Lessons

Today is the first day that I don’t have to work on my November Novel in a month, and there’s something sort of relieving about not having to crank out words on any particular schedule about any particular thing for a little while. Which, of course, is funny, as I will still be writing a number other bits of text here and there and whatnot, in a number of other capacities. (Like this 1261 word “thought.”) The point is: I won’t be working on that novel anymore, and that alone feels like a sort of lifted weight.

There is a weird experience you go through when you are “done” with something, especially in the creative world. The project is “complete,” but you have been working on it for ages, so it is still active in your mind. Not only that, but the project is only “complete” in one sense. The “novel” is done, but I still have to edit it, if I want anyone to read this at any point. Another “project” to take on, someday, and certainly not any time soon. Even still, I can help but keep thinking about the characters, and considering parts that I should revise. I’ve had these people and this idea in my head, every day, for 30 days now. It’ll be a while to let all these ghosts move on.

Regardless this one is done, and there isn’t anything immediately on the horizon for now, as I spend my time wrapping up a number of other projects that have been on the so-called back-burner, while I was writing all November. Which, itself, is something interesting to contend with: the limited amount of creative juice that I have in a given day, and why I can’t just knock out 2k words in the morning and then write a full song in the afternoon.

This is a fairly obvious realization, but we do all have a limit to how much we are able to do in a day. While I try to maximize my own output as often as possible, the reality is that no matter how clever or smart you might be, you do need to let the engine rest if you do plan on any more big trips this year. You might be able to go and go all night long as a teen, but as a grown man, you need to save that for special occasions, so to speak.

I’m attracted to a number of different kinds of creative expression, and they all run into the sustainability problem. You can do them for a while, at a pace that makes sense, but after a while even that pace will get to you, even if you think you have it all balanced. Radio is the perfect example: it requires a consistent creative effort, and sometimes that effort can begin to feel like a lot, just to do the regular bare minimum, even if it feels like it shouldn’t be too much to exert, for the first 100 weeks anyway. There will be a week that you want to take off, and in spite of all of that, you still have to make a show when you don’t want to.

There is something about trying to establish good creative habits, and finding the right balance, in spite of whatever it is that you might want to be doing, otherwise. Like any muscle, you might not be able to be as creative as you would like, as often as you like, at first. But the more you do it, the better you get at it, etc. etc. None of this is news, but the implementation is the interesting part. If you ever say to yourself, “I want to be a creative person,” usually the first question is, “How do I do that?”

I often get told that I produce a lot of material as an artist, and perhaps that is true. But I don’t know how to do any less, to be honest. And the reason is because I’ve been doing it for so long, that the habit of making things is fairly well ingrained.

I was able to take on #NaNoWriMo this year is related to the number of years that I did try to do it and failed, terribly, for a number of very boring reasons that aren’t obvious until you have to stare it down in the debriefing after the fact. It has taken almost 20 years of attempts to know what I need, how to go about it, and what I should do to set myself up for successfully completing my book in 30 days. But the handful of times that I’ve actually beaten #NaNoWriMo were only possible when I learned from the previous times. (And, honestly, I think there’s only been two novels I wrote of those that could, MAYBE, be revised into something that would work as a book or story that I would feel comfortable sharing.)

It’s that same sort of attitude that I’ve applied to almost everything that I’ve done in life, that allows me to do anything at all as a middle aged man. I didn’t realize that writing ‘zines in my teen years prepared me for being able to write in the here and now. (The consistency of writing stuff for all sorts of DIY presses, where there’s no real deadline, forced me to be self-directed in order to finish anything.) When I have to get up in the morning and write 2000 words and there’s no one waiting for that text on the other side of me writing it, that really is where the creative rubber hits the road.

Doing radio for over 20 years, a lot of it not amazing, has only taught me what not to do, and how to get to the point where I can fairly easily do the kind of show I wish I’d been doing for over 20 years ago. Ditto for music. Failing at doing what I intended to do has only made it possible to successfully do what I want to do, now.

Again, none of this is “earth-shattering” or even that much more insightful than the hundreds of self-help style commentaries you can find in books, blogs and podcasts. All of what I’m experiencing also felt like I’d read or heard someone else talk about it. Putting in the work over the years is where we get our skills or cleverness from. As a middle aged man I have an advantage that the 18 year old I was did not have. But without having been an unskilled teenager making an effort, I wouldn’t have any of the leg-ups that I do have now, and I recognize that advantage.

Case in point: driving. I’ve only had my license for a single year, and I would say that in all the time that I’ve been behind the wheel, I still haven’t had enough hours to really consider myself any good at it. I should have been driving since I was 18, so that now I could easily do it, almost as a second nature, and free up my mind to think about other things. But as a new driver, I still make a lot of mistakes, I’m still very nervous, and when I do everything correctly and successful, it still feels like the exception, and not the rule. I just haven’t put in the hours yet, and not enough to say I have that skill confidently.

All of this is easy to reflect on when you are on the other side of a project. But it is nice to know that all the years I spent writing and mixing records and working on songs that didn’t go anywhere weren’t wasted efforts, and that I seen their benefits today.

Now, the matter of taste is another matter entirely, but just from my own perspective, I know that I could never have finished a #NaNoWriMo style challenge when I was 18, even though I would have been sure that I could. Just from the skill and planning perspective alone, I know that I’ve learned a lot over the years about what is a reasonable expectation, and what I can successful pull off on my own. While I have always wondered what I could accomplish if I had a partner, I will say that if I could write one novel a year for the rest of my life, even if they were never published, at least that would feel like I accomplished something.

Maybe this year I’ll try to edit this one in March, something I’ve never actually tried.

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