“Autopilot” by Jon McConnell…my little brother!
Now we come to the third and most difficult part of an idea’s journey to becoming a first draft story, and that is the brain. That’s right. The very thing responsible for making us capable of placing words next to each other to form epic sagas that last generations is also the very thing that prevents more masterpieces being written than we’ll ever know…or would want to know.
In Steven Pressfield’s magical, indispensable, I’m-never-going-to-stop-pimping-it book, “The War of Art,” he identifies the negative, repelling, impersonal force that prevents us from doing our work as Resistance.
Pressfield writes: “Resistance seems to come from outside ourselves. We locate it in spouses, jobs, bosses, kids. ‘Peripheral opponents,’ as Pat Riley used to say when he coached the Los Angeles Lakers. Resistance arises from within. It is self-generated and self-perpetuated. Resistance is the enemy within.“
Are you all looking down at your bellies right now, thinking about the frightening alien that always emerges from your gut to rest its judgmental chin on your keyboard and criticize your writing voice every time you sit down? No? Oh, okay. Never mind. I guess it’s different for everyone. <cough>
Incubating parasitic aliens aside, we truly are our own worst enemies. If you have ever worried what anyone thinks about your writing — or art — be it your spouse, your best friend, your parents, your kids, your co-workers, imagined readers, then you’ve met this particular variety of Resistance. And I think it’s easily boiled down to its molecular level, which is good old-fashioned Fear.
We are ultimately all afraid of being judged unloved or unlovable.
You don’t believe me? Then what is that gut-twisting feeling you always get after you share your work with someone? Right.
When we speak of this concept of “art,” I think most of us imagine art as some sort of receptacle in which we place a small piece of ourselves, that we must somehow suffer by taking away from ourselves. That may be true in some respects — like blood, sweat, and tears — but that little piece of ourselves that we have put into an effort of art does not define us as a whole. That means when we receive judgment on a piece, it’s simply a judgment of the piece and not of us.
In other words, that novel you’ve been working on and loving on and hugging on for the past five years may seem like all-your-eggs-in-a-basket, you’re-gonna-die-a-painful-death-of-grief-if-you-don’t-sell-it, once-in-a-lifetime type of project, but it’s not. You are not one book. You are not one story. You are not one poem, one painting, one song, one recipe, whatever it is you uniquely make. Please do not make the mistake of attaching your identity to one project. It’s not necessary, and it only causes pain.
“Life is not a support system for art. It’s the other way around.” —Stephen King, “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.”
King is right. You can’t afford to risk your ego and your psyche with this kind of thinking. Nobody can. Life is about people. You have people depending on you. Do what you have to do to be happy as an artist, but remember always, you are just a mere mortal and your art is but a result of focused concentration and effort by you, a mere mortal. This way of thinking will save you when your brain starts coughing up lies to trick you away from your work.
What does this have to do with getting faster at writing first drafts? Everything. I think the biggest problem with Fear is that it’s strongest before we begin. If we never begin, there is no first draft at all…just a lot of standing around and feeling bad about it.
You have to turn Fear on its head, slap a harness on it, and ride it into worlds outrageous. This is key. Fear is not a negative force. It’s simply how we tend to perceive it. But Fear is behind every innovative, genre-busting, widely-lauded project. Fear can drive us to take amazing risks if you use it right.
Let me ask you this: What’s more scary? Finishing your novel, putting the best of your time, love, and energy into it, and sending it out into the world where it most likely will receive rejection before it receives success, if ever? Or is it more frightening the very notion that you might never write the story you were meant to write because you were too scared to start? This is like dying from an ailment that was easily cured because you were too afraid to see the doctor. Very sad stuff.
This is not headline breaking news any of these things I’m telling you. You all have heard this stuff a thousand times before. So why haven’t you been listening? Don’t read this stuff and then go on carrying on like you have been, squirreling ideas away for some distant future, talking more about the writing than actually doing the writing. At some point, you’ve got to really play the role of the artist and ply your trade. Otherwise, you’re just a conversation piece with a label. Those guys never get to live forever. You don’t want to be one of those guys, do you?
So how do we get around all of this Fear? (In case you’re wondering, I capitalize it because it deserves that kind of respect.) How do we capture its positive qualities and use Fear as fuel that will burn hot enough to allow us to escape the gravitational pull of everyday thinking?
Would that it were so easy that you could just remove your brain and set it aside, yes? Even the most stalwart writing professional has these niggling little worries that if they let them, will work their fingers into the cracks and blow up full force into paralyzing, work-stopping Fear. What we need is some kind of strategy, some kind of coping measure that will allow us to deal with our worries in an effective, efficient matter. What we need is a magic feather.
And I haz one. Wanna hear it? Great! Here it is:
Whenever you sit down to work and your brain starts cranking out some Fear-based notions to trip you up, say these magic words: “Fuck ’em.”
To all the ego-blasting comments made by your mother-in-law, your spouse, fellow writers and artists, fuck ’em. To the seeming threat of a life toiled in obscurity, fuck it. To the fears that your words are meaningless, stupid, humorless, lacking in any sort of intelligence, fuck ’em. This is an effective way of getting your brain to shut the hell up and let you get your work done. Whatever creeps up to whisper in your ear, if it’s not, “You go, girl!” (or “boy!” as the case may be), then it needs to be squashed with those two very simple, very strong words: “Fuck ’em.”
If this sounds unnecessarily profane, it’s not meant to be. I’m a firm believer that the word “fuck” has its place in our language, and there’s no stronger word that I can think of that has the strength enough to squelch bad feelings before they grow into something insidious. Next time you worry whether or not you should even be writing at all, try saying, “Ah, fudge it.” Not the same. I’m just saying.
By the by, this is not to suggest that you go to your husband or judgmental sister and tell them to fuck off. That’s a totally different use of the word, and you’re on your own if you do that.
By the way — and I know this is getting tremendously long, and I do apologize for that, but this is such an important topic for writers and artists — there’s always a lot of talk about humility. I agree that the artist should be humble about his or her gifts and their work.
But I also believe that there’s just no place for humility when writing the first draft. This is the critical, primordial stage of your creation where you need to get arrogant, strut your stuff, build yourself up. Look yourself in the mirror and say, “Hello, beautiful! Won’t you look nice on the back cover flap of your debut, hardback, bestselling, take-the-nation-by-storm book with a highly anticipated famous-director-attached summer movie to come? Would love to chat and admire, but I’ve got a story that needs handling. Ciao, baby!”
Do this. Really. Stand in front of the mirror and say something grand and incredible and thrilling to yourself. This is your future, and if you don’t imagine it as being epic, it never will be. And no matter what protestations your brain tries to throw up, just say, “Fuck ’em,” and give yourself a big kiss…and then get to work, gorgeous!
Big, huge, grateful thanks to my brother, Jon McConnell, for creating this amazing painting for us…and in less than a day. Go check out his website! He is a true artist in every sense of the word. I love you, bro.