It’s Not Easy Deleting

Yesterday I started off my writing day by deleting all but nine of the words I’d written the day before.

Now, this isn’t as bad as it sounds, since I’d only written 339 words the day before. Each one extracted like a bad tooth and laboriously typed. Over something like two hours. It just was not working.

There are two schools of thought on what this kind of wall means: either you’ve taken a wrong turn and the work is telling you by resisting or that you’re up against something really important and you have to punch through to the other side.

There lies the conundrum.

How do you know how long to keep chipping at the wall, looking for that little glimpse of Shangri-La on the other side? At some point you’re no longer making progress, you’re just banging your head against a brick wall and the only thing chipping is your skull.

Eventually I gave up at my pitiful 339 words. After all, I do have a day job. I looked at it the next morning and couldn’t bear to try to make that scene work any more. Made my head hurt just to look at it. So I deleted everything up to the previous scene. Kalayna Price, who’s a supportive friend, as well as a terrific writer, said she hoped that the nine words I saved were at least really good ones. (I, of course, had to tweet my ignominious beginning.) It’s a nice thought, but I don’t know — they must have been incidental edits to the previous scene.

This is a bit of a cheat, to delete before I officially start for the day. I figure my wordcount on a daily and weekly basis. (Have I ever mentioned I love spreadsheets?) At the start of my writing day, I put in the current wordcount of my manuscript. Then, as I write, I can watch the wordcount go up until I reach my target. This is why drafting can be more rewarding than editing — I hate negative wordcounts. So I deleted before I began, so I wouldn’t have to overcome the negative 330 to make my daily goal. It’ll show up in the weekly goal, but there it is.

Marin, who has a knitting blog that’s actually about knitting today, because she made this super-cool alligator sweater, responded that knitters call what I’d done “frogging.” Why? Because you rip-it, rip-it, rip-it.

Those knitters are a wild and crazy crowd, I tell you.

But I love this analogy, the physicality of it. I don’t knit, but I do quilt. I know that moment when you look at the thing in your hands and you realize that it’s gone wrong. You made a mistake a ways back and the only way to get to it is to rip out everything from that point forward. At least in writing, thanks to the blessings of word processing, you can cut the scene and stick it in a little folder, just in case.

(And, every once in a while, you get to raid the outtakes and pop them back into the document, which makes the wordcount zoom up in a tremendously gratifying way. Okay – it’s not an exciting lifestyle.)

When a thing is physical, when you can look at the rows of loops and stitches, you can see where the error is. With a novel that arguably exists only in your head, it’s harder to discern where the mistake lies. Or even that it really is a mistake.

At some point, you just have to go with your gut.

And hit the frogging with as much grace as you can muster.

Fractals and Obituaries

Kalayna Price is disappointed in the pattern of her days.

Kalayna, one of my online friends (again someone I’ve never met in person), posted the above on facebook this morning. She, like many of us, is a writer who also works at a “real” job that pays her actual money. She often posts comments at the beginning of her work day, remarking on the fact that she’d rather be writing. She reports on how many words she wrote over her lunch hour. She’s driven and pushes hard for the brass ring we all want: to make enough money writing to quit the day job.

So I know what she means about being disappointed in the pattern of her days. Especially when a few days or a few weeks vanish with not enough writing accomplished. You begin to feel this vague desperation that nothing will ever change, that you’re not trying hard enough, even as something inside you whimpers that you’re already pushed as far as you can go. Maybe it’s like this for everyone who is pursuing a goal.

There’s this whole idea of fractals related to time-management and the pursuit of goals. A fractal is a mathematical construct that demonstrates the concept that very small patterns are echoed in larger patterns. Thus the outline of a pebble is reflected in the outline of a mountain range. So, the idea is, the pattern of each day will create the pattern of your whole life. If you spend 5% of your day dorking around on facebook, then 5% of your entire life is — yeah, you got it.

You can play with this idea, but I can tell you right now: it leads to depression and obsession. One way to explore it is to track your time. Just brace yourself for the results, is all I can say. Then, you try to reapportion your time so that bigger chunks are spent on the things, say, you’d like to see mentioned in your obituary–were you to have the opportunity to see it, which you won’t of course. This is where the obsession comes in. You’ll find yourself scorning the “wasted” time spent on non-obituary-worthy things like sleep and meal preparation. You’ll start parsing out, minute-by-minute, who is wasting your time, which means a chunk of your life, multiplied fractally.

Oh yeah, I’ve been there. And it’s not pretty.

I love to read obituaries. Mostly I’m fascinated by what family and friends consider to be the salient details of their loved one’s life. “Active in her church,” “was happiest fishing in his beloved mountains,” “adored her grandchildren.” Rarely do they reflect a life journey. They might list degrees and accomplishments, books published and prizes acquired. More usually it’s a genealogical record of parentage, marriages, divorces and progeny, with a few personal details thrown in, to liven it up.

My point is, none of us know what the pattern of our lives will be until it’s complete, and then we’ll be too dead to see it. And clearly, unless you get a great biographer interested in you, no one’s going to write anything interesting about it, either.

Days are a random increment of time. A coincidental product of the way our planet spins. Some days we write thousands of wonderful words, other days not at all. Some days we spend in the sun with a margarita by the ocean. Others are spent working on what someone is willing to pay us to do. All of these things make up our lives, in rising and falling waves, constantly changing in amplitude. The pattern of my days now are not what they were like when I was 12 or at 32. I suspect at 62 they’ll be something else altogether.

I trust that what they’ll be is the flowering of what I do now, not an echo.