Hello and welcome to the 100 Day Writing Challenge, Day 36.
Yesterday I talked about seeing clearly, and we did a little exercise that was a bit like meditation.
And, like meditation, you may have found yourself feeling a bit awkward, or frustrated, or bored, or wondering: is something special supposed to be happening right now? Am I doing this right?
Which is one of the reasons I like it so much as an exercise. It’s five minutes where the music cuts out and you’re left alone with your thoughts – thoughts that are probably with you, to a greater or less extent, during every exercise. Have I understood the instructions properly? If I was better at writing, or more artistic, or more creatively attuned would some magical process be taking place right now? Am I getting this wrong?
And look, I’m not trying to pathologise this thought process. It’s one that takes place when we do pretty much any task. As we progress we periodically check in to evaluate whether the strategy we’ve adopted is working, and if we notice an error we try to adjust our behaviour to improve our performance. Then, once we’ve finished, we look back at how we did, and ask ‘how well did that work?’ And, if we find flaws or defects – which in most tasks we will – we speculate about ways we could do better next time.
If you’ve ever tried drawing a stickman with your eyes closed or singing while wearing headphones you’ll know the importance of accurate feedback to performance. More data is axiomatically better. How well are the behaviours I’ve adopted working in service of the goals I’ve set? If something seems to be going wrong or not working as well as it could, I course correct.
And if you’re, I don’t know, doing some colouring in, you might be making hundreds of these tiny calculations a minute – moving the yellow crayon down and left, oops, here’s the edge of the line, down and left is no good anymore, you want to stop now. Am I pressing too hard? Does this area need me to go back over it a second time? Should I switch colours now? This mostly unconscious chatter of feedback loops, performing, evaluating, adjusting, testing the new behaviour, evaluating, adjusting, over and over.
You can get the same thing doing a puzzle, stacking dominoes, sorting socks into pairs. None of which, by the way, we associate with stress or self-criticism. They’re generally considered pleasant, meditative tasks. I suspect this is why I’ve found myself drawn to rather dry, mathsy boardgames in recent years. The boredom is kind of the point. Competing to see who can supply Germany with the most efficient energy infrastructure is a very low-stakes process, there are clear economic systems with numbers you can plug into them, tactical bits you can pick up and move around and a very definite measure in terms of points of how well you’re doing.
Creative writing, a lot of the time, has none of that. When you sit down at your laptop or with your notebook, you could write about anything. The amount of time you need to spend is elastic and self-determined. Feedback on how well you’re performing is ambiguous, limited and highly contingent on decisions you have yet to make, and previous decisions that are locked in place unless you actively return to them and alter them. Also, if you’re writing a novel, you might not be able to remember with any degree of accuracy how well you performed in previous sections. So you’re operating off this vague heuristic – I think the first couple of chapters are ok? Or… bad? Who knows?
So a long term, challenging task which provides ambiguous, low-quality feedback both during and after. From the profile alone any motivational psychologist could tell you that creative writing is likely to be difficult and anxiogenic. You know in the old cosy murder mysteries where the train rattles through a tunnel and everything goes dark, and when the lights come back on someone’s been stabbed with a turkey knife? Well, writing is like travelling through a series of miles-long tunnels with only brief flashes of light in-between, and you have no way of knowing whether you’re going to look out the window and glimpse rolling trans-Siberian vistas or the final few feet of track and all your fellow passengers slumped into their chateaubriands.
Part of what you’re doing, with this series of exercises, is exposure therapy. You’re building up your tolerance to the darkness and ambiguity that descends when we embark on a big writing project. Some of your confidence will come from developing tangible skills and tactics so you have reasonable faith that this is a domain in which you’re proficient. Some of it, as we move on, will come from your growing competence in editing and redrafting – in knowing that you don’t have to get everything right on the first pass (and, in fact, you never will) and that you have some moves you can apply later on, when you return to a piece of writing.
And some of it, hopefully, will come from appreciating writing more as a process – one that’s intrinsically worthwhile in and of itself – and not as a referendum on your right to exist as a human being. Trust me, you will never write a book so good that all your doubt evaporates. Because if and when you do, it will immediately be something that happened in the past, written by past you, someone with different experiences writing under different circumstances. Doesn’t help the you in the present, who needs – not a set of medals pinned to your chest proving that yes, well done, you’re a decorated capital A Author who deserves to be here, but an attitude of open curiosity, a hunger for growth, and a bit of mischief.
Speaking of which, we’d better write something, hadn’t we? Sorry, I really could talk about the psychology of writing all day, the mindset, the meaning, yay, even, whisper it, the spirituality of writing. Because if we’re going to give a significant portion of our finite lives to it, it had better mean something, right? It had better be giving us something back in return. Be a shame to get to the end of all this and realise, oh, I really ought to have spent all that time hugging the people I love or making novelty clocks or repenting my sins, wouldn’t it?
So in the session before yesterday we talked about seeing clearly, but there isn’t really any one truth for us to see clearly, and indeed narrators who are absolutely convinced their perception of the world is the right one are the most likely to be unreliable. So what’s the alternative?
Well, one option is to return to our alternative uses test. Which is really just an exercise in different ways of seeing the same object. You know? What could this object be? To whom?
Today you’re going to do some lightning round writing, some flash fiction, a series of quick scenes, maybe just two or three sentences each. And each scene, each moment, is going to contain your object from yesterday. We’re going to call it ‘5 Ways of Looking at a…’ and then whatever the name of your object is: ‘5 Ways of Looking at a Legend of Zelda mug’, ‘5 Ways of Looking at a Pill Spacer’, ‘5 Ways of Looking at a copy of the DSM-5’ to give you an idea of the rather eclectic mix of items on my desk right now.
So for each one I want you to write just two or three lines, as if it was a little snippet from a larger story, featuring the item. You might have a character encountering it, it might be described by a first-person narrator, you might just be describing what and where it is. The purpose is to give the item a context, an environment, and a tone. We’re taking this neutral thing, and we’re imputing different meanings onto it.
For example, with the Zelda mug I might end up writing: ‘Caspar sifted through the rubble. Amongst grey ash that stuck to his palms in warm, damp flakes, he found a mug, the handle missing but otherwise intact. Still hot from the flames.’ Or perhaps ‘She pours herself a peppermint tea and watches as the colour-changing panels fill from the bottom up with images of Link in heroic poses. Strange how something so simple feels so comforting.’ Or ‘The mug hurtled across the room and shattered against the door. “Don’t break the circle!” cried Reverend Lotzinger, and I felt his sweaty grip tighten on mine, half-crushing my fingers. The light above us began to flicker.’
Or whatever. Don’t worry about quality. Just jump between some quick scenes where your object has an incidental role. I’ve said ‘5 Ways’ and I considered putting a bell every two minutes to help space your writing but actually the number is irrelevant. If you end up spending all your time on one, that’s fine, if you do ten really quickly, that’s fine too.
Does that make sense? I sure hope so.
Right. You have ten minutes. Get ready. Three… two… one… go.
And that’s it. I hope that was useful. This is us sort of screwdrivering open the paint tin on diving deeper into ways of seeing. We’re not really working through modules on this 100 days. We won’t be hopping from one discrete topic to another, because everything feeds into and enhances everything else, but you’ll certainly feel our emphasis shifting, and occasions where we return to something we’ve touched on earlier, armed with our new knowledge, to see if we can reintegrate.
Right. Thanks for bearing with me. We’ll do more tomorrow.