I’m just going to keep going with this series of posts inspired by Henry Miller’s Eleven Commandments of Writing. If you haven’t been with me from the beginning, or want a second (or third) look at the full list of commandments, you can click back to the first post here.
This week, we get to the third of eleven commandments, in which we are cautioned . . .
3. Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.
I’ve covered this before, in various forms.
In particular, I exhorted you to Write in Ecstasy, Edit With Intent, and to joyously, recklessly approach every new novel project as a short, bad book. But I don’t think I’ve ever addressed this idea of being “nervous.”
Writing a book can be scary proposition, which is what Dani Shapiro was hoping to help us with when, in her book Still Writing, she described this idea of starting out with the goal of writing a short, bad book. It takes some of that nervousness away.
Building on that is a concept you can find in all sorts of pursuits, and that’s breaking a big project up into smaller pieces, each less intimidating than the whole, and stressing those smaller, shorter-term goals over the bigger, longer term whole they’ll eventually make up. It’s pretty much the heart of Agile and Scrum project management, breaking down big software projects into “stories.” Self-help guru Tony Robbins refers to it as “chunking”—breaking down big tasks into smaller, less intimidating chunks. You don’t have to write the book today, just Chapter 1, or any thousand words, or whatever sized “chunk” works for you. Then you take on the next chunk. And as I’ve said before, you don’t even have to write those chunks in order.
When one chunk is “done” in rough form (don’t worry about pesky details like spelling, grammar, manuscript format, quality . . .) move on to the next short, bad chunk. Keep doing that, one chunk at a time, until you get the whole story told—in it’s rough form. With that rough draft in hand, you can then begin revising, more slowly, more carefully—but you can’t edit text that doesn’t exist. First, get it down on paper (or, y’know, in your computer . . . you know what I mean).
That concept of breaking big tasks into a series of smaller tasks has always helped me overcome the nervousness of facing down the daunting task of a 90,000 word novel. It can be a good reason to outline, for you nervous “pantsers” out there. An outline can help you delineate the “chunks.”
But the act of writing—typing, writing by hand, dictating, etc.—the actual words might not be what’s making you nervous. It isn’t always what makes me nervous.
I keep having trouble making progress on what’s become kind of a perpetual work-in-progress because I’m nervous about the story itself. I have doubts. Is there any action in it? Is my big surprise ending just awful? It might be really predictable, and it might feel like a cheat. I’ve written part of that ending already and I like it . . . ish. It seems to work, but then there’s no way to know for sure until I’ve written the huge story that leads into it. I’m also nervous that the whole idea is too passive, that it puts my hero on an impossible quest he isn’t actually equipped to do, and some earlier version of the outline did have him being more or less pushed along by other characters, which does tend to make for a disappointing hero . . . But then I saw that and had some interesting ideas to lessen it, to make him more active. That’s a good thing, right? But now I’m nervous about that. What else is wrong with this idea that I just haven’t noticed yet?
I’m nervous as hell, actually, and that might explain why I’ve been spending more writing time on little flash fiction pieces and poems than this novel.
But as nervous as I am about specifics, as often as I’ve written some version of an outline, I actually think I have this book in my head. I have the mood of it. I have a way around the passive hero disease. I think the ending will work, and not because it’s some kind of gimmicky M. Night Shyamalan thing, but because it’s the right emotional close point and has something to say. So what’s wrong?
Now I think maybe I just have residual nervousness—some kind of post-nervous stress disorder.
Maybe this is why Henry Miller drank.
Alcoholism is about the last thing I need in my life right now, thanks, so how do we do this sober? How about I do the same thing I advise authors I work with to do. After all, I have been challenging myself to take my own advice, to try my own exercises. What I’d tell an author I’m working with as an editor is:
Just write it.
Write the damn thing.
If the hero is still passive when I’m done with the rough draft I’ll revise him to be more active. If in the rough draft the ending lands with a thud I’ll revise it so it ends with a bang. I’m not live-broadcasting here. I don’t have to show the thing to anyone until I’m happy with it.
Once I get going I know I can write joyously, especially by hand in one of my trusty cheapass notebooks. I wrote a few scenes of that novel already and it was joyous. I was calm. I didn’t care if any particular word was spelled wrong. I recklessly wrote scenes way out of order and only pieces of chapters. And that’s me writing. The nervousness only happens when I’m not writing, when I let other projects and just other things in life intrude on my precious writing time. Maybe “nervousness” is an excuse for not making time to work on the thing.
Hell, I feel better already.
And taking another look at the rest of Henry Miller’s commandments, they all seem to hang on this one idea: Write the damn thing. This thing. Now.
For my revised list of commandments, I’m going to fall back on this:
3. Write in ecstasy, edit with intent.
I think that about covers it.