All or Nothing

Motivation & Inspiration, Writing Process

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When I think about perfectionism and creative work, the first thing that comes to mind is writer’s block. For most of us, it’s caused by this desire to avoid failure at all costs, which in turn makes it impossible to even get the words on the page. Perfectionism is never being able to finish a project. It’s endless tweaking and a sense of never being satisfied.

For the longest time, I thought that I had beaten back my own perfectionism because I knew how to finish. But perfectionism doesn’t just dictate the final product. It also dictates every step to getting there.

This week I read an article in a financial newsletter that talked about something called “0-100 thinking.” It refers to a type of perfectionism that causes people to have an all or nothing mentality when it comes to their goals. For example, if I set a goal of writing every morning before work but one morning I wake up late and only have twenty minutes to write instead of the hour I’d originally planned for, and this derails me psychologically to the point that I just give up on the endeavor altogether, then I am a 0-100 perfectionist.

Y’all, I am a 0-100 perfectionist and I didn’t realize it until now.

In my twenty-seven years, I’ve experience so many things that have literally beaten into me how unpredictable life is, how little we actually have control over. Teaching has forced me to be flexible, my long-term relationship with my partner has shown me the importance of being able to grow and change. Did I often seek out opportunities to control as many aspects of my life as I could? Absolutely. But did it derail me when things didn’t go exactly as planned? I didn’t think so.

I thought that I had learned how to go with the flow. How to fall on faith. How to take things as they come.

But in my work, I am still struggling with this beast called perfectionism that I thought I had slain long ago.

That example I mentioned earlier? That happened to me Thursday morning.

See, I was on a high last week from DVPit and all of the agents who had requested my full manuscript. It lit a fire under me to make even more progress on the rough draft of the companion novel. Waking up at 5AM to write is not new for me. I often do it at the tail end of projects or when I’m trying to build up momentum. So I decided I would work that extra writing time back into my routine, starting on Monday.

Monday through Wednesday things went really well. I woke up early, got ready, ate breakfast, and had between 45 minutes and an hour to write before heading to work. Then Thursday came around and I accidentally woke up at 4 instead of 5. I couldn’t go back to sleep. I lay there, exhausted.

That exhaustion followed me out of bed, slowing me down every step of my morning routine. My writing time dwindled down to thirty minutes. I was so discouraged I couldn’t even begin.

Then Friday morning I checked my email (which I really shouldn’t have done before getting my writing in) and there was this article all about the 0-100 mindset. I thought about how I’d totally self-sabotaged Thursday morning and then I thought about all of the other times I’ve done the exact same thing.

This 0-100 mindset has robbed me of so much progress. Of so much growth. The very things that may have fortified my confidence and given me the strength to push through my own perfectionism. The perfectionism I didn’t even think was still a problem for me.

But it is a problem. A BIG problem.

Luckily, it’s a problem I actually know how to fix. Not overnight and not all at once. That 0-100 mindset is poison even when we think it’s helping us find solutions. Instead, this is a problem I can only fix twenty minutes, ten minutes, five minutes at a time.

Friday I had exactly twenty minutes to write before work. But instead of saying, screw it, that’s not enough time, I opened up the Word document and dove in. For twenty minutes. I revised four pages of the manuscript. Four pages. That doesn’t sound like a lot but it’s four more pages than I’d done the day before and it’s four pages closer to the end.

That is what’s most important. The End.

If I can’t get there, I can’t do this professionally. But I know I can get there. I have gotten to the end eight times before with eight different novels. The question I have to ask myself now is how. Am I going to get there in weekend binges that may get wiped out by other plans? Am I going to get there by only writing when conditions are absolutely perfect? Or am I going to get there using any means necessary and with whatever time I can find or steal, whether that’s an hour or five minutes?

You can create as many versions of the perfect routine as you want. But there is no such thing. Life will always get in the way. But that doesn’t mean you can’t still do the work. Just like we have to embrace when a story takes an unexpected turn, resulting in something we never saw coming, we must also embrace a “writing routine” that is less routine than we’d hoped.

It’s okay to carve out time to write, to set boundaries, to have goals. But every time we let disappointment drive us off the path, we get farther and farther from our original destination. Whether you have all the time in the world to write or almost none, your identity as a writer does not change, and you can still make meaningful progress towards the things that matter. Telling the stories you long to tell.

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Getting to the End

Writing Process

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I’ve spent the past six weeks cutting over 30,000 words from my restaurant book MS. I changed the antagonist, cut out several characters, and majorly altered one of my MC’s story arcs. But I’d been picking at the last two chapters for several days, trying to figure out how to tie everything together, and nothing felt quite right.

Because the ending I was writing, the one full of hope and triumph and restorative justice was not real.

Specifically, the bad guy getting brought to justice by a working criminal justice system…was bullshit.

I wanted it to be real. I wanted every problem to have a solution. Every thread to be neatly tied up in a bow. But that feeling that was nagging at me, gnawing at me and driving me nuts, was the stronger desire to tell the truth.

This story does end on a hopeful note but it’s not because these characters and this community were rescued by the police or the government or a more powerful “white savior” character. It’s hopeful because, after everything we see these characters go through, all of the pain and injustice and every day prejudice that exhausts the mind, body, and spirit, that beats it down to dust, we also get to see them rise. We see them save themselves and each other.

One of the characters tells my male MC that “resiliency is its own reward.”

It’s not what the MC wants to hear. It’s not what any of us want to hear. We want to hear that when you work hard, when you do the right thing, you have earned the right to happiness, to safety, to the bare basics of a beautiful life in this country. But that is not the truth. And this story does not lie and say that it is.

That is why I love the ending of this book so much more than I loved the previous fifty versions. Because it does not lie. It is heartfelt. It is heroic. But most importantly, it is honest.

Get on the Dang Bus

Writing Process

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I rewrite the first chapter of everything a million times. It is inevitable.

Because it comes first, it is usually garbage. I don’t know the characters well enough yet to know their thoughts and how those thoughts will affect their actions. I usually know what the character wants but I don’t know enough about the obstacles in their way in order to start planting them from the beginning.

At this point I have more questions than answers, which means everything is full of holes. I patch as I go, moving forward and backward, answering questions that lead to answers, which usually lead to more questions.

A few times in the initial drafting process I go back to the beginning and rewrite certain scenes with this knew information. The more things are illuminated, the more I have to go back and weave in those bits of light, which usually illuminates other things I hadn’t realized or thought of and basically the process is never ending.

With my latest WIP, the main character wants to be a musician. More immediately, he wants to audition for a prestigious music school. I have started this scene with him on the bus, anxious as he thinks about what he’s about to do, how he’s about to expose himself, how he might fail. But it didn’t feel urgent enough.

After I got to know him a little better I went back and rewrote the scene so that it starts with him waiting at the bus stop. He’s thinking about the sounds of his neighborhood, how those sounds live inside him. He’s worried what the judges at this fancy music school will think of those sounds. But again, there was no immediacy. The conflict was all in his head. Not out where the reader could see it, taste it, smell it, feel it.

I spent some more time figuring him out. This week I rewrote the first chapter for the third time and I started it in a completely different setting. In the first two versions my main character is just sitting there. I needed him to move. I needed this desire to literally drive him out of his comfort zone. Instead of meeting him in a passive state we find him DJing an eight-year-old’s birthday party, which is running long and possibly keeping him from getting to his audition on time.

We watch him squirm and sweat and try to balance the expectations of his real world with his desire to leave it. To become someone different. To escape his circumstances and change his life. He’s not just thinking about his fears and the possibility of failure. He’s wearing them like a second skin.

It hurts to watch and as he runs six city blocks we ache with hope for him. When he realizes that the bus has left without him, we ache with something else.

This is what matters in a first chapter: How do I make this person’s pain or hope or fear transferrable to the reader? How do I make these feelings leap off the page and hijack the heart of a complete stranger? How do I weave lies so well they are truth? The kind of truth that pricks and stings and reminds us in the best and worst ways that we are alive.

As a writer, that is my job. My only job. Make people feel because when we feel we are aware of our own consciousness, the miracle of our existence. We are reminded that feeling is the point of all of this. That it’s not enough to sit and think and dream and wonder. We have to make moves. We have to wade into the muck for those jewels. We have to put ourselves in situations that make us feel things. Hard things. Hopeful things.

Most importantly, it reminds us that we must be actors in our own lives. We have to stop sitting and waiting for life to arrive. We have to get on the dang bus even if we have to chase it down six city blocks. With every breath and every step, we have to chase this life. Even if we’re wearing our fears like a second skin, the weight slowing us down, we have to chase this life.

When Art imitates Strife

Mental Health, Writing Process

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75,000 words in and this book is finally taking shape. Themes are beginning to emerge and the characters’ thoughts and actions are creating the conflict instead of me just dropping them into unfortunate circumstances. Things are starting to make sense.

A little too much sense.

See, I thought I was writing a story about two teenagers bonding over their love of Antonia La Singla and Diego Vargas; their dead parents and the ghosts they left behind. But it turns out I’m telling a story about what happens when those ghosts get under our skin, when we hold onto them so tightly that they become a part of us in ways we don’t even realize.

It’s a story about overcoming stage fright but it’s also about all of the other fears that hold us back–the fear of loving and being loved, the fear of letting go, the fear of leaping into the unknown.

This book has been such an agonizing slog through time and space and twisted metaphors because how can I get these characters to the other side of fear if I’m still stuck at the starting line myself? Every word is a step we are both taking towards freedom. Sometimes we get lost, we backtrack, we go in a direction that doesn’t make sense.

But the only way out is through.

I have to fight through the mess to make it something new. I have to dig through the muck of my own mind. I have to pull out the weeds. This book might not be a cure or even a sense of closure. But if I keep tilling the soil and praying for rain it might just be a safe place to plant the seeds.

It’s a Book-shaped Thing

Writing Process

I started this manuscript on December 12th, 2017. I have been trying to coax out a story from this mess in my head for over a year. And today, at 7:35 PM I have finally reached 70,000 words. It is finally a book-shaped thing.

Finally.

I wasn’t sure I would ever reach the point when this story started to feel like an actual story instead of a bunch of manic vignettes about two complete strangers who refused to reveal themselves to me no matter how much I bargained or begged. I was so afraid they’d stay strangers forever. That I would never know them and therefore never get to tell their story.

But today, I had a breakthrough. In the same way I’ve been guilty of thinking too small and too narrow and too fearfully about my own life, I was thinking much too small in regards to this story. I thought it was a love story. It’s not just love story. I struggled to see past these characters’ brokenness. There was so much beauty buried underneath.

I’m finally in that creative sweet spot between knowing and surprise and it feels like that place at the mid-point of the fall when the parachute finally opens. It feels like freedom.