Storming The Wrong Dungeon

If you’ve ever spent time on other blogs belonging to authors, whether multi-bestsellers or newbies or people who don’t write original fiction, you’ll be familiar with this idea.  I think it happens to all of us who write which, by the way, is incredibly comforting.  There’s not much worse than working alone in your head and wondering if your struggles are unique because you are just that unlucky.

I mean, they MIGHT be unique anyway.  Some of us really are just that unlucky.

But writing the wrong novel happens to us all, apparently.

And now I shall liken the work of an author to a D&D encounter.

Writing a story is like storming a fortress or a dungeon to kill a monster inside.  You have to prepare yourself, have all your tools ready and be in good health, physically and mentally.  Sometimes the hardest part is crashing the gate, making the first move, entering into the fight knowing that it won’t be over any time soon; and the fight itself gets harder once you’re inside, though the motivation to keep going gets easier when there’s no turning back.  But the dungeon has its own dangers, too — you can’t just bust down the door and expect an easy stroll to the end.  You have to know the lay of the land, the pitfalls and traps and distractions and false passages so you can stay on course.  You have to battle a hundred tiny things, or medium things, or huge things, just to get from one room to the next.

There comes a point when you want to give up and go home.  For me, that point often happens twice, at the 1/3rd mark and again later at the 3/4ths mark.  You get through the door and into the first floor and run into your first miniboss and…suddenly something in you starts to debate the merit of giving up.  But when you fight on, when you beat the entry-level problem, you feel better than ever and slam open the next door to keep going.  And sooner or later you’ll hit another miniboss much bigger than the first, and much more daunting.  It would be easier at that point to give up and retreat while you can.  Maybe come back someday and hope the monsters are all gone.

But they won’t be.  That’s not how monsters work.

So you shore up your courage and charge and, hopefully, emerge with another win.  And this victory is sweeter than the first because now you know there’s nothing between you and the end, the final monster, the big boss.  The scariest part of all.  And everything you’ve encountered and learned until this point becomes relevant.  The item you picked up in the first room comes in handy or spontaneously tears into you and you have to figure out how to use it or get rid of it before the final monster stomps you flat.  Even exhausted and wounded and low on supplies, you have to fight or accept that you came all this way for nothing.  You have to fight because the monster is RIGHT THERE and this was the point all along, wasn’t it?

So you fight.  And it might be ugly or it might be a cutscene of beauty, but you win.  You kill the monster and victory is yours.  The story is written.

(To continue this analogy, the editing process is very like trying to get out of the dungeon once you’ve beaten the big boss.  You still have to backtrack every place you’ve been, and sometimes you find whole sections you missed, hordes of monsters you woke up who have come to see what all the racket is about who want to end your journey before you ever make it back to the gates.  And sometimes the monsters you defeated aren’t quite dead and you have to handle them again.  But if you stick with it, even if you have to go the long way around, or even if you find out you have a whole additional big boss to fight before you can truly proclaim victory and escape.)

Sometimes you don’t get a say in which fortress you crash– either because you take contracts for specific jobs or because, frankly, a particular dungeon calls to you and you can’t and/or don’t bother to resist its siren song.  Sometimes you stomp around the forest for weeks looking for any damn tower to go invade.

And sometimes you get through the gates of one to realize that you are TOTALLY unequipped for what this particular dungeon will require.  And, really, discretion is the better part of valor — if you don’t want to end up resembling Adventurer Kitten-Chow, maybe you should back off, go find a fortress that fits your current state, and come back later.

That’s the story of me and the month of January.

As of right now, my overall average words-per-day production hovers around 1,720.  That’s including everything back to 2004, counting whole years where I didn’t produce anything, and counting the crazy 2-month period where I cranked out 100,000 words and about 4 oneshots.  Generally speaking, I can write a hell of a lot in a day when I set my mind to it.

But so far this January, up until yesterday, I was writing BUPKIS.  I was averaging no better than about 300 words in a day and producing those was like wringing blood from my feet.  It wasn’t lack of ideas — the project I had chosen to write had already been fully outlined, researched, and I even had most of my jokes in mind; I was truly only lacking for writing it all down.

But I just couldn’t do it.  All things being optimal and arranged for full productivity, and I could barely stand to type.

I kept trying to force it anyway, long after I figured out the root of the problem, partially because I’m stubborn and partially because sometimes that works out — sometimes I find I really can push through whatever mire has entrapped my creativity and can produce quality work even when it would be easier to extract each individual alveoli from my lungs with tweezers.

Sometimes it is a fortress for which I am genuinely not prepared, but I can go ahead anyway and pick up what I need along the way and be better for it.

If it is depression, a normal bipolar downswing which is impeding me, there are tricks that I have developed for myself to work in spite of the lack of innate energy in my mind.  If it is stress, I can turn to music, meditate for 5 minutes, and find my head cleared enough to proceed with work.  If it is lack of inspiration, well, then I saddle up and go hunting for the muse because it is NOT up to her when I write.

But this was not any of those things.

Or, rather, it was a combination of all three and more besides.

This time, it was a dungeon I genuinely was not going to defeat.

For reasons having to do with everything from the state of the world, ongoing political uncertainty, the freaking dreary winter, to no small amount of personal anxiety, my head and my story were simply not in the same place anymore.  The story I wanted to write is about betrayal, about entitlement, about guilt and regret and shame.  And those things were picking too close to everything else in my head.

I was a fire mage trying to beat a water dungeon and I was mostly just getting wet and cold and frustrated.

I couldn’t think about the story without thinking about everything else.  Which meant that the story I wanted to write was edging closer to the real world, and therefore it was losing its autonomy.  I would have done better if I were trying to write something that was directly parallel to what I was dealing with, or totally the opposite; either one would have gone better and allowed me to gain separation so I could focus on the story and not life.  My whole head was clogged up with a story that didn’t want to be written and an emotional/mental state that needed to be working on anything else at all, and they mashed up together as a giant knot of non-productivity.

Yesterday, when I finally admitted that, YES, this was the problem, and, NO, I wasn’t going to be able to deal with it this time, I abandoned the project that had barely progressed and opened the first chapter of a new one.  In about an hour I wrote more than I had in the previous week or more.

I went out and found a fortress of wind which could only make me stronger and I blew the gates open in one try.

I’ve had to teach myself that there’s nothing wrong with realizing that I’m going down the wrong path as long as I correct course.  I’m hard on myself when I feel like I screw things up, when I feel like I should have known better and gotten it right the first time.  But this isn’t a thing for which I should feel I’m at fault.  There is no fault.  There’s just a strategic retreat and locating a different avenue.

You’d think after 21 novels and 2.3 million words I’d be better at picking my fights.  I’d be able to assess my status and go “Eh, not up to that dungeon today.”  But, well.  Nobody’s perfect.

And, truthfully, sometimes you have to fight the wrong fight to figure out why it was wrong — or why it was right.

For example, I was most of the way through this blog post and I went, “Duh! I should do this as ‘your princess is in another castle’ instead of the D&D thing!”  And I thought about it.  And ultimately said, “Nope!”

Why?

Because the analogy of the princess is more like getting published after you slay the final monster.  You do all this work, kick all this butt, and you are rewarded with gold or a hug or whatever; personally, I’d hold out for knighthood; being a knight would RULE.  But the thing is that you can’t and shouldn’t assume there’s a princess in every fortress or dungeon waiting to reward you.  99.9% of the time, there isn’t anything at all at the end but the corpse of the final monster.  You have to charge into that fight for the sake of the fight itself and nothing else.  You take on a dungeon for the experience of battling monsters and winning.  That’s what makes you such a badass adventurer.

In this case, my analogy was right all along.  I went down a path, questioned it, and had to figure out why it was right along the way.  Just like I went down the wrong path with the story that would not go until I figured out that I was in the wrong place.

And I’m not sorry I lost most of the month in the wrong dungeon, not sorry I fought it and had to retreat.  Because it’ll be there when I’m ready, when I’m better equipped, when that fight needs fighting.  Plus, I’ve got this whole new fortress to tear apart and enjoy every moment doing it.  I spent most of the month in the wrong place, but now I’m exactly where I need to be and those monsters are going DOWN.

Roll your initiative.  Let’s get to work.

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Mashups!

Well, I was going to write something more substantive this week, but I’ve been battling the cold from hell for days and my creativity is dwelling somewhere between ‘nonexistent’ and ‘oh fuck no.’

So instead, I invite you to check out DJ Earworm!

Basically, this awesome and very talented person puts together incredibly intricate mashups of popular songs.  The United State of Pop has been an annual remix collection of the top 25 songs of the year going back to 2007.  Every one of them is worth watching.  Then there are the specials, the summer editions, and the thematic mashups.

Have you ever wanted to hear the Beatles, Diana Ross, U2, and Mariah Carey together?  Here you go!

What about a tribute to Annie Lennox?  Got it!

I pretty much listen to all of them as often as humanly possible until I can sing along.

There’s something for everyone and these tunes WILL get in your head.  He’s not called DJ Earworm for nothing!

Enjoy!

(And hopefully next week I’ll have something more to say.  And less of a fever when I say it…)

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One Thing

Welcome to 2017!

I don’t do New Year’s resolutions.  It seems to me that if you’re going to do something, DO IT.  Don’t promise it for a year.  Decide and go.

So my 2017 goal is the same as my 2016, my 2015, all the way back to the fog of…whenever I started thinking about it, I guess.

To follow, unflinchingly, my version of what a slightly-cheesy 90’s movie so aptly sums up as the One Thing.

There’s a movie I used to watch with my parents a lot, and probably before I was old enough to really be comfortable with all its subject matter (hooray for discussing issues of adultery and the male gaze at age 12!).  But it’s one of those things where 80% of the movie was about something fun and meaningful and 20% was about something even more meaningful if entirely opaque to a kid.  It’s not a *great* movie by any means, but it was important.

Because City Slickers taught me about the One Thing.

(Spoilers for the movie from here on out, just in case)

Basic synopsis for those not willing to Google: 3 friends in their late 30’s take their vacation on a cattle drive where everything goes wrong and ultimately figure out how to return to their lives and live them with enthusiasm.  Billy Crystal is the main character, backed up by Bruno Kirby and Daniel Stern, and the three of them are challenged, threatened, terrified, and finally inspired by an old cowboy played beautifully by Jack Palance.  They get saddle sores, they rope cattle, they ride badly and then less badly, and they face down the vapidness in themselves to find something worth bringing home.

There’s a scene that takes place between Billy Crystal’s character Mitch and Jack Palance’s cowboy Curly when the two of them are out on their own before they catch up to the rest of the herd and its hapless vacationers.  Mitch is wound tight and is on the brink of despair in his life and Curly, in a moment of insight, just shakes his head at him.

Curly: You city folk worry about a lot of shit…  Y’all come up here about the same age.  Same problems.  Spend about fifty weeks a year gettin’ knots in your rope.  Then you think two weeks up here’ll untie ‘em for you.  None of you get it.
[pause]
Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is?  [points index finger skyward]  This.
Mitch: Your finger?
Curly: One thing.  Just one thing.  You stick to that and everything else don’t mean shit.
Mitch: That’s great but, what is the “one thing?”
Curly: [smiles and points his finger at Mitch]  That’s what you gotta figure out.

 

By the end of the movie, Mitch figures out that his One Thing is his family, his wife and kids, that they are what he is living for and what gives him reason to breathe.  That they make him his best self and give him back his smile.

It’s a noble place to plant your flag, but there’s a problem with that choice — he’s set his sail to a star that will fade.  He ends the movie triumphantly happy, with no note of what is to come.  But someday, just as he says rather despondently at the beginning of the film, his life won’t look like it does when he is 39.  Someday his kids will grow up, leave home, and maybe not be the people he hoped for.  Someday maybe he will be a widower, or his marriage won’t be what makes him happy.

Mitch designates his One Thing at a single point in time — and the only way that works is either if his family literally never changes from how they are right now, or  if he is willing to adjust its definition as life frays his current reality into the future.

On the other hand, that is enough for some people.  How many people want to become something, like a doctor, a grandparent, a *success* however you define it?  How many people, mainly women, unfortunately, claim that their wedding day is the best day of their life?  Or that high school, or college, or one free summer is the best time in a person’s life?

It seems to work for lots of people.  But it never worked for me.  How could it?

That mentality means that you’ve hit your peak before you’re even partway into your potential lifespan.  Does that mean you are condemned to nothing but disappointment from then on?  Like, yay, I lived everything worth living before I was 25?  I’d rather not.

Time happens.  Life happens.  And it changes.  The people we love and live for might not always be there.  The success or job we set our hopes on may change, or fade, or turn out not what we wanted after all.

It always seemed to me that if you set your One Thing on shifting sands, someday it will fall.

Ultimately, I think a safer One Thing is one that isn’t tied to circumstances but rather movement or perspective.  If a person decides to walk the path of a religion, or a philosophy, no matter who comes or goes from their life, they will have their dedication and their beliefs and ideas to lead them on.  There’s an argument to be made for ‘what if your philosophy changes?’ which I think means that you might end up with another One Thing to find and follow eventually.  But overall?  A One Thing which isn’t a *thing* and is instead a path has a better chance of staying with you while you walk through the changing, unexpected years of messy, real life.

My One Thing isn’t a goal.  It’s a trajectory.  It’s not pointing at the fence, Babe Ruth-style, and hitting the single shot I called.  It’s choosing a spot on the horizon and heading for it, unflinchingly, without stopping.  For me, my One Thing could never be a single state of being, nor a single achievement.  My One Thing had to be a journey, the arc of an arrow shot through the sky — not its landing at the end.

It’s true that there are people I love with deep and abiding affection, people I would die and live for.  There are people who are my friends and family without whom my world would become cold and ash and empty.  And I do live for them.  They are my foundation.

But they can’t and shouldn’t be my One Thing because my One Thing must sit deeper than that.  Before I can be a friend or sister or wife or aunt or anything else, I have to be myself.

So my One Thing is to become the version of myself I want the most — from that comes everything else.  If I am the self that burns inside, the self I have chosen, then I can be an artist.  I can be a wife and friend.  I can be a citizen of the world.  I can be a defender and a refuge.  I can be a home.

And the truth is that this One Thing actually did unknot my rope, as it was.  Because making that one choice, following that one star I found to be my Polaris, had consequences.  To follow it, to stay on the path forward, I had to let other things go.  I had to BECOME other things.  And every step towards my one point on the horizon brought me closer to everything I wanted — and farther from everything keeping me from it.

Everybody’s One Thing is different.  But mine, for my own reasons, has to live within me.  It’s the one thing that is utterly constant, with me at every breath.  And it means I never have to face resenting pinning my life to One Thing that turns out to be transient.  It means there is no crisis of faith to be had, because I am still alive in myself.

And if I’m not, well, I’ve got bigger problems than a loss of direction.

So my goal for 2017?  To keep following my inner star over whatever lands await me.  To live my One Thing which gives me the power and clarity to be the person I want to give to the people who matter, the art that matters, the world that matters.  To be the soul which is only mine — and to help it shine in the world alongside my 6 billion neighbors.

When I am honestly myself, bruised and proud, running between some mix of integrity and disaster, that’s when my rope unknots and everything else really don’t mean shit.

That’s when I get to be myself for everyone who needs me.

That’s when the noise of the world goes quiet and all that’s left is what I put into it.

Thanks for the advice, Curly.

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