On the eve of National Novel Writing Month, two old saws combat one another in the folk-wisdom of mind. Is it insanityto expect a different result from repeating the same behavior? If at first you don’t succeed, should you try again—and again?
Halloween spirit rises to its pitch, and I face the horrifying, exhilarating prospect of another NaNoWriMo: write a 50,000-word novel in one month. Reckless, I preregister on the website and revel in the combined sense of dread and euphoria. I consider the word-count stats of previous failures, and shrug off bitterness, square my shoulders against regret. I declare a freethinker’s intent to shoot for a lower word-count of my own choosing. We’re all winners here, right? But I can’t help but wince at the sting of truth. NaNoWriMo makes a regular loser of me.
Is this persistence or neurosis? Idiocy or grit?
50,000 words in thirty days. Overwhelming. Unfathomable.
“What’s wrong with me?” I ask myself as I set the clock’s alarm back a precious half-hour, prepping for tomorrow’s first early writing session. “I don’t have time for this,” I mutter, the old annual mantra, as I squirrel away little blank notebooks along the path of my daily routine. “What’s the point,” I groan as I block off a lunch break on my calendar with a single note: WRITE.
What numinous allure compels such masochism? What drives any sane person to even consider engaging NaNoWriMo each November? In anticipation of my imminent self-humbling, I’ve tried to capture its appeal in a few words here (and this is the last time I’ll idealize brevity in my creative life until December):
NaNoWriMo lends validation to perform poor-quality writing in the name of unleashed creativity. In fact, it insists upon it, via the sheer weight of its word-count goal. There’s no time for revising, no time for second-guessing. Essentially, NaNoWriMo propels a month-long brainstorm—from which insight and innovation occasionally, happily emerge.
It sanctifies procrastination in the name of single-minded focus. During these hallowed weeks, other writing and creative projects take the mental backburner. Although childcare and professional responsibilities remain understandably at the fore, inessential housework does not. In November, pizza and sandwiches regularly find their way to the dinner table. Dust bunnies find a home underneath it.
It provides a means of mental-plane solidarity among writers, creators, and daydreamers. Beyond social media hashtags and swag, the event stands alone as a genuine feat of connectedness and positive creative energy.
Finally, NaNoWriMo sets up the basis for a deep sense of personal accomplishment. Even if all 50,000 words don’t make it to the page, that gratification will be there nonetheless. That compound effect of thirty-days’ effort awaits, along with a great sense of pride… and just maybe a rough first draft (or at least a few good ideas).
These are the rewards that lead me back to National Novel Writing Month—to try and try again, as crazy as it may be. And as for the question, What’s the point? Consider a new, improved annual mantra, with gratitude to artist Francis Bacon:“Since everything’s so meaningless, we might as well be extraordinary.”
A new sign graces Massachusetts Street’s eastern storefront row, between the pet store and the bagel shop—a simple plaque above the door of Rose Red Vintage. Until this morning, taped-up butcher paper had obscured an inside view through the front windows. The paper is now gone, the shop interior exposed. Inside, fixtures jut from the floor in varying states of assembly, nude mannequins recline in stiff repose, and boxes overflow with incipient retail stock.
With focused intent, Vivian flits from place to place in the room—roots through a toolbox on the counter, attaches hooks to a rack, kneels near a paint pan in the corner, dabs a brush over an imperfection in the wall. It’s as if she’s moving in one smooth workflow, choreographed and precise. And despite the event of her manual labor, she’s dressed in casual 1950s vintage style, wearing tan Capris and a sleeveless burberry blouse.
Vivian is a phenomenon.
Outside the heavy wooden door, I drag from the last of my cigarette. The notion dawns on me: At this very instant, I’m witnessing the execution of a long-pursued dream. It’s of sociological interest. A rarity. I toss the butt down and grind it out with my toe, then shove at the door. It’s locked, so I knock and wave.
Vivan throws the bolt and welcomes me with a smile. “Hi, Wil. Come on in.”
“The place looks great.” I plop my backpack down on the front counter. “So your booth at the antique mall—?”
“Closed for business, as of yesteday.” Vivan wipes her hands on her vintage pants, entertaining no precious second thoughts. She gestures at the scattered boxes and racks around us. “Everything’s here now. I really appreciate your help—let me buy you breakfast. I’m thinking bagels from next door.”
“Sure. Thanks. Anything but lox.”
“While I’m gone…” Vivan grabs a hammer from a toolbox on the counter and hands it to me. “Can you tighten up that shelving unit? Pound on the upper corners?”
She leaves me to it. I heft the hammer, guage its weight, wonder at its long and robust history in service to mankind. If I had a hammer, I’d hammer in the morning… I could imagine my mother singing the rest, implementing a hippy moment at the offered opportunity. I perform the requested work awkwardly—to be expected of someone who just never hammers, you know? Yet nonetheless finds themselves hammering away one morning indeed—and in open view of the busiest street in town. After I’m finished, I entertain a mixed sense of relief, uncertainty, and overblown self-satisfaction.
Unsure of what to do next, I wander along the periphery of the shop interior, exploring the nascent layout. I hum the “I’d hammer out a warning” part, quietly. A basket of shoes sits in one corner. A clothes rack runs along the north wall, already burdened with hanging bundles of coats under plastic wrap; an exquisite green-velvet cloak hangs unwrapped at the end. Near the changing room, an antique trunk overflows with gloves and scarves. Next to that stands a full-length mirror with a claw-foot base.
I take a walk, take it all in, and take a seat on a stool near the counter. I spin on the stool, slowly. Then faster. Rose Red Vintage becomes a blur of colors and shapes. A dream fulfilled… Dizzy, I stop spinning and crook my feet in the brace of the stool legs. I stretch out my arms and gaze down their familiar length where they stick out from the sleeves of the battered Black Flag T-shirt. I kick out my feet, observe the plain blue jeans, the second-hand Vans. Imagine what it must feel like! I catch a glimpse of my reflection in the mirror: stool-splayed ridiculousness. “I look crazy,” I whisper, and tuck my legs back in, fold my arms over my chest. The reflection’s new narrative: a dignified figure seated coolly above the floor-scattered disarray of someone else’s dream.
Ah, yes. That’s better.
If I had a hammer, I fear it’d be wasted on me. I mean, look at this place: Vivan is on the brink. She forged the path. Fulfillment. Validation. A wish come true. If I had a hammer, I don’t even know what I’d do with it. Since school let out, what more have I aspired toward than a free beer at Janet’s bar? A word of encouragement in Mr. Crosthwaite’s writing class? A simple, friendly glance from beautiful Sean—the ultimate redemption?
Allured by the green velvet cloak at the end of the rack, I slide down from the stool, sidle toward it. My bare arms glide along the cloak’s silk lining as I fasten a large onyx bead into the loop at my throat. Beautiful green fabric embraces me. I step in front of the mirror, Vans and claw feet parallel to one another. Vintage-cloaked-me looks like a kid playing superhero with a blanket cape. I shake my head, amused by the sight—and then I nearly jump out of my skin when a white rat skitters past in the mirror’s reflection, crossing the floor behind me.
“Oh-my-gosh!” I cry, whirling around, the cloak’s fabric billowing dramatically. The rat stops at the center of the room and pops its head up. It sniffs the air, its pink eyes on me. I take a deep breath. “Oh, boy,” I sigh. Vivian is going to freak out.
Think fast, I think slowly. I could throw the cloak at it, like a net… I unhook the bead from the loop and remove the cloak with no sudden movements. The rat huddles down, whiskers twitching, but it stays put. Yet even as I take a tentative step toward it, I realize—I have no idea how old this cloak is, how valuable. Vivian might freak out about a rat in her new shop, but she’ll definitely kill me if I catch a rat in prize vintage velvet, regardless of any good intentions.
Carefully, I hang the cloak on the rack. The rat watches me with a sidelong gaze. I scan the room. My own gaze lingers on the hammer in the toolbox. A pertinent thought barely dawns before I shudder, dismiss, move on. Next, the shoe basket catches my eye. Perfect… But can I turn overturn it, empty it out, without scaring the rat away? I take a ginger step toward the basket. The rat hops forward uncertainly. I stop. It stops.
I step, it hops.
“All right. Look,” I say, forced to resort to pleading reason. “You can’t stay here, you need to go back to the pet store. There’s no food here, no water.”
The rat moves in a circle, sniffing the floor.
I step, it hops.
“Okay. Listen.” I try again. “Some kid’s gonna adopt you, any day now.” The rat casts its gaze at me skeptically. “Maybe a freshman,” I add. “Maybe you’ll live in the dorms? Party every weekend!”
Apparently it’s not a selling point. The rat lopes off quickly, headed straight toward the changing room. “Wait!” I hiss, and pace after it. With a scrabble of claws on the concrete floor, the rat squeezes its plump white body under the door, a seeming-impossible feat.
“Dammit.” I whirl around and run back to the corner to grab the shoe basket. In an unceremonious wake of dainty antique lady-shoes, I return to the changing room with the empty basket in my grip.
I pause, one hand on the doorknob. I quell a prophetic vision of a hundred rats waiting inside the little room, a nightmarish furry mass of beady eyes and claws and teeth. Bracing myself with faith in reality —though that, shaky at best—I twist the knob and pull the door open.
The rat is gone.
I’m amazed. I kneel down to inspect the back wall. Along the edge where the wall meets the floor is a crack in the concrete, no more than an inch wide. I try to peek inside the crack, but it’s not really a hole. There’s just more crumbled concrete and dirt.
I sit down on the floor. “I know you’re in there,” I say. I lean against the back wall, gazing out at the main floor through the doorway: a new remote perspective from this stark box of a changing room. “And I can’t imagine what you’ve been through, the choices you’ve had to make,” I continue. “To escape. To be out on your own like this. I’m sure it was scary. Is scary.”
The bolt on the main door makes a chunking sound.
“But wonderful, too,” I add. “You’re free.”
The heavy door swings open. Vivian enters, keys jingling and bagel bags rustling in hand.
I lean down toward the crack in the floor . “But rats are bad for business,” I whisper confidentially. Like a mob boss. Drug lord. Bad cop on the take. “And you and me? We’re not done here.”
“Wil?” calls Vivian from the front counter. “What’s with all the shoes…”
I jump up, dust off my rump, and mentally craft the cover-up tale via rapid fire of desperate neurons. “It’s about time,” I call back, and I head out to meet her. “I’m starving over here.”
I have no innate sense of direction. When tasked with an important appointment in unfamiliar territory, I like to make a preliminary visit to my destination—and ideally, I like to walk around. Often such a scenario is simply not feasible. Time, distance, and convenience limit such a luxury. But when it is possible and I take the opportunity, much of my new-situation anxiety falls away. Walking provides a means to get a feel for a place at ground level. Walking is slow: it provides the details. Walking is meditative: it allows the mind to make connections to what the senses perceive.
I’ve recently realized an equivalent tendency in the realm of my writing. I began a new story several months ago in the form of feature-length screenplay. As I struggled and struggled—with the outline, the direction, the theme, the beats—as I set it aside repeatedly in exchange for shorter, swiftly-completed writing gratifications—I wondered. Maybe I’m just not up to the task? Maybe the idea is bad? Maybe both.
However, I was loath to give up on it entirely. I sorely miss working on a long storyline. I spent recent years—years—wrestling with a sprawling, epic novel, the end of which I simply could not reach. Although at times immensely frustrating, it was also the most fun I’ve ever had writing. I loved working on it despite the complexity.
But ultimately the novel became an exercise in futility: I was so deep in the weeds, so low to the ground, that I couldn’t keep the story moving in any one direction. I wanted to reach a worthwhile destination, but I was lost.
In school last year, I used that novel’s story as the subject of a screenwriting project. I was forced to rise above the details and simplify both my narrative and my thinking. I had to focus on basic plot points, singular character motivations, and essential themes. From the bird’s-eye vantage point of a screenplay beat sheet, the story’s destination came into view at last. The finished product isn’t perfect, but for now, I’m satisfied: that story exists. It has officially been told. I can make clean break and step away.
And I need to step away. The necessary work to finish a major writing project is more laborious sweat than creative spark. Right now, I don’t want sweaty labor to be the bulk of my creative life. I’m yearning for that early-stage spark. I want to regain that sense of story-passion. That sense of fun.
With this new story idea proving troublesome, I considered the wisdom of giving up. It seemed like a dead end. Yet still it lingered in the back of my mind….
And so it lingers today. Scenes appear in my imagination unbidden. Characters show up in insomniac hours to make conversation, and to make their pleas. Exhausted, I acquiesce. Fine, I’m listening.
Maybe they’re right.
Perhaps this new story does hold potential, considering my subconscious is so insistent (or is it my sanity fraying at last?). Maybe it is my next chance to reclaim that endurance-enabling creative passion. But to find out—to get there—I must feel the story, sink into it. I need to set aside the outline for a while, put away the beat sheet, stop overthinking the possible themes.
I need to walk through it at ground level.
I must slow down, go deep and detailed, get lost inside the minds of the characters, immerse myself awhile in the new imagined world. Direction and destination aren’t important during this preliminary amble. The goal is to sense-perceive the story in its incipiency.
Several days ago, I fired up Scrivener for the first time in a long while. I saved a novel template. I started writing prose: a purple, long-winded, overly-detailed account of my opening scene, complete with the character’s thoughts and feelings—what he saw, smelled, heard, tasted.
It was fun.
Each successive morning since then, I’ve awakened early and excited to return to that world, to squeeze in a tiny bit of writing time before morning’s workaday busyness sets in. If this excitement keeps up, and with the help of a parallel script-in-progress, I think I can navigate to the narrative’s end (eventually, anyway—as the crazy-working-mom schedule allows). Thanks to an awesome screenwriting instructor and gracious feedback from my writer’s group, I know much more about storytelling now than I did a few years ago. I hopefully have the skills now to alternate groundwork for a bird’s-eye view of the plot when it’s necessary to gain perspective.
But for me, it’s groundwork that fuels initial passion for a story. In the past, the energy generated by groundwork was what sustained me through the long trip of telling a tale—and it ultimately propelled my writing to its completion.
In a room full of strangers, I’m alone. The surface of a red plastic cup flexes under pressure from my fingers, and beer inside sloshes subtly. I gauge my surroundings: student-ghetto kitchen, my back to the sink, sundry Goodwill pots and pans in the dry rack. I look around at the people in my vicinity, briefly tune in on peripheral coversations. I consider interrupting someone, introducing myself, maybe asking for directions to the restroom—something. But upon my chest presses the invisible, awkwardly-splayed hand of social anxiety. Nah, says the hand’s master, you’d better just stay put.
A pod of savvy conversationalists migrates toward the living room, and as they pass, I hear murmurs of “They’re about to start.” Excitement subsumes anxiety. Curiosity pushes the invisible hand aside. I move through the kitchen as if through a rite of passage, my sneakers sticking to the floor in spots. I grasp my beer cup like a talisman, red for luck.
Under the threshold’s arch, I stand at the edge of a crowd smooshed into a room-shaped mass. Generally everyone faces the fireplace wall, where a band has finished setting up within the tiny space allotted. Among layers of human shapes between me and the cold fireplace, I discern musicians strapped with guitars.
I weave through the crowd, navigating among erratically-gesticulating bodies, protecting my beer cup. I take root in front of the bass cabinet. Okay, it’s not ideal in terms of bleeding ears. But just behind the cabinet stands a set of sliding patio doors: my emergency escape route, beloved by the panic-prone in a room at max capacity.
The band tunes and warms. Strings strum discordantly, drums snare-snap and thump. More people crowd in, streaming from the front porch and other areas of the house, and soon the living room is packed with bodies. The kitchen holds the overflow, and people have closed me in on all sides. My chest tightens. But I work to I keep calm, keep my gaze trained on the patio doors, beyond which the darkness of the summer night spreads quiet, open, and empty. Meanwhile, within these walls, the humid air is alive with mingled scents—sweat, smoke, incense, marijuana, beer. My head spins as I breathe it all in.
Well, it could be worse.… I sip beer and concentrate on the band. The two burly dudes and petite girl in the band are drenched in sweat and cramped among their own equipment. They glance around at each other, then out at the room. The guitarist nods with finality, stares down at his hands, rocks on his feet in rhythm. The girl lowers her head, and long hair covers her eyes as she positions her bass guitar expectantly. The drummer lifts his sticks and clicks in time—one, two, three, four—
The room transforms. A wall of sound from the speakers electrifies the hot, damp human flesh and hair around me. Pummeling percussion draws us all in, mainlining us with a common pulse, a cyclical life-force-electrical lift and shudder. People begin to move: heads thrown forward and back, arms crowd-risen and topped by thrusting fists and devil’s-horns. Torsos rock rhythmically in place—though unable to gain additional space in the crowd, they’re unwilling to be still. Cannot be still. Guitar chords emphasize the overwhelming beat with spine-thrilling harmonics. The bass guitar’s colossal sound shudders through my body, vibrations entering through my feet and shoulders. Each note grabs and shakes my insides: overpowering, inexorable, utterly possessing.
It’s all so loud, I can’t hear myself breathe. Can’t hear myself think. I sink into the music, seep into it, close my eyes, clasp the red cup to my heart. Mathy hardcore mixed with dissonant metal riffs—this is not a style I listen to, or even normally like. But the unfamiliarity of the music only facilitates its total conquest. The dual song-screams of the guitarists resonate with primordial urgency. All thoughts of past and future fade, clobbered back into the subconscious’ dark corners, defeated by the animal present—destroyed by the percussive and clamorous here-and-now, as insisted upon by every fiber in my being, and by all joy of matter in the room….
Songs melt into one another, vaguely punctuated by passages of wailing feedback and cries from the crowd. Or is it all one eternal song? Time passes. Time morphs. Time ceases to mean anything more than the rhythm surrounding me. That rhythm transforms—speeds up, slows down, counts odd syncopations, ceases for brief passages of silence that carry their own crucial beat. Feedback screams and sustains. Chords change, melodies manipulate, sounds invoke emotions like demons from the heart. Sweat pours from the faces and arms of the musicians in front of me, but their concentration is uninhibited. The energy with which they have charged the room cycles back upon them, an electric loop. Empowered, they continue to play with violence and emotion despite the heat and the crowd. Invigorated, the crowd continues to thrive and pulse and writhe in time.
Then, as suddenly as it had started, the noise screeches to a halt. Mid-song, a guitar string springs from its formerly taut and tortured position on the instrument. It wavers in the air desperately at the tuning end of the fretboard, as if struggling to free itself. The guitarist looks to his bandmates questioningly—should he change the string, or abort the mission? The drummer shakes his head and holds one stick up, sweat flying from his brow and running into his eyes. At this weary gesture, the other band members raise their hands in farewell, then yank the instrument cords from their amplifiers.
People around me shove and shout and scream for more. Vitalized, I yell too, hands raised. But it’s no use: the band is finished. The crowd continues to fester and swoon with the last vestiges of shared energy.
Anxiety dispelled, I gaze at the teeming horde around me now with newfound affection. I finish the rest of my beer, warm and flat. The red cup is empty and my thirst is slaked.
Paul Bowles’ book The Sheltering Sky houses one of the most poignant literary passages I’ve ever had the pleasure to read:
“Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, an afternoon that is so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four, five times more, perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.”
Ruminating on this passage recently shaped a notion in my mind. The presumption of the “inexhaustible well” of life’s potential is a subliminal, self-preserving instinct. It’s a mindset of blissful privilege. It protects against panic-triggering awareness of one’s own vulnerability.
Behind any instinct, nature’s intent is rooted in survival. Certainly this seems a benevolent cause. But human survival instinct takes on many mitigated and illusive forms.
In America since its beginning, struggles for rights and resources have shaped the social landscape. Other nations have long known such struggles. Our mutual instincts regularly pit us against each other in a battle for resources. Instinct is enacted through our self-created social constructs: battle field, courtroom, corporate boardroom, street rally, online forum. Words themselves become actions in the effort toward instinct’s goal, whether it be a vicious tweet gone viral — or gentle words spoken quietly by a parent to a child. So instinct also brings us together: through love, collaboration, education, mutual protection.
In recent months, I’ve returned to favorite artistic, philosophical, and literary comforts with the hope of finding answers to questions that trouble me: about the future awaiting my children; about the changing face of social deviance and what it means to dissent; about the paradox of maintaining a compassionate worldview in a world where compassionate acts are increasingly marginalized.
Bowles’ concept of a perceived inexhaustible well lends poetry to a new perspective I strive to establish. My lifelong privilege has been to assume civil rights, social compassion, and humanitarian outreach are ingrained in our society — often challenged, never perfect, but ultimately taken for granted.
Yet I’ve recently come to understand that the well from which these things flow is not ethereal or passively divine. We comprise this well: each of us, together. Our actions, our words, our very thoughts. This particular well is only as inexhaustible as our hearts.
Around this time last year, in the spirit of New Year’s resolutions, my 2016 writing goal seemed simple enough: start an online blog. I hoped the self-imposed monthly deadline to write something (anything!) for Punctuated Equilibria would provide enough pressure to keep me writing regularly. I presumed the benefits would include both good practice and mental exercise. Furthermore, the public nature of blog writing seemed a means to gain confidence with the concept of “putting it out there.” A means to a thicker skin. Perhaps to a braver self.
Okay, okay. Neither brave nor thick-skinned enough yet to enable comments. But I digress.
Committing to this blog all year forced me into a deeper-thinking mode on a routine basis. Do you sometimes get the sense that “deep thinking” has lost its cultural value lately? Is there a Boromir meme for “One does not simply think things through”? I’m the first to admit, I could stand to develop better habits of mind. I believe Punctuated Equilibria has been helpful to that end. Of course, one could further debate the dubious cultural value of overanalyzing topics like dog bites and goth zines. Still, good mental habits develop from the exercise of analyzing a given topic—appreciating multiple perspectives, considering the devil in the details, and drawing analogous connections to invoke a message. Critical thinking expands awareness and increases understanding.
Ironically, sometimes the awareness is that one doesn’t totally understand. But that’s part of the work of thinking: there’s a reason it’s easier just to not.
Overall, writing here regularly for the past several months has been gratifying. Some entries stole many hours away from sleep and weekends; I dutifully traded the time. I consider writing a vocation. And for what that’s worth, keeping a blog has been an important experiment with a contemporary forum for personal writing.
As 2017 looms, however, my next New Year’s writing goal weighs heavily on my mind. Last year’s screenplay competition deadlines came and went. For all my revising and story-convention-contemplating and believable-character-flaw-development and all-around big talk—I still haven’t deemed my scripts ready to participate.
I need to cut the cord on one of these stories and, well… put it out there.
The artistic balance to strike: between putting-best-foot-forward and perfectionistic-control-freak-ism. Can I muster enough insight to know when to stop revising, say “good enough,” and move on? Sure I can, given all the time in the world. But in lieu of that, even better: give myself a 2017 writing goal.
With only so many available hours each week to devote, and with only so much mental energy to expend, I’m re-committing all my writing time toward the new goal of submitting a script to a competition next year.This blog will go silent for a while—silent as I focus on the writing I consider closest to my heart these days. Silent, certainly until I upload something to Withoutabox and rightfully toast a completed goal.