I pick things up off the ground. I’ve done it since I was a kid and I don’t apologize for it; over the years I’ve snarfed up all sorts of neat stuff: cash, cameras, trinkets, tickets, ephemera, found art and life-changing objets d’étrange.
Yesterday I found a yellow wrist band, the kind you wear for causes or adorn with mottos. This one read, “Live Wisely and Always Choose the Right!” Well, I’m constantly on the lookout for mystic messages from beyond, so I paused to contemplate this one. The right what? I wondered. Path? Project? Freeway exit? Or maybe it just meant “right” in an objective sense: When faced with two choices, make the correct one. Okay, well, that’s good advice and self-evidently worthy of a wristband, but in terms of mystic messages it didn’t much float my boat.
My day continued.
I met a friend for coffee and he recounted an encounter with a masseuse who had heavy hands and English as a second language. When he cried, “Easy, easy!” she barked, “Easy no help you!” I heard that, and I thought, Easy no help you? Hey, that’s the motto for me! I whipped out my Sharpie and inked it onto my wrist band. Turns out that material is pretty ink-proof, and I had to reapply my motto every fifteen minutes or so. Well, so, easy no help you, right? So let’s talk about what that means for us writerly types.
We start by noting that writers often exist in a have-more, need-more condition, where meeting our every (or any) writing goal perversely but reliably inspires us to engage bigger, harder goals – for instance how writing a kick-ass short story can whet one’s appetite to tackle a novel next. Some writers live with this itchy discontent and recognize that never quite being satisfied is just part of the hand they’ve been dealt. Others are happy to get good at one thing and then keep cranking it out, and if it brings them success along their chosen path, then I say, “Mazel tov.” Many writers, especially those who haven’t found their first success, don’t know which path to follow. Which choice will bring us success? We’d be happy to “Always Choose the Right!” if only we knew what the right was. Here’s where easy no help you can help.
Easy no help you. You build muscles by climbing. If it’s in your head that the writer’s road is always up, then the things you might write, or might think about writing, are the ones that will challenge you most but also help you most. Trouble is, doing hard things is, well, hard. And if something’s hard, we’re unlikely to be very good at it to start. Staring down the barrel of failure is, for many, an uncomfortable view. For some it’s impossible: The thought of writing a “failure” is so psychically painful that they end up just not writing at all.
But easy no help you, right? When you’re trying a hard thing, you’re not doing it to succeed. You’re doing it to improve. That’s a crucial distinction. If your focus is on writing a thing that succeeds, and on reaping the benefits of that, then fear of failure must necessarily be part of your metric. But if your focus is on doing things that make you a better writer, then failure doesn’t figure in. You’re doing a workout, that’s all. Who cares what the end result looks like?
It’s a Pollyanna picture you paint, JV. Are you telling me that you can spend a year writing a novel you can’t sell, call it “a workout” and not feel bad about all that time lost?
Okay, first of all, weird italic interlocutor, just because I can’t sell it now doesn’t mean I can’t sell it at all, so don’t pin me to your phony-baloney timeline. Second, let’s not conflate “time spent” with “time lost.” I didn’t lose the year I spent writing a novel that I can’t sell (yet) – I invested a year in my craft. I did hard work on a hard thing because my little yellow wristband reminds me (as it has reminded me every day of my life since yesterday) that easy no help me.
Throw yourself into your work. Hurl yourself in! Don’t care if it turns out bad. Don’t care how it turns out. Recognize that all your days of writing, especially the tough, frustrating ones, make you a better writer.
What does it mean to be a better writer? Me, I’m always looking for improvement in three areas: tools, practice and purpose – what I do, how I do it, and why I do it. In the name of easy no help you, I might decide to write a historical novel. This will improve such tools as research and writing dialogue in dialect. If I set the goal of writing “my biggest novel ever,” that serves the practice goal of expanding the scope of work I can comfortably handle. If I engage a theme like, “Come on everybody, stop being such contrarian morons and all learn to get along,” then I’m serving my purpose of bringing peace, harmony and Vorhausian wisdom to the world. When you break down your writing life into these separate aspects of tools, practice and purpose, you get a very clear look at where easy no help you can help you the most. Try it and see. List the results. Don’t even commit to the work, just study what the work would look like.
Care to share? What areas of tools, practice or purpose would you like to tone up? More broadly, what tricks do you use to help yourself remember that “practice makes progress, not perfect” and that – in this context at least – outcomes don’t matter at all?
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