The Third Guarantee – Death, Taxes, and . . .

Change.

Whoever said there were only two guarantees in life forgot the critical third. Transition is the fundamental state of our existence.

It has been one month since my last blog entry and the delay has been directly related to the reality of transition. I’ve moved yet again, and have thrown open the doors on my life to the whimsy of the unknown.

At the end of summer I will leave my post at the lighthouse and head in the direction of new things, some defined, others obscured by indetermination. I am on the path of freedom, continuing my hero’s journey, the fantastical tale of my own life.

Writing will remain part of this journey and some of the details will be tracked here, through this blog. My projects are delayed for the moment, but they are not forgotten. My goals remain the same in the writing process.

Transition is everything in a creative life. I leave with you this, a post I wrote as a guest blogger in 2013 for Writer’s Relief wherein the aspect of transition is discussed at the microcosmic level. If you have not read this I hope you enjoy it. If you’ve read it before may you be reminded again of the value of transition. Either way, thank you for continuing with me.

http://writersrelief.com/blog/2013/05/psyched-to-write-overcoming-the-transition-barrier/

I’ll be back soon!

T.J.

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Outline Your Book Or Suffer In Revision Hell

25777_366224582299_4542941_nI’m about to do it again.

I don’t know why anyone would bother writing a book-length manuscript when they could write and potentially publish a dozen short stories with the same or less effort. Short stories are quick, and act as evidence that one has the capacity for writing fiction in the first place. If a short story is the single-focused brainchild of a few weeks dedicated work, a book is a commitment to raising the child to adulthood. Yet here I am, about to write my fourth book.

What am I thinking?

I’ll tell you what I’m thinking – I don’t know – except that this story, this book-long tale of my imagination, will not let me focus on anything else. The first book in the series (which may never see the light the of day), has turned out to be backstory. I’m not exactly thrilled that things turned out this way, but these things happen, and at least with the back-story out of the way the real story can now be told.

T.E. Lawrence reminds us that “(a)ll the revision in the world will not save a bad first draft: for the architecture of the thing comes, or fails to come, in the first conception, and revision only affects the detail and ornament, alas!” So with all due respect to Anne Lamott we must consider the risks of a poor drafting in the first place. Following that, one must realize that all the work done on a piece of writing may end up being little more than practice, or perhaps the fleshing out of backstory so that the real story can be told. This realization may occur after more than a year working on a project, and the conclusion can be upsetting. As with any catastrophe it may take some time to come to terms with the aftermath. When I wrote about a million words a few years back I concluded that, upon reaching the million word benchmark, one should write a million more. There are a number of ways to do this. One of them is through revision of a very poor first draft, just be sure to understand the perils of this approach.

One way to avoid writing a poor first draft, and thus having to revise permanently, is to write an outline. An outline does a number of things: it introduces the sequence of events for ease of drafting chapters; it introduces characters and helps identify the proper protagonist; it may inform appropriate point-of-view. By outlining the entire story one knows the end toward which one is writing, how the story impacts the protagonist, approximately how long the story will be, weaknesses in the plot; and is a useful tool for writing the all important synopsis which, whether self-publishing or soliciting agents and editors, is a useful exercise.

An outline takes pressure off of the revision process because it reduces or eliminates errors that can otherwise be made in blind drafting. By knowing where the story is going from the outset the writer is better informed of the story and less likely to create tangents which may end up being cut wholesale in the latter revision process. So while making an outline may seem an unnecessary drag to getting on with the writing, consider it akin to reading the rules before playing a new game. The enjoyment of the activity is greatly enhanced by understanding what you are doing from the outset.

 

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Giving Up – You have ten minutes to enjoy it

chess

I play correspondence chess with my son. I have been playing chess for thirty-five years. He has known the game for fourteen years, has been playing in earnest for the better part of the last year. A few weeks ago he beat me clean. That doesn’t happen very often.

My son is a passionate chef. He discovered this passion at the end of his teen years and now is hot on the trail of culinary mastery, making great headway and still in his early twenties. Meanwhile we play chess, and though I win the vast majority of our games he continually comes back for more. We were discussing this fact, and his developing career, and my own efforts at completing my latest novel, and at one point he said in passing, “I’m a strong believer in persistence.” This disclosure was an epiphany. It’s not that I was surprised to realize that persistence is an important aspect of success, but that I hadn’t put the emphasis on persistence in my life that it really deserves.

This revelation was all the more powerful because I realized this young man, my son the chef, had already surpassed me in his understanding of what it takes to be great at what a person does. His persistence has manifested in work schedules that would make most of us faint.  Twelve and fourteen days straight, double shifts. Cooking, cleaning, prepping. Learning. Now, I do not advocate the necessity of long and endless days of work in order to succeed. Each objective requires the time it requires and nothing more. The kitchen takes long hours. If you can’t stand the heat . . . well, you know what they say.

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This brings us to the issue at hand. Many artists spend only a few hours per day working on their craft. Time is only one factor in the equation. It is the regular and continuous engagement with your art, persistence, that yields results. You have ten minutes of giving up after any one failure. After that you have to get back to work. You have to persist.

One needs only to read the endless accounts of artists of various kinds who nearly gave up on their success, but through sheer will stuck with it until things suddenly changed. Story after story, book after book, painting after painting, song after song these people worked and championed themselves endlessly until their day came. If that seems like too much to ask, well, if you can’t stand the heat.

There is a magical equation to finding your success after all. The spell of persistence creates an energy and momentum that brings those who are loyal to it into the result they seek. It is a mindless incantation, a dogged meditation on commitment to attaining the results we seek. Persistence is revision of our art, revision of our selves, revision of our attitude, and of our efforts to do what needs to be done to keep going. Not mindless in the sense of thoughtlessness, but in the sense of not stopping to take account of the effort we are making to reach our goal. We must not think at all about the time we are committing (and if you recall last post we discussed time as a tool to assure we are committing in the first place). Put your mind only to the work at hand, and persist.

Some painters use the same canvas again and again, white-washing the latest image and painting a new one over it. This is done in pursuit of improving technique – a persistence in learning what works and what does not. Similarly, photographers take hundreds, even thousands of pictures to find the handful that the rest of the world sits up to notice. Nothing about the creative life is one-and-done. We need to persist in our persistence. It’s time to get stubborn.

So what is your commitment to success? Do you have a plan for persistence?

Lessons In the Creative Arts Via the Martial Arts – Part I: Force

It may be said that the application of any of the creative forms involves two primary aspects: force and yielding. In the Japanese martial arts there is a concept called irimi, to “go deep,” the idea being that one might move into aggressive energy with intention, to catch the arc of momentum before it reaches full power, where it can be caught and controlled.

The martial application of irimi deals, naturally, with the courage to face a violent confrontation, to deliberately assess the opposing force and move to action in order to accomplish a goal – in this case to stop an attack and redirect the energy. This intentional action, to step up and address the source of aggression, has relevance to many other things as well, not the least of which is the creative life.

Usually there is no threat of danger in the creative life, at least not at the point of gathering paint and brushes, sitting at the keyboard, or picking up the guitar. All of these actions are (arguably) non-violent. Whether or not the product is inherently violent is not the point. That one must meet opposing energy with intent (in this case a lack of motivation, doubt, or laziness) is.

Attitude is everything when it comes to accomplishing a goal. The axiom goes that “whether you think you can or can’t, you are right.” But what use is there in believing you can do something if there is no intent to follow through with it? In the split second of action required to head off a physical blow there is little time to doubt, no time to question the value of an opposing action. One acts or one suffers a painful blow. But imagine slowing the attack down to the point where deliberation was an option. “Should I step up and stop the attack?” “Should I be afraid and not try?” “Should I start but give up if it doesn’t seem to be going in my favor?” Ignoring the obvious answer to any of these questions results in the same outcome: a painful blow and little to no recourse. But by possessing the attitude of completion – that is, of seeing things through to the end without wavering – one is far more likely to experience success than failure. At the least there will be a sense of satisfaction and the confidence to go deeper the next time.

In the creative life this intention is just as important as in martial arts. Facing the tasks and goals at hand is a decision, and a commitment to completing those tasks is also a decision. This decision is, in fact, as quick a decision as that made by the martial artist when defending against an attack. One simply decides and then acts. Until the decision is made there is no real action. Giving things a try, without committing to completion, is not the same thing. To quote Yoda, there is no try. Until the decision is made there is no action yet worthy of taking. Without such a commitment there is an inherent diffusing of energy. The half-committed artist is always watching the clock. There is forever something else to be done first, something more important during the hour of creative work than the project itself. The mind is distracted, the energy is low, there is no commitment to progress even though there may be some commitment to muddling through. The success, however, comes in the commitment, and the decision must be bold, final, and resolute.

Living the creative life is a choice. While it’s possible to find oneself deeply engaged in the creative life quite by accident, once there it is a rare thing to leave. But it is not enough to exist within the creative life and eschew the power of living-with-intent. Making the decision to go forward is akin to facing into a headwind the moment before beginning a challenging journey. The wind is brisk, forewarning of the potential cold and discomfort ahead. But the trail awaits, and the journey is worth it. Decide in an instant. Meet the force of the challenge before it can overwhelm you. Embrace accomplishment and do not waiver, but persevere until the goal is complete.

[Next week: Part II: Yielding]