the granny square approach

Momentum, like Mr. Darcy’s good opinion, once lost is lost forever.

Or so it seems.

Something like a particularly nasty cold that lasts a week (especially when it is followed by Husband spending the whole next week sick with said cold) can wreak havoc on my momentum.

Like coming back from vacation, or from an illness, or from a mental rabbit hole of writing on one project, returning to the status quo is difficult. You feel like the Campbellian hero, returning to find the world the same but himself drastically different.

Only  your arc was a helluva lot more pathetic than the hero’s. You find yourself wondering just how the hell you did this day-in, day-out, once upon a time. What was I? Superhuman?

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Losing your momentum is like losing a little bit of yourself. What is all this yarn and how the hell will I ever make it anything?

I kept telling myself there has to be some technique for dealing with this… something I could fall back on when I find yourself in this situation… some easy trick to convince myself it’s all not as difficult as I thought.

I realized when crocheting once, that the idea of holding in my hands the tiny fragment of what will be a finished product is too overwhelming. How can I have this brief string of stitches and imagine it an entire blanket?

It’s so much easier to just… not  do it. I accepted the lack of momentum and gave up.

But obviously, if I kept doing this, I’d never accomplish anything.

So I tried this. I wasn’t going to make an entire blanket, I was going to make one granny square. That was easy. It just took an hour.

And then, when that was done, I made another.

Before I knew it, I had a bag of granny squares. I had a whole fucking blanket!

And, funnily enough, I didn’t even want a blanket anymore. I made pillows instead.

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My point is that everything can be broken down into manageable chunks. Don’t worry about writing that novel; write that chapter. Hell, write that one scene. Or even just two hundred words. Just focus on that.

Just that. And don’t worry about anything else until it’s time.

Before you know it, you’ll have a pillow that’s as sexy as hell.

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Or two. 

Aw, yeah.

Untitled

– F. Scott Fitzgerald

writing and the importance of just getting it done

After extensive note-taking and a few false starts, just over two months ago, I actually sat down and starting writing that young adult subterranean fiction piece I first thought of more than half my life ago. (it is now best described as *bracing myself* a dystopian YA novel-meets-Jane Austen.)

I’ve learned through this project the importance of persistence.

I learned how to effectively deal with something that’s not working. Rather than just giving up or sitting around waiting for it to get better I learned to change my approach.

I started writing this story just for fun, just to write and see what happens.

That got me through two or three chapters and then I petered out. This is part of a larger pattern and is why I have so many unfinished projects. I lose steam. I lose my way. I don’t know where to take it from there.

So I tried something different this time. My message to myself was: Just finish it, goddamnit. Who cares how good it is? This is a first draft. Stop your worrying, Ashleigh.

The idea of writing a whole book is always daunting. So I tried something different. I decided to focus on smaller goals, smaller hurdles.

I told myself to just write one page. One page to outline what the story would be: beginning, middle, end.

One page was easy.

Then I took that one page and delineated the beginning, middle and end into three clear parts: First Act, Second Act, Third Act.*

And then I took the three acts and wrote one page for each.

Again, focusing on just doing one page is easy. And it’s okay if every sentence starts with “and then.” These are just notes. The “and thens” are what you want to figure out right now.

Sometime during all of this, I arbitrarily decided that 75,000 words was a good length for a YA fantasy novel. I also arbitrarily decided that 3000 words sounded like a good length for each chapter. So there I had it: twenty-five chapters.

Forgetting for the sake of maths, the first chapter that I’d already written as something of a prologue, I was left with eight chapters per act.

I took what I’d written for each act and a different colour pen and separated the page into eight sections, each section a sentence or two.

I then expanded each sentence or two into a one page. This might seem daunting because that immediately meant I had to write twenty-four pages, one per chapter, but this was the fun part. This is the part where I flushed out all those “and thens” and made sure they actually flowed.

You might bang your head on the desk a few times when you realize that you can’t find an adequate character motivation for a certain “and then” that you’d been banking on and then things change and evolve. But that is the beauty of this thing called writing. It’s just as much discovering the story and characters as it is making it up. If it doesn’t flow naturally, something is not working.

This part of the exercise I found invaluable because twenty-four pages might sound like a lot, but it is certainly better than having written 150 before you find out a key part you’d been banking on isn’t going to work. And you’re not worried about style or sentence structure, because you’re just making notes. It’s the best way to find out if the story sinks or swims. The stakes are still low and you will have identified any major problems before you’re already too far gone.

Anyway.

From there, I had roughly 300 words per page, which would then be expanded to 3000. For some chapters, this was as good enough a place to just sit down and start writing as any. For others, I hit a block and needed an even stricter approach.

For about half of the chapters (All the Act Two ones; I have a huge problem with second acts. I blame F. Scott Fitzgerald.), I actually broke it down further into scenes or subjects and applied word count goals to each. Then, it was as if I didn’t have to write a whole 3000-word chapter, I just had to write one 250-word scene where the main character rides a horse. Easy. Write a few of those and then you’ve got a chapter.

When stuck, break it down to a page at a time. Or even a paragraph at a time. Sometimes, the first couple sentences are the hardest and then it flows. Most times, it’s just getting going that’s the hard part. Once you’ve started, you’re golden. You just have to force yourself to write that first paragraph. Just get it done.

When I’m trying to write, I set myself word goals a day. The easy default is 1000 words a day.

I used to meet this goal adequately enough before, but once I really set this level of organization to this project, I slowly started writing more and more each day. By the time I got into Act Three, I was writing an entire chapter – all 3000 words – a day. For the last several chapters, I was writing two chapters a day.

Another bit of discipline that I forced on myself was to not go back and read over what I had written. Not until it was all done. I would finish a page – just one page – print it off, stick it with the others, and keep moving forward. One page at a time. I didn’t want to get into that cycle of editing while I write, constantly going back and then pushing forward.

I wanted to focus on the forest not the trees. I will edit it all together when the first draft is done.

So, here I am. Done.

The whole thing is 81,000 words right now. But 81,000 words in two months marks me as the most prolific I’ve ever been. That’s not even counting other stuff I wrote this month. It’s amazing how focusing on writing one thing makes you already ‘in the zone’ for writing other things.

And now I am prepared to read that first draft over again and just see how terrible or magnificent it actually is. But even if it is terrible, that’s okay, because the hard part is over. It is done.

All I have to do now is edit, and editing can polish a turd into a diamond, that’s for sure.

__________________________________

*This is a good starting point for breaking down structure. It’s something I learned from working in film, but it gives you a spine and then you just have to fill in the blanks. It will either help you get over any humps in the brainstorming process or give you a placeholder to put in until you work out the finer points.

the commencement of commencement advice commences

There’s nothing more useless than unsolicited advice. 

I was going to preface that with When you’re young, but it’s really applicable to all ages. Unsolicited advice simply comes at a much greater frequency when you’re young.

As I age (like a slowly ripening then rotting apple; that is the metaphor I’ve chosen to age by), I understand this frequency. You get very caught up in feeling that you’ve finally figured somethings out. You feel wise at last. You’ve deconstructed the follies of your youth and learned from them. And thus the desire to share that wisdom is strong.

But don’t. Just… don’t. You cannot really be wise with your advice unless you know whether or not people want it. Do not forget when you were young and people tried to give you advice. There’s a fine line between advice and decree.

For me, I found I hated the condescension. I thought I knew what I wanted and I was going to go for it. At best, advice was an annoying drone in my ear that I had to swat away with a furious you just don’t understand. At worst, advice was a barked order and I would immediately want to do the opposite.

Of course I made mistakes. Of course I stumbled. Of course I fell.

I failed repeatedly. I took so many different paths only to get so far along them that I realized it was all for naught. It was a dead-end. I had to go back. I had to do something new. Or something old again.

But it was necessary.

After a time, I learned how to decipher advice as it came to me. I learned how to tell if the advice was in my best interest or in theirs. I learned to weigh the advice against my own thoughts. I learned the value of another opinions. Or two. Or three.

But the reality persists: Some things you have to discover for yourself. Making mistakes is how you learn.

It all boils down to what sort of person you want to be one day. Do you want to be successful? Do you want to be fulfilled? Or do you just want to be happy?

It’s even simpler than that. Is what you want out of life something external (success, money, a partner), or something internal (fulfillment, creativity, knowledge, wisdom, love, happiness). Yes, love and happiness are indeed internal. 

If you think internal, then the best course of action is to figure it out yourself. Independence was so important. I paid my own way. I got my own jobs. My parents always had a place for me to sleep if I needed it. And I couldn’t ask for more. I wouldn’t want more.

But they gave me the independence and the support to figure things out for myself.

~

My student loans will still take me years to pay off and I have a job that is completely unrelated to my degree. In fact, my job didn’t even require a degree. There are so many classes I wasted money on. So many things I learned that I don’t remember. So many people I met that I don’t talk to anymore. So many wasted opportunities.

But I would go to university all over again. (Actually, I would start at a college and then transfer this time around – the savings!)

And the reason why is simple. As a friend once said to me, education “pops the bubble.” That resonated.

For almost every single one of us, your entire childhood up through to high school, you’re living in a bubble. Hopefully, at some point in your life, that bubble pops.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, it’s probably because your bubble hasn’t popped. I don’t mean this to sound condescending; I really don’t. But there are people I’ve met for whom I think that bubble has never popped. They’ve gone through their whole lives without really getting it. They just don’t realize how big and diverse and wonderful the world is. They don’t realize how great and terrible most of history has been. They don’t realize what sacrifices were made – and are still being made on a daily basis – to give them the life they have. They have no concept of their context in the world.

Imagine your world a fishbowl and you’re a huge frigging fish. Imagine growing legs. (Yes, this happened.) Imagine peering out of your fishbowl because you realize that there is more to life. As soon as your head pops up, you see countless other fishbowls running out every direction, disappearing into the distance. So many, you could not possibly count them all.

Of course that’s terrifying. It’s much easier to duck back into your own fishbowl and carry on with the life you know. It’s familiar. It’s safe.

But easier does not mean better. If you don’t leave your own fishbowl, you never know how different and unique all the others are. Some are scary, yes, but some are wonderful. All different sizes and shapes and all filled with a different manner of fish. And if you never looked, you’d never have any idea!

Do you really not want to go exploring? Do you really not want to learn all about it?

Or all you really content with your one tiny little fishbowl and all the limits it holds?

Of course, there are many ways to “pop the bubble,” but education was the one that did it for me.

~

Quite a while ago now, I used to make movies. I haven’t worked on one in nearly five years. Up until… well, this very moment, I suppose, I still called myself a filmmaker, leaving open the possibility that I might one day make another. As if I was just on a break.

For several years before that break, I made movies with people I love working with. We had fun for a while until it stopped being fun. As I still had the desire to make movies, I thought this was the natural progression to my “real” career in film. I enrolled in film school.

And it was great. It was. I learned so much and I think I did pretty well. More than anything, I gained the confidence to know that Yes, I CAN do this! I learned that I had it in me to succeed. I had all the internal components necessary. Whether or not I succeeded from that point would take persistence and a hell of a lot of luck.

But, aye, here’s the rub: I also learned what my life would look like if I did succeed. I learned that success is the horizon. There’s really no such thing. It keeps moving backwards the farther you go. To chase success, in and of itself, is really fucking pointless. 

All of it means nothing if you don’t love what you’re doing.

I never trust anyone who’s more excited about success than about doing the thing they want to be successful at.

xkcd 

So many people try to give such advice as chase your dreams, and do what you love. But the thing is, those people are given a platform through which to hand out that advice because it all worked out for them. No one whose dreams have failed them is ever given a microphone through which to announce that. 

I think it should be amended to say: Do what you love, but don’t expect to make money from it. 

Have a day job. Something unrelated to your passion. Something that keeps you alive and doesn’t sap your will to live. (In this economy?!) Focus on what you love and ditch the rest. You don’t need a fancy car. You don’t need a huge house, or even house. Rent a cheap apartment in a part of the city that inspires you. You don’t need to be part of a “scene.” Make a scene.

None of those things will bring you happiness. Trust me. Repeat: happiness is not external. Love is not external. You don’t find love somewhere out there. You find it within and then maybe find someone to share it with. Besides, love comes in so many forms that you’ll constantly be discovering new ones for the rest of your life.

Your day job will not define you. Your house will not define you. Your car will not define you. Your significant other will not define you.

Why you love does not have to define you. What you love does not have to either. Who you love certainly does not have to.

How you love is what matters. 

How you love is love put into action. How you love is how you interact with the world. If you want to leave a mark on the world, that is how you will do it: whether though the love you give your children, or the compassion you give to strangers, or the art you create to express your need for the world to be better.

So if you truly love what you do, then you will be fine. If you love acting, then just act. Make it happen. Get creative. There is so much opportunity for cultural interaction in our world now. Go out there and find your people. Google them, for god’s sake.

But don’t get bit parts on television shows and think that somehow gives you more value as a human being than making your own Youtube videos with your friends. A job is a job, but passion is a purpose.

Because if you truly love filmmaking, then what you love about it will be more accessible when you create your own opportunities. If you truly love writing, hammering out your own stories or pointless blog posts (like this one) will be far easier to do and far more fulfilling than getting some hack job for an entertainment website.

I know because I’ve done it and I hated it. All it did was take away the energy I wished I had to put towards my own work. It became just another job. It’s strange to have the one thing you love that was always your thing become alienating. You wonder what part of you is even left anymore.

~

Why have I rambled so much about this?

I was asked by a collective of relatives to “give advice” to another, younger relative who graduates high school soon. But I refused. I told them I wouldn’t unless she asked for advice. Because otherwise it would be useless.

But, if she does ask, that is what I would say.