Friday, February 28, 2014

PSA: Write Stuff You Like

Common Writing Advice:
"Writing is work." 
"You have to treat it as a craft, not as an art." 
"You must write even if you don't feel like it."

All true if you ever want to finish anything. For a while, I had "finish what you start" as my motto, and I still consider it important to be able to sit down and work through something you're not excited about. Moderating yourself is the cornerstone of the 20-mile march, which has helped me attain any success I may have.
"Quiet minds cannot be perplexed or frightened but go on in fortune or misfortune at their own private pace, like a clock during a thunderstorm" - Robert Louis Stevenson

Or, in a more colloquial phrasing, "keep calm and carry on."

However, passion and engagement do, in fact, matter--why bother writing if it doesn't interest you?

I'm going to quote Paul Graham extensively here:
One of the most dangerous illusions you get from school is the idea that doing great things requires a lot of discipline. Most subjects are taught in such a boring way that it's only by discipline that you can flog yourself through them. So I was surprised when, early in college, I read a quote by Wittgenstein saying that he had no self-discipline and had never been able to deny himself anything, not even a cup of coffee.

Now I know a number of people who do great work, and it's the same with all of them. They have little discipline. They're all terrible procrastinators and find it almost impossible to make themselves do anything they're not interested in. One still hasn't sent out his half of the thank-you notes from his wedding, four years ago. Another has 26,000 emails in her inbox.

I'm not saying you can get away with zero self-discipline. You probably need about the amount you need to go running. I'm often reluctant to go running, but once I do, I enjoy it. And if I don't run for several days, I feel ill. It's the same with people who do great things. They know they'll feel bad if they don't work, and they have enough discipline to get themselves to their desks to start working. But once they get started, interest takes over, and discipline is no longer necessary.

Do you think Shakespeare was gritting his teeth and diligently trying to write Great Literature? Of course not. He was having fun. That's why he's so good.


I'm issuing this PSA for my own sake as well. Lately, evening engagements have prevented me from working on UM as much as I want to, and it worries me because I've finally overcome static friction and the plot has begun to move. I need to maintain active engagement with the story so that I can come back to my plotting work after a couple of days gone and still work productively.

Notice how many times I use the word "work" in that previous paragraph. No, I'm not eschewing the idea that writing is work, that you have to work at it to get better. As my Lit teacher said (about the 10-page Crime and Punishment essay that we're writing), "Of course it requires effort. You've never thought these thoughts before."

He also said that you know you're doing valuable work when you're scared that you're going to look stupid and that you maybe aren't smart enough. This doesn't conflict with the Graham quote above. You can have lots of fun working through something challenging and rewarding. I've felt it, mostly when learning something new and trying to piece together how it all works (Italian grammar, coding).

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But there is a purer element of fun. The effortless, playful, pure-invention type, which can't seem to last much longer than the first third of any project. Even reading, I often find that the first few chapters of a book give a richer sense of possibility and imagination (though this is usually wise, if the subsequent acts present a compelling story).

Recently, I made my first excursion into sci-fi...in responding to a prompt for a scholarship application. The UCLA alumni association scholarship application (due today, btw) has two prompts, and the second is: "You've just written a 200-page autobiography. Send us page 165."

My first draft ended up topping 2000 words. I may post it here someday--after all college admissions business has settled down, to avoid any conflicts of interest--because I actually really like the piece. Writing it was fun. Minimal research, only what's needed to proceed to the next part of the story...letting your brain go crazy with the details that indicate a difference from the real world...I am usually terrible at imagery and invoking a world, but for the hours that I worked on that first draft I was in Lagos, Nigeria in 2056, watching amphibious ships crawling along the shore, walking along bridges high in the air.

Something else that I've been missing--overt fantasy elements, like dragons. Especially dragons. I've got some indulgence pieces that I work on here and there, rife with primordial forests and mountains and towers and wings.

My first obligation is to UM, the story to which I've committed, whose plot I am stress-testing because I want something to come of this. You probably also have a main story you're working on right now. But, periodically, let's ask ourselves, is there something I really want to write? Something burning a hole in my brain, that hungers to be put into words? Then write it.

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Imagine a graph with two axes. The x-axis: need to do -- don't need to do. The y-axis: fun -- not fun. Got that clear? In the upper left is where the main story, ideally, goes: (need to do, fun). Sometimes it may drift downward to (need to do, not-so-fun).

Spend most of your writing time left of the origin, on what you need to do. Avoid the lower right corner (don't need to do, not fun) as much as possible. But don't forget that upper right corner--that (don't need to do, fun).

Write stuff you like. Drive safely. Drink eight glasses of water a day. Be good.

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