But sometimes it's the revival/motivation you need to write.

elizabethfais said...

I loved Anne Lammont's chapter on "Shitty First Drafts" in Bird by Bird! I realized I wasn't the only one who went through that phase and it was a HUGE help. ;-)

Ellen Gregory said...

"We get bogged down in all that “potential” and become too overwhelmed sometimes to even move forward in any significant fashion."

That nails it for me, Julie! Even though I only really work on one project at a time, the above still applies. Novels are so darn BIG.

Loved this post - thanks for sharing.

Melinda Farrar said...

This is good advice to accomplish any project.
Everyone here already considers you a writer - that is why we read your blog - and we are waiting for the book to come out. Will it be ready by Christmas? (Don't stop with the humor - I think it's one of your greatest strengths)

Nadine Feldman said...

You really captured why people don't have a regular writing practice even when they want to -- it's that perfectionism thing! We compare our early drafts to someone else's finished, professionally edited product.

I'm less about butt glue than about wooing my writing like a lover. I make time for it. I buy it flowers. Chocolate comes at the end of the writing day. Discipline doesn't work for me, but flirting does.

I love Bird by Bird, and The Artist's Way has also helped me with learning to do any task, not just writing, in small bites. It keeps the panic level down and gives me a daily sense of accomplishment, even on those days when I just don't want to write!

Julie Farrar said...

If everyone else has this problem, too, then why am I the only one not accomplishing anything (she whines). But seriously, Nadine, I love your idea of wooing the writing.

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