Stepping back to move forward

I’ve heard people say that when you have a big job to do, it helps to break it down into smaller parts or steps. This makes it feel less overwhelming and also gives you a more immediate sense of accomplishment as you complete each step. It’s good advice. I’ve utilized this reasoning myself, more than once.

But sometimes it backfires. Or maybe that’s just me. Probably just me.

I read a post the other day over on Bob Mayer’s blog that talked about wanting things. As I was reading along I thought, Yeah, I want to finish this damn book already. And then I read this part and it made me stop and really think:

“Studies have shown that wanting something produces one set of chemical reactions in the brain, while actually getting it, produces a different one. In fact, once you get it, you can’t want it any more. That takes a second for me to wrap my brain around. That means you actually feel differently between the wanting and the having. It’s chemical. I think we often forget that chemistry is science and it does rule, affecting how we literally feel and think.”

Took me more than a second. This was daunting when I applied it to myself. Once I get what I want — to finish writing this book — then what? I’ll have a finished book and no more desire? My motivation will just . . . disappear? There was a brief moment of something that felt like panic until I realized, no, silly, of course not. Because what I want is more than just that one thing.

Pretty sure this wasn’t the intention of the post, but credit where it’s due. It made me realize I was so focused on one part, one small frustrating step, I’d lost track of the big picture. Since I couldn’t see past the current roadblock, everything seemed impossible. It was as if I’d gotten stuck on Hayakawa’s Ladder of Abstraction, clinging myopically to a lower rung, right alongside good ol’ Bessie the cow.

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I still think that ladder is missing a step and should’ve included something smaller than a cow. Like maybe a meatball or veal chop or something.

Anyway.

A comparison that seems more apt for my situation is that of creating a mosaic. I’ve been so focused recently on one little tile, trying to make sure all the edges were beveled and the surface was polished, positioning it just so, worrying that the colour perhaps wasn’t quite the same exact hue as the others. No longer seeing it as just a small piece of the whole.

More important, I’d forgotten that not only are imperfections inevitable, they are what give character to a piece of art and make the whole more interesting.

And I had to ask myself– am I really going to let this one small piece stop me from achieving the whole? Seriously? This tiny little piece that isn’t even the hard part of what I want?

Hell no, I’m not.

So I took a step back. A big step back. Yes, I want to finish this damn book. After that I want to finish the third book in this series. And then I want to write more books, more series, under this pen name and another. Books I’ve already started and some I haven’t, books in different genres, with possibly different audiences. My head is full of stories, waiting to escape.

The whole of what I want is a career as a writer.

It’s the kind of “wanting” that will never quite be realized, as defined in the quote above. That motivating chemical reaction will always be there, never fully satisfied, because a writing career lasts as long as the writer is willing and able to write. And can avoid getting bogged down in minutiae.

Slowly, reluctantly, I’ve come to realize that in order to accomplish the whole, I need to accept that some of the individual pieces will be imperfect. I don’t like that feeling. It’s so . . . vulnerable. But it’s true. There will be flawed tiles, whether those are not-quite-right words, awkward sentences, clumsy scenes, or books that don’t quite fit a series. At first, up close, some of those pieces might look a little weird or scrawny or pitiful.

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But eventually they’ll all fit, in their own way, and be pieces of the whole. Some people won’t notice the flaws. Other people won’t be able to see anything but, and will be dismayed (sometimes — okay, a lot of the time — that will be me). With any luck, there will also be a few people who not only see the flaws but decide those are what make the whole interesting and unique and give it character.

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So I’ve expanded my focus, renewed my perspective and determination– for what seems like the millionth time. But I guess that’s my struggle, balancing self-doubt and confidence. Probably always will be. Oh, and that pesky little tile, er, scene that was giving me so much trouble? I deleted it. And wrote something else, something better. Sometimes I forget I can do that, can magically make things NOT happen. Another symptom of getting too close.

I’m back at work, quietly making my own mistakes, polishing my flaws as best I can and then letting go, setting pieces in place, moving on to the next. Envisioning a larger composite only I can see, that only I can create. Wanting what I want.

11 Comments

Filed under deep thoughts, writing

11 responses to “Stepping back to move forward

  1. A realization that so many, in whatever endeavors, fail to make the connection. Perfection doesn’t seem to be the name of the game for
    humans – and at some point it would be most boring – perfection.
    You have a marvelous gift and we thank you for your willingness to share it with us.

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  2. Jen, I wish I didn’t feel so unworthy of your words. My mantra lately has been, “People who love this kind of thing are really going to love this. All three of them.” It seems wrong that I can have such a high level of acceptance and appreciation for the flaws of others, but have a completely different (unrealistic) and rigid expectation of myself. And you’re right– perfection is boring. *sigh* I’m working on it.

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  3. Richard Maguire

    Hi KD. You write interesting essays. Or articles. Or whatever they were called back in the day before that horrible word “blogging” was around. A “piece”, maybe? As in KD has a wonderful piece in the NYT.

    You deal with a good point. Trying to see the whole; imagining the book as a finished mosaic, yet struggling to make it work. “That pesky little tile, er scene, that was giving me so much trouble? I deleted it. And wrote something else, something better.”

    That is wonderful advice. So stay writing. I am looking forward to reading your books.

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  4. Thank you, Richard! I rather like the idea of being considered interesting. 🙂

    I was thinking of a tile as being part of a book, but also as being part of my entire writing career– and that includes newspaper OpEds (from long ago), blog posts, novellas, novels, various genres under different names. And who knows what else might come. It’s all a body of work. I need that reminder, sometimes, to see it in a wider perspective and not give any one piece too much importance. At least not to the point that it paralyzes me.

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  5. Merry, who is too tired to think of a creative name at the moment

    I very much enjoyed this post. And the mosaic metaphor especially!

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  6. Thanks, Merry (I think your name is plenty creative all on its own). I like the metaphor too. Maybe I can even keep it in mind next time I over-focus.

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  7. An Aha moment. This happened to me when I finally bought and moved into a beautiful apartment. I’d wanted one all my life and when the contractor was finishing the renovations, before we moved in, I was furious. That’s when I realized I was obtaining my dream. It was almost painful to give up the dream. I did not know what came after.

    Dreaming to finish The Book. That’s where I am now. Only which book do I finish first.

    Wonderful post.

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  8. Wow, Angie, how frustrating that must have been. I hope you were able to regain the enjoyment of living in the beautiful place of your dream. And now you have writing dreams. As for which book… why, both, of course!

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  9. McB

    Very sorry I am so late to the party, but it might have been kizmet or cosmically ordained … Or maybe I just stumbled on a good excuse.

    But seriously, when I was at the library last weekend there was a slim book with not short stories so much as essays or even musings. But they were voted the best writings of the year.

    These are people that take writing seriously. There was one anecdote that struck me: someone was asking if they had what it took to be a writer. And the response was a question: do you like sentences. Because that was anything we writ is made up of so if you don’t like sentences, you probably won’t be a good writer no matter how unique the Story is. And it’s very true, when I think about it, that all my favorite authors are craftsman at putting together that perfect sentence. It’s that sentence whose timing is impeccable, the sly innuendo so discreetly tucked in., the wit that assumes you the reader also have wit. So go back to writing wonderful sentences and remember that writing is not just story: writing is how you are goon to convince the reader to come along.

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  10. McB, what a wonderful thing to say to me. Thank you. I do love sentences and trying to get the words just right. And I love that you “got” the humour of the Genghis reference in the excerpt on the other blog a few weeks ago. That made my day, knowing that someone else shared my weird sense of what’s funny.

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  11. McB

    :p Well, someone else shares your weird sense of trivia worth remembering, anyway.

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