Commit to Finish. Commit to Begin Again.

Brains took this picture of Lake Erie… Nice shot, kid!

All writers slack. It’s natural. Writers are dreamers by nature, and we make procrastinators in other fields look like paragons of productivity. However, it is the weight a writer gives to working vs. dreaming that determines whether they finish a damn thing.

I was thinking about all of this during my long drive down to Washington DC yesterday. I was listening to the excellent Starship Sofa Podcast, and hoping like hell I had the patience and fortitude to sit my butt down long enough to write a story like Neal Asher’s Adaptogenic or Allan Steele’s High Roller, when I listened to Terry Edge talk about writing workshops.

The audio essay on the subject is incredible, and I recommend that any writer searching for the perfect writing workshop give it a listen. [link to his follow-up post on manuscript services]

The crux of Edge’s essay is that there are basically two types of writers: those who project forward and finish work, and those who enjoy playing about and living the “writer’s life”. Depending on which sort of writer you are (and where you want to go), there are writing workshops out there designed to help you make it happen.

This got me thinking about my own path and how I’ve gone spending too much time dreaming about where I want my writing to take me to working on taking my writing where where it ought to go.

When I was younger, I thought about the places I would live if I wrote fulltime, how I would spend my time in cafes, or just wandering about the city that I called home (for the moment, because I would constantly travel). As I got older, I realized I wasn’t actually writing anything and it seemed like I ought to. I put forth a lot of effort and discovered that even my best wasn’t good enough. Writing was hard. Writing was work.

I think this is the place where most writers hit the wall. They try really, really hard to push out some stories, or maybe a novel. They “finish” the work and then they realize it’s crap. That’s when they figure out there’s going to be some actual work involved and they have to decide whether writing is a hobby or a vocation.

Look, every writer produces crap on the first go around. Even mega author X is writing crap right now. Go peek in their window and you’ll see them staring at the screen, fingers going at the keys (or maybe face in hands) wondering if they can do it again. The difference is that if you watching long enough, the writer who is working will start working again while the dreamer will go for an ice cream cone or watch a movie.

The point of this little post is merely to rant on the topic of commitment. Note, I didn’t say success. I’m not going to claim to know anything about that, or even hypothesize. It would be silly. There are just too many variables. That said, I do know that without a finished piece of work a writer’s chance of success is basically zero.

Commit to start. Commit to finish. Commit to begin again.

By the way, I finished my submission for Brain Harvest’s Mega Challenge 2009. The Mega Challenge is a short-short story contest (750 words or less). I’ll be sharing my entry after the winners are announced on October 15. If you’re waiting or wishing or dreaming, why not give this contest a shot? There are just a few days left to enter.

13 thoughts on “Commit to Finish. Commit to Begin Again.

  1. You’re absolutely right with everything you say here. I think that often, writers’ expectations are so unrealistic that when they hit the inevitable barriers, they simply give up under the strain of disappointment. In my experience (it took four years to complete my novel, another to get an agent, and I’m still editing now!), it’s not just about commiting to finish, but appreciating that along the way, that commitment is going to be severely challenged. Basically, success (and that’s a very personal definition too) never comes easy. Get stuck in!

  2. Another thing is when writers look at the habits of other writers and get all tied in knots. If I could write like so and so everything would be perfect!

    Every process is different and unique, and comparing how you write to how others write is an exercise in futility. (Not to say I don’t ever swim in the futility pool, but I try…)

  3. I certainly relate to this article. I’m a poster boy for procrastination. Often I recall the movie Amadeus where, in the movie at least, Mozart’s work is note-perfect the first time. No drafts. No rewrites. At times I feel that’s how the great writers work — that they sit down and the words fill the pages automatically.

    I realize that’s never the case, but still I feel that I need to get it right in the first draft. It’s a deadly habit because I want to edit before moving on, instead of just writing and writing till I arrive at a natural break.

  4. Writing is hard work. For a long time, I was one of those people who thought that if I decided to write a short story or a novel, I could just sit down and do it one day. One draft, one read through and off it goes. Once writing became my profession, my outlook changed significantly.

    Now I see rewriting as a way to take the story in new directions, free it from the constraints of my first draft and open it up to more outcomes and possibilities. I have to let go of the idea of perfection.

    Commitment is tough. It means you’re committed to the crap and the good writing, and you don’t really know the outcome until you’re finished. No one likes to admit that they spent a year writing the manuscript they just put through the shredder.

    I don’t think there is a “writer’s life.” I think there’s a writer’s attitude and love of the craft. If you love it, practice it everyday, and can’t imagine doing anything else with as mush passion or dedication, then that’s the writer’s life.

  5. I can relate too well to this, especially today. So, I’m leaving here to return to my work. Thanks!

  6. This is a very wise post. My only suggestion would be to not restrict the full extent of its wisdom, which is maybe most poignant for creative pursuits like writing, but really, it works for everything. I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent, say, thinking about some new programming project, trying to figure out if I should do it in Clojure in order to tap into the full JVM toolchain, or try Scala, or maybe Ruby on Rails, but then how am I going to deploy it for less than a billion dollars, so maybe I should use Google App Engine –

    of course, the sad reality is that these little mental journeys never culminate in any code being written. I know I’m bad at this, but I don’t think it’s just me – a lot of people get caught up in planning for the externalities and wallowing in metacognition to the point that they never actually _do_ anything. Is it cliche by now to say that you can do something in less time than you can figure out whether or not you should do something? Well, cliches are so tired because they’re so true we get sick of them, not because they’re not true enough.

    Anyway. This post was the right thing at the right time for me. Thanks.

  7. It all boils down to never giving up. I have been writing off and on for 25 years. And every time I decided I was not cut out for it I would quit, only to eventualy realize that it was something I had to do no matter what. Every year that goes by I take one step closer. Now, looking back I can see how I have evolved into the writer I am now. Much better than I could have dreamed of 25 years ago.

  8. Pamela and Joseph, I love what you say about commitment. It is about never giving up and committing to all your writing, not just the pretty stuff.

  9. “I’ve gone spending too much time dreaming about where I want my writing to take me to working on taking my writing where where it ought to go.”

    This is so completely me. I’m so glad I found your blog.

  10. You nailed it. I spent too many years going out for that ice cream cone when things got tough. No more. I’m committed, baby, and there is no turning back now.

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