It begins with love at first sight. Maybe the thought surprises you, waking up with you in the morning after a night of heavy dreaming. You date for a while and the words flow easily. You have finally found your story.
But then little things begin to bother you. Your fingers move more hesitantly and eventually, you just can’t think of what should come next. Do you stick with it, or give up and start something new?
Every writer faces this question at least once. How do you justify stopping work on a project just because? If you’re like me and you want to decry the existence of “Writer’s Block,” then it’s hard to make the argument that dumping a draft is the right call.
So many pundits talk about the difficulties of starting a story. We recently listened to an interview with the great Margaret Atwood as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival. Toward the end, she fessed up and explained that, like many writers, getting started was the hardest part for her, filling up that first blank page.
That part I don’t get; it’s easy for me to put down some words and start writing with abandon. What’s hard, is committing to those words and preventing myself from thinking, “well, this doesn’t really amount to much so I’ll go clean the bathroom now.”
QUITTERS NEVER WIN AND WINNERS NEVER QUIT
Other artists don’t think in terms of winning or quitting so why should writers? Have you tried to make bread during the pandemic to still the crazy emotions, doubts, and fears that have plagued us all this year? If so, chances are at one point or another, your dough didn’t rise like it was supposed to so you tossed it and just started over. No one would point a finger at you and say, “Quitter!”
There are lots of articles and Twitter wisdom telling writers when to stop and start something else and no one thinks of it as “quitting.” But what if throwing away early drafts becomes a habit to the point where you don’t ever finish anything?
I admit, I give up too often. It can be because I lost my focus, or my wife needed help with a phone app, or my dog was jonesing for a walk. I let my attention get pulled elsewhere and that story’s moment is gone. Of course, sometimes I just feel shitty and don’t think I have much to say.
If you suffer from any kind of depression like I do, you know the temptation to just stop everything. When the conversation in my head gets dark, even doing the dishes takes too much energy. Ironically, these moments make it easier to write with abandon.
It’s called Ranting, people, and you should try it some time. No need to bore others with your complaints. Just write it down as if someone was listening, let it pour out of you, let it make no sense at all, jump from subject to subject, and never go back to read what you wrote.
YES, THERE IS SCIENCE BEHIND THIS
It’s all about the dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that transports messages between nerve cells. At its simplest, dopamine makes us feel pleasure. It can help us think and plan, and focus.
Scientists have discovered that a group of neurons called nociceptin nuerons in the brain can rain all over dopamine’s parade and end any motivation we may have had. Granted, this has only been proven in mice but I like it as an excuse for dumping a draft. “Don’t blame me. It’s those darn nociceptins.”
Giving up happens to everyone, but I wonder if it hits writers the hardest. We never really know which character or story or sentence will truly resonate. So we have to work on all of them and then see which one hits the mark.
Deciding to not move forward with an idea can be a wise decision leaving you spend your time on something more fruitful. Of course, rationalizing putting the draft in the drawer can also be a crutch. Do it too often and you wind up with nothing.
If you’ve been in class with me, you know I’m a big fan of “reframing.” Especially when it comes to failure. Pick any cliche you want, failure is required of all of us who are seeking to say or create something new.
It’s not a bad thing, it’s just a part of the process.
So how do you know when to throw out the dough?
WHEN TO FOLD ‘EM AND WHEN TO HOLD ‘EM
It’s a good idea to give up when:
- A better idea shows up
- You’re on deadline and it’s taking too long
- You just can’t find the right Drishti Point
- Your trusted creative partner looks at you and says, “I really don’t see it.”
It’s a good idea to keep pushing through when
- The conversation is happening in your head, it’s just not making it to the page yet
- It’s a work assignment and you really have to get it done
- You know in your heart of hearts you haven’t given it at least one session of true focus
- Because you said you would
WRITING AT WORK IS DIFFERENT, YOU SAY. NOT REALLY.
For those of you writing at work who don’t have the luxury of just tossing away an assignment, try this:
1. Write it in secret first.
Set a timer for three minutes. Write the assignment as if no one else was ever going to see it. Feel free to write how stupid this project is, how you would handle things differently, what the message would sound like if you were queen of the world. Then hit ‘delete.’
If #1 doesn’t work, then Rant, Baby, Rant.
Emotion is the fuel that powers stories and persuasion. Without emotion, what’s the point? I fill up my diary when I am upset or scared or depressed because those emotions have to have somewhere to go. And because they fight their way onto the page with such urgency, there is no stopping the words. They flow as if your fingers were an old fashioned player piano and there truly is a ghost in the machine. (Yes, I know, mixed metaphor. Sue me.)
You’re probably a little angry or frustrated with the assignment your boss gave you, so use that energy. Let it all out on the paper and keep going until it starts to make sense.
Trust me. You’ll find your way to the story and even have energy to go make some bread.