Becoming a Ghost

I wrote a thing about writing while at work a couple days ago. The whole idea with that is to squeeze in an extra hour or so of writing each day just to keep the thinking fresh. Obviously, you also have to write when you’re not at work. A lot.

People complain to me that they have no time to do their writing and then they follow up with a story about hiking or friends or weddings or Dexter. Ah. Right. You want to do all that other stuff, too. That’s cool. Enjoy. When I was 20, I told my dad I wanted to go to film school, he made this hesitant expression and said, “You have to be a fanatic to succeed at that.” I said, “I am a fanatic!” Then he said, “Not really.” I see it now. I can feel that same expression on my face when people tell me about their lives in the same conversation as lengthy explanations of how they’re working on something, but they haven’t had time to polish it. Replace “polish it” with “start it.” That’s what they really mean.

Here’s the straight and simple reality: when you are working on a creative project, there is nothing else. No other hobbies. No other relationships. For that window of time that you are working on your book, your film, or your art car, you must spend your time on only that. Friends won’t get it. Family won’t get it. They’ll negotiate with you for your time. They’ll make offers and deals: “Hey, let me buy you lunch.” They’ll give you guilt trips: “Your mother is worried sick. Think about your mother!” They’ll make threats: “I’ll never talk to you again!” Yeah, that’s the idea. But don’t worry, they’ll come back. Or maybe they won’t, but wait until the project is done before you feel bad about it. Seriously though, while your mind is stuck on accomplishing some goal, you can never pay full attention to your friends or family, right? You’re always half stuck back in your idea, wishing you were there finishing it. So your loved ones get half your attention and worse, your idea gets half your attention.

I’m exaggerating a little to make the point, but not much. I have a lot of really really great friends. Some of the world’s best people. I love eating and chatting and staying in touch with them in between projects, but now that I’m on this book, I’m not mentally available. I space out in conversations and minutes later realize I have no idea what we’re talking about. I may have even verbally contributed to the discussion, but I don’t remember what I said even a few seconds later. That makes me the bad friend. The only solution is to declare myself a social write-off and hope that friends will answer my calls when I come out the other side. Some will be offended, some will move on, many will be there when I’m ready. But the book will get finished and love it or hate it, at least I’ll know I’ve done it.

It’s not easy, but nobody who accomplished anything had it easy. I like the story of Michael Crichton who wrote every day all day no matter what. He was known for getting up at 2am and writing until 10pm with regularity. Vacations, weddings, funerals, and everything else was secondary. Sure, this was only when he was working on a book, but the guy wrote a lot of books. If you need a metric for how this worked out for him, he was married five times. Maybe he didn’t believe in global warming, but he knew how to finish a book.

Ok, so now you’re the hard core hermit recluse all boarded-up and ready to buckle down for three months. Guess what? You’re still doing it wrong. You can’t live in a vacuum. Nothing is more detrimental to the flow of ideas than removing yourself from the world. You need to hear people speak and watch them interact with each other. And television doesn’t count! Get out to a coffee shop, or better yet, go to dinner with a close friend or significant other and people watch. Your companion will know you’re not in deep conversation mode or small talk mode and won’t prod you for conversation. In fact, that person may be interested in listening to you hash out the project. Meanwhile, you can glance around the room and watch things unfold. Years ago, I had a writing instructor who said when he couldn’t get the flow going, he took his notebook and went to the airport. This was back in the day when you could go through security without a boarding pass and meet people right off the jet way. He would sit there and watch people as they freaked out to get to their flights or shed tears as they parted ways or jumped into each others’ arms when they were reunited. Instantly, he said, images flooded into his head for his writing. Something about being around people, but not with them, allowed his brain to free up and the ideas broke loose and started moving again.

This works. Remain in society, but haunt it, don’t live in it. Drift among people and watch them. Most won’t even notice you’re there. Don’t worry, you’re not a creeper (unless you’re doing this at the playground). If you have some willing companions who will spend time with you and don’t expect lively interaction, all the better, but keep your mind centered on the project. Meditation gurus suggest you close your eyes and focus on your breathing. When something pops into your head, you push it out of your mind and go back to your breathing. I’m saying you should do this but instead of your breathing, focus on your project. And keep your eyes open.

One thought on “Becoming a Ghost

  1. Pingback: Dissecting Envy | one ill writer

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