Those who know me know that I travel far and wide teaching and training writers – 29 countries on 5 continents at current count. Those who know me well know that I treat every teaching opportunity as a new adventure, a new opportunity to visit distant lands and exchange information for experience and money. Those who know me intimately (and now you) know that I maintain a wide-eyed wonder about this enterprise; it’s a great gig and I know it.
I’m knowing it right now, for example, as I sit in an airplane gliding high above, I think, Greenland, on a flight from my Los Angeles home to Paris. From Paris I’ll be going on to Prague, and in both places I’ll be unraveling the mysteries of creativity for some people who have paid a premium to hear what their expert consultant has to say. Of course, to me an expert consultant is just a guy from out of town with a briefcase, but never tell my clients that. I don’t even have a briefcase.
If I do have something special to offer, it’s really only this: my particular gift for reducing complex concepts to trivial one-liners. In both Paris and Prague, I’ll be talking about theme as a call to action, and reinforcing the point that a story needs a driving theme – a strong and clear call to action – in order to have energy and momentum. It’s self-evident if you know it, but quite a revelation if you’ve never heard it before. Similarly, I will be sharing and re-sharing (as I share with you here) my understanding of the “secret” of storytelling: Just never have anything go as planned. And if you take these two ideas – have a strong call to action; never have anything go as planned – you pretty much have story sorted.
Would you pay me to fly halfway around the world to tell you that? Some would, and thank goodness for that; otherwise I’d have to stay home and be sad.
One thing that gives me credibility as a teacher of writers is my own active practice of writing – a practice so active that even as I’m outbound to Paris and Prague to do the teaching thing I love so much, I’m also on very short deadline on my next novel, The Texas Twist, which is due in my publishers’ hands in just two weeks. By the time you read these words, I will either have delivered the manuscript or I will have missed my deadline. Don’t bet on me missing my deadline, because I long ago discovered the secret of delivering on time. Want to hear it? It’s another one of these complex concepts reduced to a trivial one-liner, and here it is: Procrastinate later.
That’s all. Just procrastinate later. Put off putting things off until after the work is done.
Okay, that’s a fine idea and a great goal, but how do we achieve it? First, let’s recognize that most writers who miss deadlines don’t do so out of laziness or lack of will. If we miss deadlines, we do it out of fear. We (well, some of us) are so afraid of delivering crap that we’d rather deliver nothing at all. If you are vexed by this feeling, I don’t have to tell you that fear can not only cramp your deadlines, it can cripple every part of your writing process.
But it doesn’t have to be that way!
If you’re telling a story, tell a story. Don’t worry if it’s the best story you could theoretically tell, for that “best story” is a theoretical ideal, never to be achieved. Instead, do what your expert consultant recommends: Have a point of view, a strong theme; make things not go as planned; see what happens next; trust that the journey will take your reader someplace interesting. That’s a writer’s job: to explore, not to judge. We go wrong when we judge. When we judge, we miss deadlines.
So when I travel halfway around the world to tell people, “Procrastinate later,” at first it hits them with the force of revelation. They suddenly understand that they can choose to work now and play later, free from the pressure of the work undone. That’s exciting and uplifting, but it’s incomplete, because they can’t do the work if they’re burdened with expectation. They need to let go. They need to be okay with any outcome. We all do. And that’s a hard thing to achieve.
You know one thing that helps? Age. Just age. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized two things about myself: I know a lot more, and I care a lot less. This doesn’t mean that I’ve become cynical or cavalier. It just means that I’ve learned perspective. Outcomes matter, sure, but they don’t matter as much as I once thought they did. This novel I’m delivering – this deadline I’m meeting – trust me, I know it’s not, in an absolute sense, the best manuscript I could deliver. Why? Because that work, in an absolute sense, simply doesn’t exist. But it is the best manuscript I can deliver right now, and I’m absolutely okay with that.
Are you absolutely okay with your outcomes? If not, what steps can you take to get there? Here are a couple I can think of. First, treat all of your work as part of your growth. Whether it advances your career or not, it always advances your craft. Second, recognize that the picture in your mind is in your mind only. Readers, audiences, they don’t care whether the story you tell is the story you intended to tell. They only want a satisfying experience. If you give them that – just that – nothing else matters at all.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Writing isn’t easy, but it really isn’t that hard. All you need to do is put words on the page, keep putting words on the page, and trust that the more you do this one thing, the better you’ll get. By the way, it helps to teach what you know. You don’t have to go halfway around the world to do that. There’s probably somebody in the next room who’d be interested in what you have to share about the creative process and your experience of it. This is good for them, but it’s profoundly good for you because cements an understanding of your own process in your own mind.
Sometimes it gets you on airplanes but that’s only a bonus. Teach. It helps your writing. Write. It helps your teaching. Can anyone see anything wrong with that?