MW Cook

An illiterate scribe

Category: writing

Koheleth on Finding Something for My Hand to Do

There are Many Things I’d like to write about today. And most of them are rather large.

I’m writing an epic fantasy trilogy about faith, love, and zombies.
I’m writing a sci-fi novel about interstellar wormholes and MMO empires.
I’m writing a novella about a girl growing up in a place that hates what she is.
I’m writing a short story about subterranean Olympians.

Dore_Solomon_ProverbsWith Many Things comes Choice. And Choice asks me, “What do you feel like writing?”

It’s a devilish question. I can’t figure out what I’d like to do. Every moment of my life I have fleshy urges that push me in one direction or pull me from another. When I ask that question during writing-time, it does little more than distract.

Then I remember what Koheleth said about it:

“Whatever your hand finds to do with your might, do it.”

That reminds me that whatever I find to do, I might as well do it. But there’s another way to translate that line:

“Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.”

That reminds me to see whatever it is trough to the end. And the conclusion reminds me of the stakes:

“Because there is no working or planning or knowledge or wisdom in the grave to which you are going.”

One day I won’t exist, like I didn’t before I was born. So I might as well do something, and do it well, while I have the chance.

Writing Mantras #1

I love mantras.  Not (just) those ancient words and sounds used in meditation, but the slogans or sayings that remind me of important things.  I used to paste them up on my wall at college in a valiant effort to get out of bed early and win life.  They’re handy little ways of fighting resistance and keeping myself on the path I want to walk.  Here’s an awesome writing mantra for you:

One step at a time.

Pretty simple, eh?  You’d be tempted to throw it out because it’s so simple and boring.  Heck, it’s so boring that you can’t even cite who said it first.  Everyone says it.  But it’s one of few concepts that has truly had a measurable impact on my writing, my family, and my life in general.

I’ve got a great imagination, and that lets me feel how huge a huge project is.  So when I sit down to write a 180,000 word novel, I can feel the weight of its impossibility.  And then I think about the necessary sequel.  And what after that?  Holy crap what am I doing?  This is too big!  I’m not up to this at all!

But a little work every day gets the work done.  One scene at a time.  One step forward every day.  I don’t need to feel 180,000 words on my back.  I’ll deal with 500 at a time.  At 500 words a way, the novel is finished in a year.  It works with pretty much everything, too.  I don’t think about raising my kids to be heros, I think about playing with them and being their hero today.  I don’t think about publishing and getting rich and famous, I think about getting this one scene done tonight.

One step at a time.  The best part is, it’s the only way to do anything anyway.

Ira Glass on Work

“What nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish someone had told this to me . . . is that all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, and it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not.

But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story.

It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

– Ira Glass

I found this neat little passage ages ago, back when I was in the quote-hunting stage of my writing journey.

You know that stage, right? It’s when want to do something, but the actual doing of it is hard, so you read books on doing it and search for quotes on doing it and you print them out and post them on your walls desperately hoping that they’ll make your work easier.

They never do make the work easier, at least not two times in a row. But a few nuggets of wisdom can be gleaned from that phase. These words have stuck with me and continue to stick with me.

I don’t know if you noticed, but I took a rather long break from blogging. I thought I was too busy. I’m going to school now, working full time, writing a book, preaching. Lots of stuff going on. I figured that blogging was, at best, a distraction.

Strangely, when I stopped blogging, my writing started to suffer. And the writing is so important to me that the other parts of my life started to suffer with it. I grew less focused on school and preaching and felt like I did not perform as well as I could have.

Because the blogging was not really a distraction. It was the bull-pen. It was warm up. Practice.

What kind of athlete would you be if you only played when there was a game? A frustrated, crappy athlete.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m going to start blogging regularly again. Maybe I will. Maybe not. But I’ve remembered that the only way to get better at something is to do it a thousand times. And if I’m only writing when I’m writing my book, it’s like I’m only showing up for games and skipping practice. And that’s just dumb.

Fear and Breaks

I was thinking about taking a break from my book.

This is my third novel. The first one was practice. The second one was supposed to be a stand-alone fantasy. Then it got away from me. It crept toward 200k words and, as I was ending it, I realized it wasn’t ending. My book had turned itself into a series without my permission.

That scared me. I didn’t think I was ready to write a series. To go from practice to epic fantasy series in one book … terrifying. And the fear weighed on me. Hard. I felt like I needed to take a break. Needed to take some time out for, I dunno, training or something. I felt like I needed to stop writing the book and maybe do some blogging or write some poems. Or maybe throw together that cute sci-fi novella I have been thinking about. Or, since NaNoWriMo is nearly here, write up a crappy novel just so I could say I did it.

I was about to do it. I had basically decided on my way to work last night. I was going to walk away. Part of me silently wondered if I’d ever return.

Then I started asking myself what I still needed to do with this novel I’m working on. It’s already pretty big. More than 100k so far. What still needs doing?

I drew up a list.

There were four items on the list.

That couldn’t be right, I thought. It’s huge. It’s insurmountable. It’s terrifying. How could there only be four things left to do? Why do I feel so overwhelmed?

Maybe, just maybe, because fear is a dirty liar.

Maybe because fear whispers insidious words into the secret places of my mind. And those secret places spread the news: You cannot do this! And that news flows through my consciousness, taking away confidence. And they travel through my body, sucking out energy. And the words grasp at my heart, making me question my identity, my abilities.

Fear.

I’m not going to take a break. I’ve taken them before and I know what kind of damage they cause. Just like you never really hate your job until you return from vacation.

I’m a writer. It doesn’t matter that I’ve only written two books. It doesn’t matter that I’ve never made a cent from my words. I’m a writer because I write. I’m a writer because I choose to be one. And I have no need for breaks.

You know why they call them breaks?

They break things.

Writing Foreplay

No, not writing about foreplay.  That’ll be a different sort of post altogether.

You ever have a feeling of drudgery when you sit down to do your thing?  You love writing.  You always have.  But these days when you try to actually get down to work, you feel overwhelmed and utterly intimidated.  You can’t remember how you managed to write two and a half novels.  You feel like you don’t know where your story is going, despite your detailed outlines and plans.  You stare at the computer screen and feel such a revulsion toward your task that you are afraid you were never supposed to be a writer.

You’re not in the mood.

You have a headache.

You’re tired.  You have to wake up early the next morning.

You’ve forgotten how fun writing can be.  You need some foreplay.

Open a fresh document.  Write these words:

Writing can be such a drudgery.

And then write some more.  Tell the page what you think of it.  Tell the page how pissed off you are about your lack of inspiration.  Rail and complain.  Beg and plead.  Pour out all the negative feelings in your soul onto that page.  Don’t stop.  Don’t think.  Let it go.  Just let it go.

Until you stop.

Then open your novel again.  Go to the scene you have to write.  You’ll feel better.  You’ll be in the mood.  You’ve had your foreplay.  Time to take it home.

What do you do when…

What do you do when your current work in progress hits 100k words?

You blog about it, do a little happy dance, and get back to work.

The Number One Thing You Can Do Right Now to be a Better Writer!

Stop reading about how to be a better writer.

Go write.

Tragedy of a Satisfied Soul

     I’m happy with the things I’ve done. I’m happy with my first novel. But, reading it over, I found I was not satisfied. I had to write another. So I did. And I am happy with it. Much happier than I was with my first. But still not satisfied. So now I’m a third of the way through my third novel. I like it. I’m happy. But I won’t be satisfied. Oh no. Never.

     Satisfaction kills art. I wonder if that’s why Prometheus and the Star Wars prequels could come from such great minds yet be such disappointments. I wonder if Mr. Scott and Mr. Lucas looked back on their amazing accomplishments and thought, “Well, I’m obviously great. No need to push myself on these new films. They’ll be great, too.”

     I love my most recent novel. It’s precious to me. Just like my daughter was precious to me when she was first learning to talk. I was happy that she was experimenting with words and I smiled when she said things like “I ate-ed my food.” Happy. But not even close to satisfied.

     You see, if she were to talk like that for the rest of her life, some of my happiness would fade. She wouldn’t be reaching her potential. She wouldn’t be expanding her potential. She wouldn’t be living the fullest life she can live. So I encouraged her to push herself. To learn more. To express herself more. To be who she really is.

     I’m happy with my work. I’m happy with the levels of love that I’m pumping into the world. I’m happy with my spiritual life. But not satisfied. Not even close.

Because I have no idea how strong my love is.
Because I have no idea how powerful my spirit is.
Because I have no idea what wonderful things I can create.
And until I see these things born in their full glory, I’ll always be reaching.
Always be pushing.
Always be groaning.
Always be shunning the tragedy of the satisfied soul.

On The Creative Flow and Kidney Stones

     Sometimes there is a flow, y’know?

     Sometimes it all just comes out, rushing and tripping over itself to get on the page. It comes so fast and so hard that you spend hours and hours throwing it down, but the stream still doesn’t let up. Not until you’re finally mentally and even a bit physically exhausted. Then you pack up, go home and have a great day.

     But sometimes it’s different. Sometimes it’s like having kidney stones.

     You can feel the flow, deep inside of you. It wants out. No, it needs out. So you go to the place where you can get it out, but it doesn’t come the way you want it to. It comes out in frustrating trickles. And it hurts. It hurts so much that you don’t even want to do it anymore. So you throw it down and walk away.

     But you can’t stay away for long. You need to get it out. Even though every time you try, the pain flares up and you begin to hate the process.

     What do you do then?

     Keep trying. Keep working. I know it hurts. I know you can see blood in it and it kinda smells funny. That’s fine. It’s alright. It’s still coming out, and that’s what is important. Eventually the stone will pass. It’ll pass when the pain and the struggle is at its zenith. Then, suddenly, you’ll be cured and the flow will return.

     I’ve had creative kidney stones for a week now. It hurts. I feel like I’m bleeding onto the page. I’m probably going to miss my self-imposed deadline, unless this stone gets passed today. But I’m not too discouraged. I’m still standing over the toilet, trying my best. Sweating and groaning and swearing, but still here. It’ll pass one day.

     And, yes, I did just liken the entire creative process to urination. So there.

The Song That No One Has Heard

     I’m kind of a sucker for devotional music from all sorts of religious traditions. I’ll shove John Michael Talbot, Yusuf Islam, and Krishna Das all onto a playlist together. They get along on iTunes, I wonder if they’d get along if they were all in the same room…
     One of Krishna Das’s best songs is Heart as Wide as the World.

I looked away
Your beauty too much to bear
Where could I run?
Your eyes,
I found them everywhere
All I want is to sing to you
The song that no one has heard

     I follow a lot of aspiring writers on Twitter and blogs. Sometimes it’s a tad discouraging because often they talk about ‘essential’ writing subjects like self-promotion, knowing the market and replicating past successes. Many good, talented, creative people just want to write a story that will sell.
     How low.
     I don’t know about other creative people, but I’d do this work even if I knew I’d never make a penny from it. I’ve been doing it for years and I’ve put time and money into it, but I’ve never gotten a cent back. Sure, I’d love to make some money. I’d love to be able to quit my job and spend my life writing. That’d be the cat’s meow. But that’s not ‘all I want.’

All I want…
… is to be a best-seller.
… is to be famous.
… is to get rich.
… is to be the next [insert successful name here].

     Low! Low! Low!
     I look up to the sky and to the infinite space it rests beneath. I look to the Hand that sparked it and all the glories that dwell within it. And all those petty desires fade like a fog when it is faced with the sun’s fury. One desire remains. One thought. One driving force.
     All I want is to sing to you the song that no one has heard.
     And I’m the only one who can sing that song.
     And you’re the only one who can sing yours.