66 Days

I have this embarrassing secret of reading books on self-improvement and, oddly enough, career productivity. I say “oddly enough” because I don’t have anything approaching a traditional career. I’m a novelist. I’m usually just winging it.

But some of those businessy books are based on “this works for anything” fundamentals and I often get something useful out of them. I learned about the Pomodoro Technique in one, for example, and abide by it now.

This week I’m reading a book called The One Thing and it’s surprisingly good. In a nutshell: Focus on one important thing instead of all the lesser things, distracting crap, and to-do lists, and everything suddenly gets better.

Our son plays guitar. He’s thirteen and slacks off sometimes, failing to practice for days, and then I give him a fatherly pep-talk / lecture, which of course never works. Thing is, he loves playing guitar as much as I love writing. But the two of us, slackers both, forget that we love guitar and writing, and so we procrastinate and focus on nonsense, etc., and then feel bad about ourselves.

Do we need super-discipline? This book The One Thing says no, super-discipline is horse shit. All we need is just enough discipline to form a single good habit, and then it’s a habit and we don’t need discipline. The habit itself will start rewarding us, and we’ll just happily do the good thing automatically.

Which I’ve found to be true at various points of my life. I stopped drinking soda years ago, for instance. I used to love soda. Then I must have used just enough discipline to quit soda for a while, and now I’ll go weeks without soda and never miss it. I look like Mr. Disciplined No-Soda Man when in fact soda never crosses my mind.

The book says it takes about 66 days for a habit to cement itself. This sounds like one of those pseudo-figures from a single study at some university, but whatever: I’ll try it.

My son and I have agreed to form one new habit. He’s going to play guitar every day. I’m going to write fiction every day. We can play/write badly, we can play/write resentfully, but as long as we play and write, that’s OK. We’re going to do this for 66 days and see if it becomes pleasantly automatic.

He’s actually up for this and not merely going along with the plan because it’s Dad’s Idea. I’m up for it, too. Because we know we actually enjoying playing guitar and writing fiction once we start. It’s the starting that kills us.

We start tomorrow.

The Ashy-Blood Night Mist

Some days, such as today, everything’s good and then something happens.

I have a fantastic egg & bacon sandwich, and then pizza, and then a little gin (but not too much). My wife and I watch a terrific movie I’ve been meaning to see for ages (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang). We compile a 150+ song playlist for a 30+ person party we’re having next weekend. And the last five days were very productive, so my relaxation feels deserved.

And then it’s 10:30 P.M. and who the hell knows. Maybe a neuron misfires. Maybe my ghost starts haunting itself. But a peculiar ashy-blood night mist descends, and it’s as if some inexplicable sadness is waking me up instead of depressing me. It’s like being sentimentally buzzed without being alcoholically buzzed.

I’m creatively minded in this state. It’s a state I’ve known since, oh, I was a moody teenager or maybe even earlier, and it’s possibly the #1 reason I write fiction. It’s not a bad state to be in, but it’s not summery glad beachtime, either.

When the ashy-blood night mist descends upon me, I often respond…

  1. Defensively
  2. Wholeheartedly

…by making stuff up and writing it down. When I do this well, the stuff is emotionally true, even if it’s unrealistic on the surface. I go into a semi-dream state, in other words, where the night mist not only makes strange emotional sense, but allows me to see and feel things I can’t experience in happier, more quotidian hours.

The ashy-blood night mist doesn’t come only at night. Some days I actually need to summon it in order to write, which means my average day is oddly tinted and there’s probably something a little off about me.

The upside is that I’d be way worse off without writing, because the mist would probably have dissolved me like emotional acid long ago, and God only knows if I’d even exist as a functional human being right now.

Strange Creative Surge

I’m feeling a strong creative surge this week and writing a lot of fiction, but a head cold is draining me like a vampire leech.

So now I’m living in this bizarro state of inspired energy and a constant desire to nap. Fortunately, even my nap dreams are conjuring up strange, exciting ideas. I don’t have a fever or anything, and I’m not on anything harder than coffee. It’s just that in spite of my physical exhaustion, I seem to have tapped a good mental flow.

I try to maintain creative openness on a regular basis, so storytelling feels less like something I do at certain hours and more like something I’m always doing. Because who knows when and where the right idea will materialize? What happens if I dwell on my novel between 9 A.M. and 3 P.M. and some fantastic idea wants to appear at midnight?

It’s great when that consistent openness works, and I’m suddenly writing about things that feel emotionally electric and — in a thrilling way — incomprehensible. These might be terrible ideas I’ll need to cut from later drafts but they’re worth pursuing, even when I’m sick.

So far this week:

  1. A talking deer corpse
  2. A ritual chant recorded onto an old cassette of The Carpenters’ greatest hits
  3. Coma milk
  4. The logistics of temporary suicide
  5. Ghost lovers seeing each other for the first time

[Image Source]

In My Own Little World

I’m an outgoing person, often comically so. But sometimes my personality inverts, and my thoughts and emotions flow in instead of out.

I talk less. I get secretive. Instead of contacting friends, I quietly retreat and hope I won’t hurt anyone’s feelings with silence or guarded answers.

It isn’t the same as shutting down or numbing off, and it isn’t necessarily depressive. I can’t always anticipate or make sense of the inversion, but I’ve noticed it coincides with my creative cycles.

No big mystery, I suppose, that I withdraw into myself during strong bursts of writing (and not blogging, mind you, but deeper writing I won’t share with anyone for seasons or years). What I wonder is if the creative introspection triggers my withdrawal from people, or if the withdrawal leads — in some desperate, lonely, sadly glowing way — to creativity as a cure.

How to Write a Novel

  1. Accept you’re not like other people, then develop excessive wonder and shame — preferably both — about this condition.
  2. Obsess over the world’s brokenness until you glimpse how it works, and maybe how it’s not completely broken after all.
  3. Explain your feelings to people. Fail badly.
  4. Recognize that no good explanations are possible, but that stories can convey things in mysterious, irrational ways that are similar to occult magic.
  5. Think of an original story that will not merely become a bestseller, but will profoundly affect the hearts of millions of readers.
  6. Understand that no story is original.
  7. Understand that being killed by lightning, while simultaneously being eaten by a lion, is more probable than writing a bestseller.
  8. Understand that profoundly affecting the heart of one reader, even if that reader is yourself, is a dynamite goal.
  9. Get excited! You’re writing a novel!
  10. Continue writing after the first few days, when the early excitement dies and you need to animate 50,000-150,000 words into a strange, living thing.
  11. Fail badly six days out of seven, for seasons or years.
  12. If that one good day out of seven fills you with a deep, crazy joy that prevents you from quitting both the story and your life, right on!
  13. Doubt that day.
  14. Doubt the story.
  15. Despise yourself and despair, and don’t talk to anyone for a while because of your embarrassment, and consider a proper job like cutting lawns.
  16. Finish the novel.
  17. Rewrite and revise until everything feels perfect. Don’t cheat. It has to be perfect.
  18. It’s not perfect. It’s nowhere close to perfect.
  19. When the novel is done, survive everything that comes next — submission, agents, editors, reviews, readership — by emotionally divorcing yourself from the cherished work and writing something frighteningly new.
  20. Accept you’re not like other people, then develop excessive wonder and shame — preferably both — about this condition.