The Time We Waste

February 20, 2010

Imagine you’re sitting in a small room, staring at a pattern of tiny, multicolored squares on the carpet tile beneath your feet. It forms a constellation of pixel-shapes curiously reminiscent of a Tetris screenshot. You are holding the hand of a person you love deeply. Occasionally you give it a reassuring squeeze.

There’s nothing outwardly scary about the room – it’s quiet, air-conditioned, and it has a soothing beige and gray color scheme. But you know that any moment a doctor is going to walk through the door holding a test result, and he’s going to tell you whether or not the person you love – the person whose hand you are holding tightly – has cancer.

The possibility thickens the air around you, making it hot and hard to breathe. The quietness of the room seems to have a weight all of its own; it feels cruelly designed to let you hear the maelstrom of your own thoughts as clearly as possible. Even the neutrality of the decor seems threatening – a reminder of how truly mundane and inevitable something like death is, no matter how much we pretend it’s a special circumstance.

This very room is where I found myself sitting earlier this week. The person whose hand I was holding was my wife. Her test was for Leukemia.

The doctor – a very pleasant and soft spoken man – entered the room after ten of the longest minutes of our lives. He went over the numbers on the blood panel and took his sweet time before getting to the point. We held our breath. Eventually he announced that the results were negative – there was no cancer.

The relief was not as sudden and bright as you might suspect. For the previous three weeks the weight of the possibility of Leukemia had been pressing down hard on us both. I guess you don’t just spring back up from something like that quickly. Instead, you stay hunkered down for a while, like a blade of grass that’s been living under the weight of a rock. You’re eternally grateful for the second chance of course, but at the same time you’re still on the defensive, expecting the worst to come at any moment from some hidden angle.

Such an experience inevitably leads you to question the manner in which you’ve been living your life. Every aspect of your previous daily routine comes under close scrutiny. The veil is lifted – albeit briefly – and for just a moment you understand the fragility of life. You begin to look at everything you’re doing and ask things like: Is this worthwhile? Is this necessary? Is this a valid mode of thinking? Is this a skillful action? Is this a waste of my time?

If there’s one lesson my wife and I have decided to take away from all this, it’s that the biggest waste of time of all is worry.

One might build a case for certain negative emotions having positive results: the emotion of fear, for example, can be a life preserver under certain circumstances; anger can be a strong motivator and a catalyst to action. But worry, it seems to me now, is a fruitless exercise in attempting to predict an unknowable future. It is perhaps the most useless of all emotions.

Tenzin Gyatso – the fourteenth Dalai Lama – is said to have once been asked about the best way to confront anxiety. His response was that if you have a worry you should examine whether there is anything you can do about it. If there is something you can do about it, there is no need to worry, but if there is nothing you can do about it, there is also no need to worry.

With the events of the past two months fresh in my mind, I believe this to be one of the truest and most useful statements I’ve ever heard.

When it comes to writing a story, there’s often some worry involved, even if you don’t quite consciously recognize it. You might worry about whether or not it’s a good story (whatever “good” may mean); you might worry if it’s publishable, or if your editor will find it agreeable; you might be concerned over your grammar or spelling, or anxious about how your friends and family will receive it, or how viciously the members of your local writing critique group will tear it apart. After all, a tremendous amount of blood, sweat and tears goes into a story. You pour months of your life into an artistic creation, and then you set it free, hoping that out there, in the big wide world, it will find some measure of success.

In my personal experience, such background worries have been expressed as a curious form of perfectionism. Perfectionism, I’ve come to realize, is not a virtue of a writer but rather an affliction. It leads to doubt in the story being told or in one’s ability to tell it. It leads to boxes full of half-written stories – perfect beginnings without endings. It leads to procrastination and to wonderful tales that exist only in the mind and never on the page. Perhaps worst of all, it leads to time spent in re-writes that should have been spent pushing doggedly ahead to the finish line. All these dire circumstances are based only on the subtle worry that the story somehow won’t be good enough.

But here’s the rub: I don’t believe believe that any story can be perfect, at least not qualitatively. Certainly perfection can be attributed by individual readers, but I don’t think there’s an inherent quality, or an essence of adequacy, contained within the story itself. What is perfection for one reader may be the very definition of failure for another. What offends one reader will amuse another. What entertains one reader will bore another. You can’t write a story that the world will inevitably embrace. All you can do is write something that’s good enough for you, and hope that the world catches on to your vision.

In that doctor’s room – waiting for the results of my wife’s test – perfection fell away. It no longer existed. All that was left was a deep and powerful sense of the unknowable quality of time. I did not know how much longer I would have to spend by her side. In spite of the happy outcome, I still do not know how much longer I will have by her side. No one ever can. I might step outside tomorrow and get hit by bus. All we can do is spend our time wisely, not living in the past or trying to predict the future… and especially not worrying about things.

If you worry about your stories, if you spend all your time trying to perfect just one of them, then I say such concerns are foolish. Put the pen to the paper and write, damn it! Write your impermanent, temporary little heart out. By all means, do your best and set high standards for yourself, but don’t ever let those standards get in the way of moving forward.

Write like there is no tomorrow because, well…
There may not be…

~CGW

On Not Looking Back

November 27, 2009

A couple of days ago I hit the 50,000 word count for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). The story – a horror western set in the Montana territory in 1880 – is barely halfway through, and it’s undeniably first-draft quality. It has characters suddenly appearing without prior setup because I realized they were necessary, several scenes that don’t particularly make sense, and enough cliche to pad a whole Roland Emmerich movie, but that’s okay.

It’s okay because 50,000 words of terrible first-draft is better than no words at all.

Anyone who has participated in NaNoWriMo has probably had the experience of someone asking them what it’s all about. When you explain it most people nod politely, say “cool”, then go away thinking you’re insane, but some folks say exactly what’s on their mind. The conversation often goes something like this:

“NaNoWriMo is where you have to write 50,000 words in a month.”

“Cool, what do you win?”

“Err, Nothing.”

“Then what’s the point?”

Well the point is to spend an intensive month training yourself in the most difficult (and most important) discipline of fiction writing: The fine art of NOT LOOKING BACK.

Some authors might be able to write scene-by-scene, revising and polishing each one as they go, but in my experience such people are about as rare as the Dalai Lama. In the vast majority of cases to stop and look back before you reach the finish line means certain death for the story.

During a first draft, you have to write like the hounds of hell are nipping at your heels. You have to write like that big wall of fire from Independence Day is only ten feet behind you, throwing cars and people around with CGI abandon. You wouldn’t stop and look back in those situations. But what many people don’t realize is when you’re writing a story, there’s something coming along behind you too, and it’s just as dangerous as hell hounds or tidal waves of flame. It’s a huge wall of procrastination and perfectionism, and if you let it catch up with you well, there goes the neighborhood…

My wife (bless her genius little heart) put it very succinctly. She said that writing a story is like giving birth to a baby: You can’t stop to clean up a baby halfway through the birthing process. You just have to push and push and push. What comes out will be ugly and bloody, but then you can clean it up and start to nurture its growth from there.

I can’t stress enough how important coming to understand this concept has been to me. I’ve been an aspiring writer my entire life, and as a younger adult, I completed countless finely-imagined, beautifully-polished single scenes. I have a big box full of them. Any one of them could have been part of a decent story, if it wasn’t for the fact that I killed them by stopping and looking back.

So to all aspiring fiction writers out there, I implore you to participate in NaNoWriMo next November. Because it doesn’t matter how beautiful your prose is, nor how perfect your grammar, nor how unique your characters, nor how well-imagined your scenes. If you don’t learn the fine art of Not Looking Back, you risk forever being a writer of unfinished work.

~CGW