Week 9. On practicing perfectly

One of the things I love about writing is getting into that mental state where the words come effortlessly, without my having to think too hard about it. That moment where I’m lost in the work, and have no awareness of the ticking clock or the buzzing fly. Just me and the work. Beautiful. Zen.

Unfortunately, flow is also a state where you, or at least I, can produce an endless amount of crap. Flow, by its nature, circumvents the editor on your shoulder who hates every other word you write. Now, often the editor on your shoulder will keep you from writing if you let her, so you have to find a way to shut her up. One way is to just get into flow, where she can’t follow you. EOTS hates flow.

On the other hand, the editor on your shoulder is often right. You’re writing crap, and you need to do better.

Here’s the thing: practice does not make perfect (this is something we learn in martial arts). Perfect practice makes perfect. That is to say, if you practice a sloppy kick ten thousand times, all you’ve learned how to do is kick in a sloppy way. That is not mastery. It’s not even competence.

So the problem with flow is that it can be sloppy, and not in an organic, generative way where you can make something of it. It can be a form of masturbation. And while you may enjoy that, no one else really wants to see it.

When you’re doing the work, you need to be able to do the work even without flow. Even with the editor on your shoulder criticizing every third word. Even when it’s just no fun at all.

Week 8. Understand and respect the art

When I first began training in the martial arts, I met a lot of people who were interested in what I was doing, a certain number who would do it themselves if only they weren’t so afraid of getting hurt, and a handful who rolled their eyes and asked me if I thought I was a match for their eight-year-old nephew who was taking Tae Kwon Do.

I didn’t really care what other people thought, but what always struck me as odd was how many of the eye rollers ended up taking classes and then—surprise surprise—got nothing out of the experience. I guess they wanted to prove to themselves that they were right to scorn.

Doing the work, whatever the work is, requires understanding and respecting the work. I once took on a write-a-novel-in-thirty-days challenge (not Nanowrimo, but a situation where I had to deliver a manuscript to a publisher in a month). I succeeded, but that would never have been possible if I had never written a romance before. There’s no way I could have learned all I needed to learn about writing romance in thirty days.

What I did is in some ways quite straightforward: I did something I already knew how to do, I just did it faster. If I hadn’t known what I was doing, all the slogans and atta girl!s in the world wouldn’t make any difference. I wouldn’t have succeeded.

What I notice is that a lot of people don’t understand the work they want to do, and they don’t take the time to gain that understanding. There are people who have contempt for romance who try to write romance because they think it’s easy. (There are people who try to write children’s and YA for the same reason, despite never reading the genre. The list goes on.)

While I suppose you can “understand” something you have contempt for, it’s very difficult to do the work required to succeed under those conditions. Mostly because it’s a lot of work. I don’t know about you, but I don’t spend a lot of time on things I think are ridiculous or pointless or unimportant, and I don’t care enough about them to do them right. This is why my house is never vacuumed.

To understand what you need to do, and to do it well, you have to care about what you do. Start from there. I am never going to care about vacuuming so there is no point in my giving it any mental space.

When you’re trying to understand the work—and trying to do the work—naturally you will look to others along the way for help and guidance. You can’t do the work completely in isolation, although you do need a lot of time alone with your butt in that chair. You have to find out if you’re succeeding at your endeavor, and that means getting feedback.

How you get better at doing the work is by figuring out where you are going wrong. The feedback tells you. Now, some feedback is more important than other feedback. Who cares what Joe on the street says unless Joe on the street happens to be your target reader, an agent who reps your genre, or an editor who acquires books like yours?

On the other hand, if nineteen agents tell you that you don’t have the first clue what a romance is, then it’s quite possible you don’t have a clue what a romance is. Shaking your fist at them for telling you the news and saying, “I’ll show you!” is what ten year olds do. You’re not ten. You need strategies that help you get better, not strategies that keep you in a state of denial.

Care about the work. Learn about the work. Be open to guidance. Do the work. #WishICouldTattooThisOnMyForehead

Week 7. On having enough

One of the most important lessons in Dojo Wisdom is the one that says, “If you think you don’t have enough, you will never have enough.”

The human appetite for more is enormous and insatiable. That’s the fundamental principle of philosophies such as Buddhism. And the cure is to stop feeding the craving. This is the hard part, of course, and why there are entire books/libraries/lives devoted to figuring out how.

But I want to talk about two aspects of this problem that have emerged for me over the last few years. One is that our cravings are often disguised as goals, and we know that goals are supposed to be good. So we make it a goal to write a book or to run a marathon. And as far as they go, such goals are fine, even laudable. But pursuing goals based on the insatiable hunger for more never satisfies. Such goals never result in what the person who set them intended.

If you think having a pile of money in the bank is security, then you will never have enough money in the bank. There will never be a time when you have enough. You can save a million dollars and it won’t be enough. You can save ten million dollars and it still won’t be enough.

If you think, “Gee, I’m going to save a month’s worth of expenses in an emergency fund because unexpected expenses do crop up,” that’s one thing. Thinking you can somehow protect yourself from life is another.

I made this point in an online conversation once when everyone was stressing over money and someone chimed in: “I agree with Jennifer.” Then she anxiously added, “But you have to have a bare minimum.”

But you don’t. That’s my point. Money does not equal security no matter how much you sort of wish it would. Money is a storehouse of value, but what it stores isn’t security.

Life is more difficult without money, obviously. But if you don’t have any, that wouldn’t mean the game was over. You’re creative, you’d figure it out.

I say this not as someone sitting on vast reserves of money but as someone who occasionally has precisely none.

You know what’s better than money in the bank? Faith in yourself. You need to feel secure? Go hug a friend.

Money has helped my daughter Jessica get good medical care but it didn’t stop her from being born with a devastating disease. Money couldn’t have prevented the accident that killed my friend Chantal. Money does not protect you from life—or from death.

I’m not trying to glorify poverty here. I like having money a lot better than I like not having money. I live in an area where I see daily the hard and hopeless effects of poverty. I’m not saying that’s any way to live. I’m just saying money will not save you from life. And maybe instead of being in desperate pursuit of it, you could be building the things that do give you security: a loving home, your own creativity, friendships with all kinds of people.

But I’ve hesitated to write this post for a long time because of the second aspect of this concept. The concept implies that you should be grateful for what you have and to be content with who and what you are. And I fully believe that. But I am so tired of the pressure on people, on women especially, to live their lives small, to be grateful for every scrap the beneficent overlords bestow on them, to not rock the boat or make too much noise, that I have to call bullshit on myself.

So let me be clear. I am not talking about making your life small. I am not talking about being okay with injustice or saying you should stick with the job you hate because you should be thrilled to have one in the first place. I am saying that you have to be very clear about what you want and why you want it, or you will be chasing desires that can never be satisfied, no matter how hard you try.

There’s a very old lore that says when you visit the fairy realms, you must be careful never to eat the food you’re offered, or you will sicken and die of want. The word “glamour” originally meant a fake facade, an enchantment meant to lure unsuspecting victims to their doom. Today we celebrate glamour and think how much we want the things that glitter instead of being suspicious of them. A medieval peasant had more sense than that.

Yes. I’m saying be as smart as a medieval peasant. Don’t trust the glamour. See what is real, and care about that. Let your life be about experiencing it fully and completely, not about chasing chimeras.


Week 6. Guarding your ears, take two

When I first began training in the martial arts, I had a lot of fear. I was afraid I would get hurt and that people wouldn’t like me and I would never fulfill my dreams and I would never have a family and on and on.

The first kick started breaking away the fear. But beneath the fear was a lot of anger. And uncovering it was unpleasant and uncomfortable. It turned out I was angry about a lot of things. About why I felt I had to keep quiet and the unfairness of the sexist assholes who had too much influence over my life and like that.

After a while I got tired of the anger and the fear and I let them go. Not completely: I still have a fair amount of outrage. And the only people who are completely fearless are psychopaths, which is not a condition I care to emulate. But it’s fair to say that after I trained for a while, these emotions—fear and anger—were no longer the dominant experiences of my life. I was learning how to assert myself. I was learning that some of the anger was directed at me, for not speaking up, for not walking away. Once I started taking those actions, I didn’t have to feel anger anymore.

Instead I felt confident, even content. On the whole, things were pretty good. But the thing about feeling confident that you can kick whatever asses need kicking and being content with the life you are living is a whole system of industries is set up to make you think you can’t kick whatever asses need kicking and that you shouldn’t be content with your lame-ass life.

You don’t have enough money to retire and you have to retire! because everyone does and what if you’re disabled and also you are fat and that will make you die. Also it is very unattractive for other people to look at. What kind of selfish bitch are you, anyway? And you are raising your children wrong. They are fat demanding slobs who haven’t been perfectly assimilated into the factory-worker mindset so they will never get jobs for which they are grateful and you are all going to die!

Yes, indeed.

For every voice saying, “You know, I got this,” there are ten thousand trying to drown it out.

The fact is, you are going to die, and unless you’re fairly close to your expiration date, you have no idea when.

But between now and then, you can have an amazing life, but not if you listen to everyone telling you that fear is good, and anger is better.

Don’t listen to them. You got this. You really do.

Week 5. Guard your ears

When I first began training in the martial arts, I had to learn to trust my teachers–when they said I could do something I didn’t think I could do, I had to try. Then I would discover that I could do the thing.

As I became more accomplished in the martial arts, I realized that often my teachers’ faith wasn’t even in me–it wasn’t that I, personally, had some special knack or skill. Their faith was in the process. If you did it right, it worked.

Over the years, I’ve had a lot of teachers, not all of them positively inclined toward me. And one thing I’ve learned is that some teachers want to keep out everyone except the special people and other teachers want to welcome everyone in.

It’s the second kind you want and should trust, not the first. It’s the second kind you should listen to. Guard your ears against the first.

I got to thinking about this last week because some quotes from famous writers showed up on my Facebook  newsfeed. You know the kind, all related to the idea that only certain special Anointed Ones are writers and everyone else ought to just go home. That you can’t learn to be a writer, it’s innate, a gift and if you don’t have it, you may as well not try.

Which is just so absolute horseshit I can barely talk about it without losing my temper.

I get that some people want to be writers and some people don’t. But that’s about as far as I’ll go with predicting who will succeed and who won’t–even the very word succeed is problematic because what does it mean? Writing popular books doesn’t necessarily mean you know the craft, so is that success? Writing award-winning books that no one reads doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve succeeded, either. Writing good books that win no awards and aren’t particular popular isn’t necessarily failure. Nor is writing something that is outside what is socially agreed-upon to be “good” always failure.

I get tired of people bleating out discouraging adages as if they were certainties. I’m sure the people who bleat them out think they are part of the chosen group and they want the group to be special and if everyone can be in it, then the group’s not special. To which I say, grow the fuck up.

I agree that not everyone is at the same point in the journey. And I agree that gaining an understanding of any art or craft requires a certain aha! moment. What I object to is the idea that only certain preordained people will have that aha! moment.

The aha! moment is different for everyone. It comes at different times and places. I didn’t like or understand math until I got to college and met a teacher who unlocked the door for me. Then I felt competent. But it wasn’t until I was in my forties that I saw how math can be beautiful. But if I had decided ahead of time that only special people can understand math, I would still hate it and suck at it.

Maybe you’re not as good at your craft as you would like to be. Maybe, like me, you’ve spend the last two months trying to figure out how in hell to fix this manuscript. But that doesn’t mean you’re missing the fingerprint of god or something. It means you’re trying. And the only way anyone gets to the aha! moment is to try.

The idea that there are chosen people–in any field!–is offensive, disrespectful, and disempowering. But we idolize the teachers who say these things, as if they somehow know.

But they don’t know.

A good teacher isn’t one who discourages you from trying, from reaching, from pushing your limits. A good teacher trusts the process, not the student.


Week 4. On the art of not solving problems

It is probably apparent that for most of my life I have been a type A, achievement-oriented person, and so my response to every challenge that comes my way is to do something about it, which is why being Jessica’s mother is so maddening. There is nothing I can do about it. There ought to be! I don’t care how impossible the task might be, I would get it done.

But there isn’t anything to do other than to accept, which turns out to be one of those damned annoying Life Lessons that I am always doing my level best to avoid.

In the process of dealing with the uncertainty that has become my life, I have been doing a lot of guided meditation with my dear friend Debz, mostly because I want to figure out what the hell I’m supposed to do next. (Martial artists are very action-oriented.)

Now, if life were like a vending machine, which unfortunately it is not, I would have put in the practice and gotten the desired result.

That didn’t exactly happen. I didn’t figure out some big plan for my life. Nor did I reach the sort of calm serenity that I sometimes think I’d like to have. What did happen was this. I realized that every single thing that is a problem in my life, or that I consider a problem, is the direct result of my trying to solve some other problem.

Yes, indeed, every problem I have was once a solution. Eating too much is a way to cope with stress. Doing that task I hate doing is a way to pay the rent.  Spending more money than I should solves the problem of not having enough time to find a more creative answer.

So at first I thought, Well that sounds a lot like life, it’ll bite you in the ass no matter what, and I started solving the problems I had created by trying to solve problems and I think you can guess where this is headed.

Then I thought, Jesus, I am going to have to stop solving problems, and that is very hard for a person like me–Type As are notorious for solving problems, often butting in where no one has asked them to butt in just in order to solve something. It was harder than pretty much anything I’ve done in life, and not terribly successful until finally I had the aha! moment that apparently all this work has been driving towards: I realized I needed to stop having problems.

Now you may not believe me but this is way easier than it sounds, or at least it’s way easier than it sounds once you realize every other approach you’ve ever tried has failed.

Once I stopped thinking of life as a problem to be solved, it suddenly became a lot more interesting.