Today’s big task was to reboot my writing routine, so I downloaded Scrivener for iOS and synched some manuscript drafts to my iPad. I love using Scrivener on my Mac, and I’m so glad that the iOS app was worth the wait.

While learning how to use Scrivener for iOS, I re-read part of last year’s NaNoWriMo manuscript. I had become somewhat disheartened about it after telling a few people bits and pieces of the plot and worrying over their responses. Re-reading the draft today affirmed my belief that there is a story I want to tell in there, and it’s got solid bones that I can edit into something good.

I won’t make the same mistake again, though; from now on, I’ll keep the details of early drafts all to myself.

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Writing from: my study in Portland, Oregon. Listening to: soft autumn rain.

On making messes.

Today I thought I might talk to you about making messes. And just before sitting down to write, I peeked at Twitter, and saw this tweet:

I have never been terribly good at making messes. I cringe at my own floundering, especially when it comes to writing, because my taste is better than my current skill level. NaNoWriMo was a special kind of hell for me, which made it all the more important that I finish: I love surprises, but hate being surprised by myself. This is why I spend time every morning writing the mess out of my brain, what Julia Cameron termed “morning pages”. I grab my notebook and a fountain pen and I make a mess. I am okay with this mess.

But then NaNoWriMo happened, one 50,000-word mess. I’m glad I did it, and glad I finished, but it shook my confidence in my ability to tell a coherent story. My meticulous planning was abandoned within the first week because every time I sat down to write I had no interest in telling the story found in my outline. Knowing that it was more important to get words onto the page than to be strict about an outline, I opted for messy writing. New characters were invented, stuck around for a scene or two, and then disappeared. The protagonists went off on tangents that did not further the plot in any way. I barely adhered to basic rules of grammar.

I would love to tell you that it felt great to make this mess, but most days were slogs punctuated by brief moments of mediocrity. And I realise that all first drafts are crap, but a short story draft has the one shining benefit of being short. By the end of November I had the distinct feeling of being trapped at a party with people who kept cornering me in the kitchen with random anecdotes. “And another thing,” one would tell me as I looked longingly toward the door, stirring the ice in my empty drink. “Have I mentioned my long-lost cousin? Because I really think she would show up right about now and explain about the time I almost drowned as a kid.” What? Okay, no. Stop.

But now that I have a week of distance from NaNoWriMo, I see two bright spots to all this mess-making. One, by wildly bashing away at a keyboard for a month I refined an okay idea to a good one. Only a fraction of that good idea is in the first draft, so it will require a significant rewrite, but now I know the story I really want to tell. And the second bright spot was the camaraderie I felt by sharing this huge, ridiculous undertaking with other people. My mom and I texted our word-counts and encouragement to each other every day, which helped me stay focused despite being demoralised. And my friend sharks and I conducted several terrific writing-sprint sessions together, including our very last so we crossed the finish line at the same time.

I know my writing, and my life, would be better if I could learn to be okay with making a mess. How many things do I prevent myself from trying because I’m afraid to mess them up?

NaNoWriMo 2015

It’s almost here! National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo for short, begins on Sunday. I will endeavour to write 50,000 words in the month of November. This undertaking is about quantity, not quality, so I cannot vouch for the words themselves, only the ridiculous number of them. This word count meter will update throughout the month so check back if you want to see how I’m faring.

But I’m a planner at heart, and so I’m using a fantastic tool called WorkFlowy to keep the chaos at bay. Frank Degenaar of Productivity Mashup has just published a thorough and engaging book called “Do Way, Way More in WorkFlowy”. In this interview for the WorkFlowy blog, Frank and I chatted about how I use WorkFlowy to create detailed outlines for my fiction. I also shared the WorkFlowy outlining template I created for use in NaNoWriMo and beyond.

If you do not want to participate in NaNoWriMo but would still like to support the 501(c)(3) nonprofit that makes it all possible, you can donate via my fundraising page.

Wish me luck!

Departures, a return to interactive fiction.

I have been in love with interactive fiction ever since the first time I slipped the first 5¼” floppy of Infocom’s “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” into my Commodore 64’s disk drive. It was an intoxicating melange of Douglas Adams’ peculiar brand of surreal silliness, devious puzzle-solving, and the idea that I could slip inside a story and become part of it.

Later, I would find some measure of satisfaction in constructing scenarios and settings within MUDs, but did not know enough about coding to do much more than world-building and Easter-egg-hiding. Role-playing was firmly within my wheelhouse, though; as a theatre brat who dabbled in playwriting, stage directions and emotive word-choices were second nature to me. I decided that role-playing was my bag, and I’d leave interactive fiction writing to the professionals.

But interactive fiction popped up on my radar again when I came across Zoe Quinn’s “Depression Quest”. It hit me hard the first time I played it, then harder on replay: certain options you wish to take are simply unavailable to you. They sound good. You know you should do them. And yet you cannot. This, to me, communicated an intrinsic aspect of depression. It was a brilliant piece of game construction. The rest of it is also excellent, but this part stuck with me. I was curious about how it was built, and that’s when I first heard about Twine, an open-source tool for telling interactive, nonlinear stories. I noodled around with it a bit but didn’t have a story idea begging to be told this way, so I promptly forgot about it.

Recently my friend Gavin Inglis wrote an interactive story called “Hana Feels”. “Story” seems like a flaccid descriptor here because the project’s goals are much larger than telling a story. “Hana Feels” teaches us how to talk to people who self-harm. It exercises our empathy muscles. It asks us to push past our own experience to connect with another human who needs it most.

“Hana Feels” is a poignant and dismaying and important piece of writing, not only for addressing the stigma of talking about issues such as self-harm but for showing us there is still a great chasm between what we say, what we mean, and what someone in distress is capable of hearing and understanding. I don’t want to spoil it for you, so see it for yourself (note: it is still in beta, with the final release later this month). Gav created this story with Twine, and experiencing the complexity of “Hana Feels” inspired me to reconsider using Twine to write interactive fiction myself. And then he told me about Twiny Jam, an event that ended just this morning, in which creators use Twine to make a 300-word interactive moment and share it with each other.

The prospect scared me. So I knew I had to do it.

Some time ago, I confided in a dear friend that the worst part of saying goodbye is the moment where you could, if you wanted, turn around and just not go. Just stay. I described this particular feeling in an airport — when we were still able to accompany our loved ones to the gate — but you can think of it in any setting, physical or not. We encounter this moment all the time and yet we somehow make the choice, the reasonable choice, over and over.

The idea for this particular story came from not making the reasonable choice. Most of the story was cut due to the jam’s word-count limit, but I’ll tell it in longer form someday. For now, it says what I wanted it to say. It’s called “Departures” and I hope you enjoy it.

Turning Pro – Day 7

This is the seventh day in a series of posts for Desk’s digital book-club pick, “Turning Pro: Tap Your Inner Power and Create Your Life’s Work” by Steven Pressfield (Open Library). The series begins here.

Today I read from “My Own Moment of Turning Pro” to “The Professional Lives in the Present”. I don’t have much to say about this part of the book, because what I found most valuable was the reiteration of the qualities the professional possesses that Pressfield listed in “The War of Art”. (I won’t list them all, because I think that book is definitely worth a read, but my favourites include “The professional shows up every day” and “The professional does not take failure or success personally”.)

However, I think we can all have a feeling or two about this quote:

The amateur tweets. The pro works.” 

But I love Twitter! 

… I know.

I have been guilty of tweeting about cool things, or retweeting others’ cool things. And it’s not like I’m going to stop altogether, but it is easy to convince myself that I have made movement toward becoming a writer by retweeting other writers or tweeting about the act of writing. Even this meta-talk about writing is a bit amateurish on my part. (I’m choosing to forgive myself because all this reflection is in the name of turning pro.)

Pressfield adds a nice juxtaposition at the end of this section: the professional is ruthless with himself and the professional has compassion for herself. Yes, we should not hesitate to murder our darlings, as the famous phrase goes, but we should also guard the joy that comes from creating. It is a difficult balance.

Turning Pro – Day 6

This is the sixth day in a series of posts for Desk’s digital book-club pick, “Turning Pro: Tap Your Inner Power and Create Your Life’s Work” by Steven Pressfield (Open Library). The series begins here.

Today I read from “The Amateur will be Ready Tomorrow” to “Rosanne Cash’s Dream” on my lunch break at work. And then I uncapped my fountain pen, cracked open a brand-new Rhodia dot-grid A5 notebook, and wrote a full page of fiction.

It’s not good writing, but it felt great.

I read the section called “The Tribe Doesn’t Give a Shit” with amusement. This is a part of the process, maybe the only part, that hasn’t bothered me much personally. I know fantastic people in this world and yet I have never once felt as if I am part of a group of people I need to impress. Pretty early on I internalised the knowledge that I should just do what I enjoy doing and not worry if I fit in anywhere. In Pressfield’s words:

“When we truly understand that the tribe doesn’t give a damn, we’re free. There is no tribe, and there never was. Our lives are entirely up to us.” 

So Pressfield keeps talking about going pro and I want to know what he means already. I want steps. I want something to act on. He senses this like magic and tells me, finally:

When we turn pro, we stop running from our fears. We turn around and face them.

Fair enough. I’m pretty sure I know what this means. It means that when I sit down to write, I write. I don’t let the fear of never being good enough stop me. When I have an idea, I write it to completion, even if it goes off the rails and can never be rescued. I write. I finish. I do the work.

I got this.

Turning Pro – Day 5

This is the fifth day in a series of posts for Desk’s digital book-club pick, “Turning Pro: Tap Your Inner Power and Create Your Life’s Work” by Steven Pressfield (Open Library). The series begins here.

Today I read from “Accidental Incapacitation” to “The Amateur Lives in the Past” and a few quotes stuck out to me. The first was:

“Fear is the primary color of the amateur’s interior world. Fear of failure, fear of success, fear of looking foolish, fear of under-achieving and fear of over-achieving, fear of poverty, fear of loneliness, fear of death.” 

Sure. It’s impossible not to relate to this quote. Pressfield goes on to state that the pro is just as afraid, so that’s good, because I don’t see losing my fear anytime soon. I read once that bravery isn’t the absence of fear, anyway. Or maybe that was just Peter Quinn in “Homeland”. #quinning

I bet Quinn doesn’t even have a Facebook account, so the next quote doesn’t apply to him at all:

“The amateur fears solitude and silence because she needs to avoid, at all costs, the voice inside her head that would point her toward her calling and her destiny. So she seeks distraction. The amateur prizes shallowness and shuns depth. The culture of Twitter and Facebook is paradise for the amateur.” 

Well, yeah. The Internet is the ideal environment for the amateur. There is always a website or fifty, vying for one’s attention, constructed in such a way that the experience feels engaging even if it is comprised of a set of completely passive interactions.

I also think that Twitter and Facebook can be powerful tools. But we shouldn’t fool ourselves: time spent on social media isn’t creative time. It can be constructive, but there’s a difference. I think that’s what Pressfield is getting at here.

One more quote that struck me:

The amateur and the addict focus exclusively on the product and the payoff.” 

I agree with this, because I tend to get very caught up in what the result will be of what I am creating. “Where will I perform this? Where will I sell this?” This is not to say that I shouldn’t be savvy about markets or gigs, but rather that I have lost the excitement of creation for its own sake, focusing instead on its packaging and the eventual (I hope) reward.

Turning Pro – Days 3 & 4

This is the third and fourth day in a series of posts for Desk’s digital book-club pick, “Turning Pro: Tap Your Inner Power and Create Your Life’s Work” by Steven Pressfield (Open Library). The series begins here.

I’m playing a bit of catch-up today and reviewing the sections “The Addict As Dramatic Hero” through the end of Book One. Unfortunately, I had a tough time relating to Pressfield in this section of the book. Although I enjoyed reading about his time picking apples in Washington state, and living all alone in a cabin with just a cat and a typewriter, I haven’t had a life like that at all. Moreover, I don’t think that creative professions require itinerant lifestyles to succeed. I see how it could be helpful not to be bogged down with the routine of a 9-to-5 job, but I don’t think it’s necessary. However, an idea I do agree with is that it is easier to break the cycle of addiction when one is freed from a routine that supports it.

Later on in the book, I came across a quote that resonated deeply with me:

“All addictions share, among others, two primary qualities.

  1. They embody repetition without progress.
  2. They produce incapacity as a payoff.” 

Pressfield goes on to mention some specific addictions, none of them surprising, especially one we’re all familiar with these days: distraction. We talk about how we just can’t stop checking Facebook or ponder why we know who the Kardashians are, but even these superficial protestations belie our priorities. For me, checking Facebook is the embodiment of the phrase “repetition without progress”.

This section ends with some musing over the pain of being human, and again Pressfield’s wording gives me some trouble because I don’t think of the struggle of life in terms of an “upper realm” that I cannot reach, not exactly. Or maybe I am thinking about it this way without this particular Platonic phrasing, because when I write, I do glimpse something else, something Other, that exists outside my paltry experience of reality. His words left me wanting a more practical metaphor, but perhaps I should try seeing it his way for a little while. I did like this quote: 

The addict seeks to escape the pain of being human in one of two ways — by transcending it or by anesthetizing it…. The artist takes a different tack. She tries to reach the upper realm not by chemicals but by labor and love.” 

Labour and love. Now these words I like.

Turning Pro – Day 2

This is the second day in a series of posts for Desk’s digital book-club pick, “Turning Pro: Tap Your Inner Power and Create Your Life’s Work” by Steven Pressfield (Open Library). The series begins here.

I’m playing a bit of catch-up here because the rest of the book-club will be embarking on their Day 3 posts today. For Day 2 I read from “Three Cheers for the Amateur Life” to “Addiction and Shadow Careers” and the following quotes stood out to me:

“The addict is the amateur; the artist is the professional.” 

OK, this is the first point at which Pressfield’s language makes me uncomfortable. That might not be a bad thing, if it is indicating an idea that resonates negatively. But the idea of being an “addict” is one that is hard to take for me personally. It’s not that I’ve been addicted to things before, because I certainly have, but thinking of myself as an addict triggers a whole bunch of negative stereotypes I have about what an addict is. Let’s go with Pressfield a moment here as he elaborates:

“Both addict and artist are dealing with the same material, which is the pain of being human and the struggle against self-sabotage. But the addict/amateur and the artist/professional deal with these elements in fundamentally different ways.”

This idea of self-sabotage dovetails nicely with a Zen Habits blog post I recently read about Savor Discipline. Leo Babauta addresses how the present self wants what it wants regardless of how it impacts the future self. He writes about the idea of merging the two interests, just as you would if you and your friend were making a decision on where to go for lunch. It wouldn’t always be one person’s choice; the two of you would take turns. Or you might merge your interests to come up with a third option that both would like. The present self and future self merge interests to find something they both can savour in the present moment. (I’m not doing this justice, so please read the post for yourself. Read the whole blog, while you’re at it! It’s wonderful.)

So how does this tie in with what I think Pressfield is saying? Well, here’s my practical example: I have lots of data-entry ahead of me today. I also have errands to run, chores to do, words to write, you know the rest. Future-Halsted would really like it if I just did all that work right now so she could kick back and do nothing later, but that would leave me irritated and frustrated. Present-Halsted just wants to curl up with a book and a cat or two, but that would result in nothing getting done. So I’ve found a third option: writing this post. I’m knocking something off my to-do list while taking a moment to reflect on a book I’m reading, and exercising my nonfiction skills a bit too. I’ve found something to savour in the moment instead of indulging my self-sabotaging ways.

Now I can make peace with Pressfield’s “addict” nomenclature because I get it: I have been an addict. I have been addicted to the concept of productivity, with all of its bells and whistles and to-do list apps. When I’m ticking off boxes, I get something like a buzz — look at all I’ve done today! — but those boxes can be for utterly inconsequential things, and at the end of it, when I’ve spent all of my energy ticking boxes and left nothing for myself, I can only see the hollow spaces of what I haven’t yet accomplished.

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