Friday, February 11, 2011

finishing the things that matter

Whenever I speak to writers' groups I always mention a couple of things: 1) focus and 2) completion. Although I was in theater for quite a while I can't recall so much loss of focus as seems to occur with writers - after all, the show must go on and you have to be ready for the opening curtain, like it or not. A writer without a deadline can be, well, an Amish buggy without a horse, a Harley without an engine, a vintage Stearman biplane without a prop. Sure, some do okay without a date for completion, but others simply meander through their words and imagination until their drive to get a book written peters out. Or is lost in a maze of distractions from bill payments to family crises to social networking.

When you decide to have a writing day you'd better have it. If you go out beforehand to run errands you're doomed. You run into people, this happens, that happens, so that by the time you sit at your desk to create you find most of your writing energy has dissipated and all your good intentions to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard have gone with the wind (to use a literary allusion).

A friend mentioned that Stephen King, the writer of horror fiction, once expressed something of the same frustration with writers' abilities to find new and extraordinary ways to keep themselves from facing blank paper (or computer screens). Especially once they began to wax eloquent about inspiration and the mysteries of the creative process and how they could not be nailed down to a schedule like other pedestrian pursuits - which usually meant they would not get anything done because God had not divinely breathed a story into them. Enough, he cried. Writing is a job like anything else. Put in your eight hours at the desk, ignore phone calls and distractions outside of nuclear detonations and pandemics (and ignore them too because there's nothing you can do about those things anyway).

Yes, writing is work, not a beach on Maui. It really can be a hard job pulling good ideas and plots and characters out of yourself hour after hour. Quit pretending the divine hasn't spoken. Plenty will happen once you start working and the juices start to flow. Not much will happen until then. Get to work.

The focus happens because you will to not do anything else until you've put in four to six to eight hours or more at your writing. When you take it seriously as a real job, real work, and yes, really important. Until then, the slightest thing can take you away from the task at hand. But if you permitted yourself the same loss of focus and concentration at another job you'd be fired or, if you were flying a 75 million dollar F-35 fighter jet, probably lose your life.

Yes, creation is wonderful and beautiful and holy and mysterious and all that. It is also, like the birth of a child, a great deal of pain and blood and struggle. It's that struggle the writer often shies away from - it can go right to their core and exhaust them. But there's no other way to do it well.

Focus and completion. Every writer has great ideas that never make it into print simply because the work ethic and discipline isn't there to write the ideas and stories down. Writing is seen, perhaps, by themselves and their friends as a hobby, a luxury, a recreation, but not work like office work or management or building bridges or teaching high school students. It's something you do after the important things are done. But this is the wrong attitude. Writing and art and story and creation are critical to our culture and to the planet. Stories, our own stories and the ones we take into us from books, TV, and film, are what drive us. Without a vision the people perish. Writing and stories are not excess baggage or optional or froth. They are a big deal, a huge deal, and it takes hard work to produce them. And guess what? They are just as important or more important than anything else in heaven or earth.

So, if you write, get to it. Enough of having half-finished books clutter your computer desktop, little Word icons that promise much but, when double clicked, offer nothing but chapters that were never completed. Finish something! I don't care if it's 10 pages or 5 pages or a hundred pages - finish something! If creators lived the rest of their lives the way they often fritter time and energy away at writing projects that never get completed they wouldn't have a life. If writing - or painting or acting or dance - or prayer or reading or cultivating relationships - or cleaning a home or preparing a meal or raising a child - if it matters to you enough then treat it as something that matters to you enough. Concentrate. Screen out anything but the most necessary distractions. Put your best into it. Put your all into it. Make up your mind you're not going to be messing around with the same ideas or dreams a year from now. You will write the story by March 15th. You will phone that person to have a serious coffee. You will type the letter to an estranged friend. You will spend the night or morning in prayer on April 7th. You will bring your child to the park on Monday. Take seriously the things that seriously matter. Make plans. Deadlines. And follow through. Once you do this it gives you an enormous feeling of satisfaction and progress. There is nothing like bringing plans to fruition and completion.

So many writers are clogged up with things that never got done, stories that never got told, books in their head that never got past the halfway mark - or 10% mark. It ends up jamming their thoughts and energies and depleting them - just as it would in the rest of their lives if nothing ever got done or completed. But get a few writing projects in print, get a few stories created and finished, and you are talking about a different person. Completion makes them stronger for the next writing task and the process of completing a story makes them a better writer for the next story a well.

Which is true about the rest of life as well. The person who dreams about prayer and what it might accomplish in their souls and the souls of others, but who never dedicates time to doing it, never feels stronger or learns to pray in a way they know is real. The person who dreams about taking the special trip to Italy, but who never focuses on putting the money and time aside will never go, the experience will always remain something in their head, but never anything they can touch.

I'm talking to writers, but obviously to myself and to all of us. We're all creators, aren't we, in different ways? Or we can be. What's necessary is to realize how significant creation is. Once we do that, once we take it as seriously as anything else, and deliberately put the time and effort into it, things happen, ideas take on physical and spiritual shape, dreams morph into the tangible. It's not that hard really.

On the other hand, creation really is hard. Story writing really is hard. But it changes worlds. So get intense and get on with it.

It's quite a life when you bring things full circle.


Anonymous said...

You are so right! Writing changes worlds and makes really bad days turn into really good days of hearing from HIM ;) thank you . . .

Anonymous said...

Thanks Murray, I needed that kick in the pants.

EMP said...

Thank you, MP. This is precisely what I needed to hear today. And I shall share it with someone I'll tell you about when we meet.

with appreciation