May 12, 2012

How I Turned a Writing Weakness into a Strength - And You Can Too

I used to make up stories all the time when I was a kid, but never progressed beyond the midpoint. Sometimes it was even worse – the stories stayed in my head.

Terrible. Just terrible.

I was blind to the enemies within

Do you know what I was doing?

I was training my brain to give up on things. I was indulging laziness. Setting myself up for a consistent pattern of FAILURE.

No wonder I couldn’t follow through on any self-directed projects. Can you imagine what my greatest weakness was?

The answer may sound familiar to you. My greatest weakness was ambition. I had ambition but no focus and, because I had no focus, I always ended up biting off more than I could chew.

The other albatross around my neck was perfectionism. I wanted to be Joseph Conrad from the very first line. That didn’t work out for me. Don’t suppose it’ll work out for you, either.

Ambition and perfectionism were actually weighing me down.
  •  Because perfection is something to aspire to, not an actual goal
  •  Because Glenn Gould wasn’t born with a piano attached to his little baby fingers
  • Because no novel, song or play appears out of nowhere

Great things have humble beginnings. People kept telling me that and I was stupid enough not to listen.

Even Shakespeare had to plug away until Hamlet was done. Am I better than Shakespeare? No.

So. I kept starting projects I would never finish. And I knew this going in. I started out with a defeatist mindset. How the hell did I survive my self-sabotage?

(First I had to work on my humility, but that is a story for another day.)

The key, I realized, was to give my brain that endorphin rush you only get when you write THE END – metaphorically or literally. And to provide that rush very often. In a consistent way. Oh, if only I had encountered the Cult of Done Manifesto a few years back… and read item #2 on the manifesto, “Accept that everything is a draft. It helps to get it done.”

OK. I had to train my emotional brain to ignore the pain of boredom and get to THE END. But how?

The answer had always been obvious:

start small.

It had been right in front of me the whole time, I just didn’t want to see it.
This wasn’t about being good, it was about training. Baby steps. You’re not born with an endless supply of self-discipline – it takes practice. You have to want it.

So I started by writing poetry. I wrote enough of it to realize that pleasant verse is something I will never be able to write, but I didn’t care while I was in the zone. The best part was, writing thousands of incredibly awful poems taught my brain that it felt good to finish things. To get them done. Completion tasted better than a blueberry muffin straight out of the baker’s oven.

Discarding poetry as a broken toy* I turned my hand to photography. Photography taught me to think narratively but in visual terms. When you move from verbal to visual language you are forced to become intimate with symbols. Yes, forced, and in a strange, unfamiliar way. Making images brought me discipline. I learned to bring my projects to a close. I learned to ship.
*Which I never really did – I just thought so.

But I still had an ugly beast to conquer: Fiction. To be honest, I am still grappling with long-form fiction, still fighting my lazy brain.

THAT’S why I came up with the concept for this blog. I knew I had tons of story-seeds in me begging to come out. I also knew that I was lacking in discipline and must do something about it. Forcing myself to produce regular updates for a blog was the best thing I could have done for my writing.

Guess what? I’ve been writing unique story prompts for more than a year and I intend to continue for a very, very long time. I love writing these prompts so much, I don’t think I’ll ever stop.

I found a way to make my rogue neurons work for me. 
You can do the same.

Now I have a secret to share with you. If you want to excel at anything – and by that I mean “if you want to shine a light so impossibly rich and colorful everyone around you will mistake you for a flock of ten thousand red macaws” – all you have to do is ask one simple question before you start down your path.

And that question is:

Could I live with myself if I didn’t ____________?

Answering this question truthfully will help you find your center. And when you do, you will laugh and cry at the same time. That’s what happened to me.

And then I turned into a macaw.

It took almost 300 people to build the Eiffel Tower.

So when you have too much on your plate, remember:

You are not an army


For the 'inspirational flash cards' up there, I used Museo Slab 500. It's free. 

Before you go -- Don’t forget that we’re discussing xenomorphs tomorrow.

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