accepting the meshuggaas

In response to my essay a few weeks back about how the easy way is actually the hard way, Nancy Larson, author of The PARDA Process, wrote to me about the difficulty of writing and publishing her first book:

That last project frequently found me weeping as computers fried, printers crashed, hiring and firing editors, etc. It was truly awful. I’m glad it’s done, mind you, but it was hard. The writing is (relatively) easy; it’s all the ancillary things that went with it that almost drove me to the edge.

The writing is relatively easy? THE WRITING IS RELATIVELY EASY

Nancy’s right. Once you’re at the keyboard and underway, writing itself isn’t all that bad. Usually. But, just as any fighting force is dwarfed by its support team—four thousand helpers joined the three hundred Spartans at Thermopylae—the artwork itself represents only part of the commitment to the work of art. You have to accept all that and factor it into your planning or you’re going to make yourself miserable.

Yes, we become more efficient in how we work over time. Less yak-shaving, as a programmer might say. But there’s a point of diminishing returns. It’ll never be anywhere near one hundred percent tappity-tap. There will always be a substantial amount of what you might call The Meshuggaas: thinking, planning, organizing, researching, switching from Word to Scrivener, starting over, regretting starting over, going back to an old draft, switching from Scrivener to Word, giving up on writing altogether, reading a great book and deciding not to give up writing after all, now where did I put that file and was it in Word or Scrivener format…

This is the meshuggaas of writing, and it never ever goes away no matter how many cumulative weeks you’ve spent on the best-seller list. When we don’t accept the meshuggaas, we suffer. Refusing to believe that all this craziness is an intrinsic part of the creative process, we drive ourselves crazy expecting the impossible. We set grand goals that we could never really achieve in one human lifetime and then beat ourselves up for not staying on track to achieve all of them in a timely fashion, i.e. prior to our own deaths.

Oh, it’s so easy to be seduced by the easy. As a reference librarian I order self-help books by the score for patrons. I scour web sites for writing tips and easy ways to keep my house organized. Unfortunately, few of them deliver on their promises. Slowly, I’m coming to peace with the fact that there truly are no shortcuts. Consequently, it’s becoming somewhat easier to step back and assess whether doing the hard work for a particular goal is worth the effort.

This is wisdom. Nancy is accepting the reality of writing as it is instead of writing as we all think it should be, one day, if only we read enough books or use the right software or find the right teacher or online course. We won’t be able to check all the boxes.

Instead, let’s check one box on our creative bucket list. Just one. Better, let’s work steadily toward that one check and be content with that state of enbucketment as long as it lasts.

Have you ever seen the expression “to take pains,” as in “Humphrey took pains not to lead the hunting dogs athwart Lord Chumpelford and his men”? Take pains to do your work. If it isn’t occasionally boring or frustrating, if it doesn’t feel like you’re wasting your time doing this or that, if you don’t suspect that the rest of the world is moving on without you while you fiddle with nonsense when you should be done already, you’re not doing it right.

Plod. The plodders will inherit the earth.

I was not a good student. I rarely sensed that I excelled relative to my classmates. That said, there came a point in high school when I realized that I played clarinet pretty well. I hadn’t gone out of my way with it or anything, but the old licorice stick came easily to me and I’d ended up ahead of most of the section. Eventually, I started to pin some self-worth to the ability and, while I still didn’t practice regularly, I started private lessons.

One day, I arrived early to my lesson to find a guy in his fifties or sixties sitting in my chair. He had a blue-collar look—bristly moustache, meaty hands, calloused fingers—and he held his plastic clarinet like a hammer or a saw. After he’d packed up and left, I asked my teacher why an old guy like that would bother starting the clarinet. (As you can imagine if you read this newsletter regularly, teenage-me was insufferable.) Starting an instrument in middle age made no sense. He wasn’t going to enjoy the prestige of being First Chair in his high school orchestra or anything like that. He’d certainly never have the opportunity to go pro. Would he really be satisfied squeaking out “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” for the rest of his life?

Except, he wouldn’t be squeaking for long. Whenever I arrived, I’d catch the end of the guy’s lesson and, lo and behold, he got better steadily. Soon enough, he’d caught up to me, and I began to feel self-conscious about starting to play until he was out of earshot. I’d always assumed that practicing daily and doing the assigned work were like vitamins: good for you in an abstract way but ultimately unnecessary. No, practice and effort were like steroids. They worked, fast. Natural talent had gotten me to a certain level without much effort. For more, diligence and humility would be required.

My freshman year, I auditioned for and was accepted into my college’s elite orchestra. At the first rehearsal, I sat down next to the other clarinetist and took a look at the sheet music. It was like a foreign language. I raised an eyebrow at her as if to say, “Are they kidding?” She didn’t even acknowledge my existence. I looked back at the music. There were markings and notations I’d never even seen before. I looked down at my clarinet with an out-of-body sensation as the conductor raised his baton. Was this really happening? Over the next hour, I made a few half-hearted attempts to play notes, but mostly I mimed: I had no intention of coming in at the wrong moment and revealing the depths of my ignorance. Throughout the ordeal, I kept wondering: How the hell did I even get in? Nobody could be expected to go from where I was at my audition to the level required by this music.

Except, someone could. That older guy had taught me that. Someone could get to this level with steadfast commitment and plenty of hard work. Someone could learn to play as well as anyone else in that room.

Someone could, but it wasn’t going to be me. At the end of the rehearsal, I packed up my clarinet and quit the orchestra.

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