Priorities

2015 appears to be the year of focus so far. I’ve shed a lot of the extra “big plans” to zero in on what I hope to do with the second half of my life. These plans included, but were not limited to: VFX/Gaming/Video school for kids, VFX/Gaming intensive training embedded at a Community College, Super-speed tutorial series, a series of funny/gory VFX shots, expanding my coding abilities, fix up some old vintage audio gear, maybe take on some sound editing jobs… the list goes on. Also in there was my plan to write more, read more, and do more stuff with my wife. Sounds ridiculous when it’s all written out like that. And there were more things! Oh, and we’re having our first child in five weeks.

It’s a little embarrassing to list everything out and realize that it’s not a list of priorities or goals, it’s a list of interests. It’s also a list of distractions. Ricky Jay has a great line in The Spanish Prisoner, “It’s one thing when a man’s hobbies get in the way of his work, but when they get in the way of each other, well…” I’ve found that I procrastinate not by laying around, but by cramming my list so full that I can’t get anything done. That way there’s always potential and never failure. It also feels like a list you might get when you ask a 6 year-old what he wants to be when he grows up, “A racecar driver, a fireman, an astronaut, a submarine captain…” You smile and nod and say, “You can be anything you put your mind to.” Little do the kids know I haven’t put my mind to any one thing, either.

Recently my wife suggested I make a list of true priorities, not goals. Naturally, I searched the internet for examples because research is the best and most readily available form of rationalized procrastination. “I can’t write today because I should read more about these authors who made it big.” When I made films, I spent a LOT of time on DVD commentaries and director interviews, but that’s a lifetime ago. Anyway, I compiled a list of 3 priorities and a list of 3 obstacles.

Priorites:
Family: includes wife, parents, sibling, and 1 (and only one) lifelong friend
Creativity: both consuming and generating
Teaching: best said by Buckminster Fuller, “Your significance will remain forever obscure to you, but you may assume that you are fulfilling your role if you apply yourself to converting your experiences to the highest advantage of others.”

Obstacles:
Research: reading up on the success paths of others is fun, but sucks time
Impatience: changing channels between ideas and interests is counter-productive
Completionism: must finish one thing or series of things before moving on

The obstacles are all forms of procrastination, but they are my primary challenges. When I’m on something that I want to do, I derail it by jumping over to something else I want to do (Impatience), but I also hyper-focus on some things so much that I can’t do anything else whether collecting all the achievements in a video game (Completionism) or reading every interview by the same author (Research) or looking for every issue of a writer’s comic run (Completionism meets Research) or reading up on ways to acquire and refurbish a specific set of vintage Marantz equipment (Research meets Completionism). I could cram a million examples into that one run-on sentence, but you get the idea. My obstacles are accessible, entertaining, and cheap. A steady stream of quick bursts of immediate satisfaction with no long term benefits. Like sugar. Or gambling. Or reddit.com/r/funny.

Even this blog post is a diversion from the book project I have been poking with a stick for the past year. But I can rationalize it by saying that I have a set of official priorities to filter everything I do this year. Instead of setting a goal like “finishing writing a book,” I can say, “Am I engaging in creativity?” Reading a book is good. Researching the author for hours and days on end is bad. Playing a narrative video game (Last of Us) is good. Building the best sword and finishing every side mission (Skyrim) is bad. And instead of marathoning episodes of Chopped on the weekend (not quality time), maybe the wife and I should take a drive to some river town and have lunch (quality time). See what I’m saying?

The filter is engaged. This blog post will count as creative writing and structural thinking. Both good things. Reading it ten times before publishing will be a bad thing, so I’ll try to avoid it and keep moving toward the good things.

Forking Ideas!

I’m over the one year mark on my first book. In that time, I’ve changed jobs, remodeled my house, traveled, taught classes, played Skyrim and Mass Effect 3, cleaned up surveillance videos for a private eye, shot a movie, edited part of that movie, and read a lot of books. Even so, I had plenty of time to work on Progeny. I can’t use time as an excuse for not being finished, even though it’s a handy one that I can reach from the couch. On average, it has taken me 3 hours to write a 2,000 to 2,500 word chapter. 16 chapters, 48 hours, right? Even if we double it and round it up to 100 hours, then calculate for 3 hours per writing period, then add a few for contingency and doubt, all I needed was 50 writing periods over the past year. I’m talking just for a first draft, not a polished version, but still, that’s barely once a week. Three hours once a week? Feels like I did a lot more writing than that. Why isn’t the book done?

This book is my first attempt at a long-form prose narrative. I can’t really call it a “novel” because it’s going to come up just over 30,000 words. I’ve seen charts where people call a novella anything between 20,000 to 50,000 so let’s call it that. The internet has also informed me that novella length is ideal for electronic publishing. A positive! And positives are important when venturing into a new personal frontier. When I start anything new (a script, de-hoarding project, etc), I want a lot of yes men around. People who are there at the launch of the ship. Thing is, support is easy to come by in the early going.

“Can’t wait to read your novel!”
“Novella.”
“What’s a novella?”
“Not as long as a novel. Ideal for electronic publishing.”
“Oh… Yay!”

But now it’s a year later, and people have stopped asking about the book. Actually, they stopped asking six months ago. Scratch support as a motivation to get the book done. But I can’t blame that, either. I’ve always preferred to work under the RADAR, then re-emerge with a first draft. Sometimes I reveal the completed draft to people who didn’t know I was writing it instead of the people who were asking about it way back when. It’s like refreshing the promise. If I give it to someone who asked about it last year, they’re not as pumped as those who never knew you were trying for it. But that hasn’t really affected me one way or another. Let’s do the numbers: chapters written in first six months = 4, chapters written since people stopped asking about the book = 10. So I don’t need external motivation, why isn’t the book done?

I’ll tell you why. All these forking ideas. Yes, I’m being funny. And yes, I’ve thought of all the other ways of using “forking” to hilarious effect. I will giggle each time I use it in a sentence, but the truth is, as I sit down to write Progeny, I get distracted by all the other stuff I want to write. A full year ago, I wrote this entry about managing ideas. I was really good about sticking to my “Not Main Idea Day” for a really long time. But in the past few months, I have not only had trouble with distractions from other ideas, but these ideas are splintering into more ideas. I feel like every time an idea forks, I end up with two or three different ideas that might even work together. Complicated! The whole concept behind Progeny is that it was simple, self-contained, and digestible for both reader and writer.

It’s gotta be anxiety. I’m anxious about finishing this book. I’m anxious about what to do next. I’m anxious about how much energy my new Dean of Education job is burning. All that anxiety is bad for focus. The only thing that has helped so far is reading. Reading helps me focus and reminds me of the satisfaction of completing something.

I read the first three Song of Ice and Fire (aka Game of Thrones) books in the past month. Really good. Even if you don’t like fantasy (which is light in these books), they are great reading. The style is casual and immersive. Since then, I’ve tried to get into other books, but it’s obvious when the author is trying too hard. The description will be clunky and forced, the dialog is that times ten, and the plot is either overly elaborate or non-existent. Why can’t all books have the sustained tension and satisfaction of Game of Thrones? GRR Martin’s background in TV is evident. He can interweave multiple story lines and keep you reading. But that was with the first three books. It is said that he was stressed out writing the fourth book and it shows. Even though I’ve just started it, the style is different. The confidence and constantly-moving story is gone. In short, GRRM was anxious and his mind wandered. In the first four chapters, it’s apparent that he wasn’t focused on his story.

Am I comparing my skill to GRRM? No. But it does feel like a distant camaraderie has formed with someone who struggles the way I do. Read Feast of Crows and see if you agree. Then keep that in mind if you ever get the chance to read Progeny.

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.