The Problem of Progression

The Problem of Progression

Publication; that is the elusive goal that I, and many other writers on this site, are after. We envision it as finish line, a medal we can wear that says ‘Author’. If you’re published you’ve made it, you’ve moved from dreamer to doer, amateur to professional. Lay people out in the world will take you seriously, you’re not just that guy at the party ‘working on his novel,’ you’re legitimate.

I know thinking that way is a trap, but it’s one that I often fall into. There are so few tangible bench marks in writing that publication becomes alluring. A clear sign that you are doing something right; that you’ve progressed. Often in my day to day writing I can’t tell if I’m getting better, if I’m challenging myself enough, if I’m too afraid to share my work, if I’m really ‘moving forward’ or what that even means.

We like the idea of progression, that one step leads to another. It’s one of the reason RPGs are so fun, you level up, you have real rewards for your experience. The stories we hear about success follow that same linear structure and when we look back on our own success we often organize our history into a clear path of progression.

But that path is never clear. It’s marked by failure, experimentation, stalling and hurdling leaps. You don’t move forward as often as you move in an angle, you’re footing never certain until it is, the demarcation lines of success only visible when you turn around, what’s head is nothing but fog.

I’m at a point in my writing that I know that I’m not a beginner and I know I’m not an expert. I would love to be intermediate, but I have suspicion that I’m several style books behind that (seriously, I’m in dire need of regular line editing). I’ve been writing consistently for close to ten years, mostly creative work, mostly creative work that no one’s read.

When I started writing, the path forward was easy to see and the goals tangible: write a short story, write a novella, write a novel, edit a novel. Writing advice was easier to find or at least more relevant. There’s a lot advice out there about ‘finding time to write’, hell I’ve got some if anyone wants to hear it, but I’ve found the time and done a fair bit of writing and now I’m not sure the way forward. The more I learn about writing, the less I seem to know.

When everything is murky like this it’s best to get out of your own head. Talk to someone who knows you. I have a friend who is a creative too. He’s read my work and we bounced ideas around together. He was able to explain how arriving at the murky part of my goal meant that I had gone farther than before. I’ve progressed to a point where I have no real experience to base it on and need to do some experimentation. I need to prod different avenues, I need to fail a little and find out what works and what doesn’t. The unknown can be exciting; an opportunity.

If you don’t have a friend, you have yourself. Tell yourself your story, look back, see the points where you’ve done well and how they’ve led you to this moment. Remember the missteps, the rejections, the work you’ve abandoned. They are part of the path, they’re not so much dead ends as circular steps, spinning you around and leading you forward. When facing the fog, pick a direction, any direction, work out the steps to it and start moving. You’ll find that you stumble and slide and maybe it’s not worth going there, but at the very least it will eliminate a heading.

Writing is art and art isn’t neat. It can be hard to define. It can be nebulous and therefore it’s success can feel that way too. Embrace it. It’s okay to get lost for a little bit, if you keep trying different ways to move forward, you’ll eventually improve. Don’t focus on one goal other than to be better, to grow, to learn more. Or at least, that’s what I’m going to try. I’ll let you know when I find my way out of the fog.

The Importance of Journaling

The Importance of Journaling

Over the weekend I hung out with a friend who wants to write a play. She asked for writing suggestions. I told her to start a journal.

Journaling is the most important thing that any writer or anyone who wants to start writing can do. I’ve been writing short stories and novels since I was twelve, but I didn’t consider myself a writer until after college when I started a journal. Thanks that journal I write every day. I’ve improved in all elements of my writing and have six hundred-page novels to share.

For most people journal writing conjures up images of mole skin notebooks with dear diary written in looping cursive, but that’s not exactly, what I mean. When I say journal, I mean a space, be it a word processor or notebook, where you sit down for at least twenty minutes and write. It doesn’t matter what you write in that space, it just matters that you do it and do it every day.

Writing, like exercising or learning a musical instrument, is hard. It requires practice and that’s what the journal is, your practice. You have to force yourself to do it, especially when you’re first starting. After a long day of work, you’re not going to want to do anything, even write, same is true if you get up at five am and try to squeeze in a writing secession before work. You have to make it a habit.

I write at least a paragraph in my journal every day before I start a writing secession. It’s how I limber up my creative muscles. My journal is freeing, I write whatever I want. I don’t care about quality or the mistakes I make. I write as fast as the thoughts come to me and I write down all my thoughts, no matter how bad, or lazy or mean they are. Most of my thoughts are just boring. 90% of my journals start with the phrase, ‘I’m tired and I don’t want to write.’

When I journal I don’t tend to write fiction. Instead, it’s more like a compressed dairy. I’ll write a summary of my day or talk about something that’s bothering me. I use the journal to plan a lot: review goals and progress. I will talk about writing ideas I have as well as what I liked or didn’t like about the book I’m reading or game I’m playing. It’s a lot like a less polished, more personal version of this blog.

My journal is also home to some of my best writing, entries that I love stumbling over again and remind me that I can actually do this thing! But it’s also home to my absolute worse writing, a reminder that I need to stay sharp and edit. Because I have horrible penmanship and spelling, I keep my journal in google docs which makes revisiting old entries easy. I can trace my progression as a writer, as well as other goals, see where I’ve succeeded or fallen behind.

There are also wellness benefits to keeping a journal, so many in fact that even if I didn’t want to be a novelist I would still journal. It let’s me slow down and organize my thoughts. I can dissect what I’m feeling and why I’m feeling that way. It also helps me vent. I can write my roommate a nasty letter without ruining our friendship or formulate what I’m going to say at my next work review. I always feel better after I journal, even if I write nonsense or something I wouldn’t say out loud.

Journaling alone won’t write your novel or script, but it gives you tools you need to accomplish those dream projects. It teaches you about your own writing, about setting habits and enhances your critical thinking. It also does the important work of letting you know yourself better. Journaling doesn’t just improve your writing, it improves you too.