Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Sweet Sacrifice: Never Surrender

Tired? Me too. The story of my life, actually. Seems like I never get enough sleep. Or time off. Not too long ago I took a break—from work, life…everything. A mini-retirement if you will, and what I found disturbed me.

With an ocean of time at my disposal, I soon realized that I wasn’t doing much of anything. I continued depriving myself of sleep, and grumbled every time my son woke me in the morning. I was decaying right in front of my eyes, and I knew it. I now understand what people mean when they talk about the need to stay active and “will to live.”

In the end, going back to work was the best thing for me. I wasn’t making good use of the time, and was surprised at how much I had left over after working an 8-hour workday. I could even squeeze in a little writing during my lunch break, who would have thought? There were plenty of opportunities to write if I had just opened my mind.

Later I compared my productivity during my hiatus to my new working life and was stunned. The results were roughly the same. How could this be? When you have less time, you make better use of it. The time at work also gives you a much-needed break from writing, and in addition, new social experiences to draw upon.

When focusing exclusively on writing, I find that I work really hard for a few weeks, promptly run myself into the ground, and then stop. By stop, I mean a dead stop, as in no writing at all. A few weeks of intense writing is typically followed by weeks (or even months) of inactivity, resulting in an output that is equivalent to part-time status.

The moral of the story is that I was wrong to stop, even though I convinced myself otherwise. We can deceive ourselves into believing just about anything as long as we get what we want. But in the end what I truly needed was a break. “I’m sick of this”, “I don’t want to do this anymore”, “I never finish anything”, and the infamous “What I really want to do is…” are all justifications for giving up, a recipe for failure which adds even more distance between you and your work.

In hindsight, I should have scaled back. Instead of writing ten pages a day, five would have sufficed. I should have broken things up, given myself frequent breaks, and written periodically throughout the day. If I had done this for a few weeks, I would have sufficiently recovered without sacrificing quality.

For those times when I have had to produce in a very short period of time, I’m often surprised with the results. At first it’s difficult to get into; my energy is low, writing poor and attention fleeting. Then around the thirty-minute mark something just clicks. I stop listening to all those self-defeating thoughts, get past myself, and dive in. Fatigue subsides, a light goes on, and then suddenly I begin producing. All this despite convincing myself that I did not have the enthusiasm or the interest to write a whit more.

Before you fall into this downward spiral, silence your mind. You’ll never get enough sleep anyways, and there’s always something better that you could be doing. Don’t pay your fickle emotions any heed. Open up your heart and mind to the words flowing through you.

Though it’s true that you can be your own worst enemy, you can also be your greatest ally. Keep your emotions in check and schedule time to do the things that you really want rather than what grabs you at any particular moment. It’s easy to find yourself stumbling down the wrong path (and occasionally right off the cliff) if not careful. You know better, listen to yourself. If it requires planning and sacrifice then it’s probably worth it, otherwise you wouldn’t bother.

Whatever you decide, make sure that it’s obtainable and repeatable. If you’re planning to write 16 hours a day for the foreseeable future, think again. Give yourself a chance to come up for oxygen, and don’t forget to get up and walk around every once in awhile; blot clots have a funny way of messing up your merry day.

Even while you’re away from your work, your mind will continue chopping away at the problem at hand. You don’t have to be at your desk to come up with brilliant ideas, and inspiration will often strike at the most inconvenient of times. Some of my greatest insights have come during breaks, propelling me forward with a new energy and conviction that would not have been possible if I had forced myself through. Be judicious with your breaks, and you will find that you are more productive, not less.

Most importantly, see your project through to the end; you owe it to yourself. Despite all the blood, sweat and tears (or I shall I say, the chocolate, cheeseburgers and Pop Tarts) it’s definitely worth it. You didn’t come all this way just to give up, did you? And what will you have if you do give up? That’s right, nothing. Without publishing your work, how can anyone know for sure that it really exists? You have little more than a promise. And what advantage do you have over the person who cannot write? If you never finish anything, none.

Adopt a policy of never giving up on any project. You must have had a good reason when you started, and at some point, envisioned it working despite your troubles. Don’t delay; finish it. There’s no telling if this project or the next is the one that gives you your big break. Editors and publishers have been trying to do this for years and still pass over such gems as A Time To Kill and Harry Potter. The truth is nobody knows, so what do you have to lose?

Regardless of the odds or how little time you have to write, if you follow through you will always win and never have to second-guess yourself. It’s your duty as an author to believe in your work, fight every step of the way, and to never surrender. Ever.

1 comment:

  1. Very insightful Scott. I must be honest, I would give my right leg to be a full time writer but I'm also looking at the fact that I could be with my children without feeling guilty about leaving my day job for a school field trip or a doctor appointment. I can see where you would get burnt out fast though if you buried yourself in your writing without having any downtime. Great post!