goldilocks at the keyboard

In reference to last week’s essay, Maven Game reader and knitting enthusiast Zahava Shapiro wrote to say that she’s experienced second-sock syndrome herself. According to Zahava, most sock patterns put the hard part—heel and toe—last. “This is frustrating,” she explains, “because if you mess up on the bottom the WHOLE sock is ruined.” Zahava solves this by using a bottom-up pattern that puts the hard part first.

“If you mess up,” Zahava says, “there’s less pressure because you hadn’t invested so much time in it. It’s extremely demoralizing when you invest so much effort into something only to realize there are kinks that change your vision completely.”

Doing the hard part first is great advice. It also ties into what I wanted to discuss in this 199th essay: being too damn precious about your work.

I’m guilty of this. Boy howdy. If I don’t have everything just…so from the moment I wake up, if I’m not on track with my routine, my first instinct is to put off writing altogether. Instead of writing, I’ll futz with my setup or fiddle with my plan. Why put down 500 consecutive new words when I can make incremental tweaks to what I’ve already written, rejigger the outline a bit, or simply reorganize my research? If those options don’t sound appealing, I can always shop for cool notebooks, download new writing software to try, or read yet another book on writing. Gotta sharpen the old ax! 

(You think I’m exaggerating. This morning, I couldn’t find one of my two comfy morning writing shirts. This post almost didn’t happen.)

The best way to figure out what’s wrong with an idea is to try and write it. Unlike the plan for, let’s say, a bank heist, the plan to write something doesn’t have to be completed on the spot. You can follow it a bit, identify what isn’t working, and only then modify it based on what you’ve learned. I know this, and yet I stubbornly futz, fiddle, and rejigger the work instead of WRITING the work whenever I’m the least bit out of sorts.

This is where the bottom-up sock pattern comes in. You get to the writing first, or as early in the process as you feasibly can. You just go, perfect tools/circumstances/emotions be damned. That way, you can spot the “kinks that change your vision” before you’ve wasted half your runway finessing an approach that was fundamentally flawed in a way you’ll only see once you start writing. No time can be invested in technique, approach, or fancy notebooks until you’ve made genuine progress with your knitting. (By the way, this is all totally obvious. You know it, I know it, and I tell it to my writing clients every day. I just don’t know it, that’s all.)

I’ve enjoyed the first three episodes of Scrivener’s new podcast for writers. Take a listen. What stands out to me is the same thing I notice in most interviews with prolific writers. They’re simply not precious about their work, from how they get it done to how it’s eventually packaged, marketed, and sold. The attitude is: whatever works. I can’t think of a single exception among the authors of dozens and even hundreds of books that I’ve heard from over the years. In On Writing, for example, Stephen King dismisses even the need for quiet and privacy. As the father of young children, he’d work on books with the kids playing in the room, watching TV, whatever. Sure, it was distracting and probably annoying, but that’s life. Do you stop cooking dinner or doing your taxes because someone’s in the room with you? No. You just do your best and get the job done. And it is a job, whether or not you’re getting paid. Just like sweeping the floor. Just like doing the laundry. Chop wood, carry water, write chapter.

The driving fallacy is that you think and write simultaneously. That, as long as you’re sitting in the right chair and using the right software and listening to the right music and you’ve got the perfect balance of caffeine and serotonin flowing through your brain, you’re sure to get the best possible words down. You won’t have to come back later and fix a bunch of crap you wrote in a less-than-optimal state. That’s the fear, for me anyway. 

Alas, this fear is misplaced. Good writing doesn’t feel like good writing, and feeling bad is no indication that I’m writing badly. No matter how I feel at any one moment, some of the words I write will be good words, some will not, and it will take many revisions to distinguish between the two. There is no such thing as good writing time in my experience. The only good writing time is the time I’m actually writing. If I’m currently writing, there’s a chance I’m getting some good words down. If I’m not currently writing, there’s zero chance. 

Looked at this way, it’s clear what I should be doing with the majority of my work time: actually writing. And believe me, I plan to. Once I find my shirt.