Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Where I Least Expected It

I realized recently that the time I've spent in Corporate America hasn't been a total waste of my writing life. In addition to the technical writing I've done, I've also learned lessons there that work really well in the creative writing realm:

You don't get better at something by not doing it.
Richard, one of my favorite managers ever, said that to me when I tried to get out of giving a speech. He was right. The only way to get better at public presentations is to do them. Likewise, the best way to learn how to write is...to sit down and write. Duh.

The only people not making mistakes are the ones not doing anything.
I learned this bit of wisdom from Jim, the manager of the systems development staff responsible for putting back together a system I blew sky-high. The documentation said, "Run Step A, then Step B, then Step C." Easy enough, right? Why, then, did I run step A and then Step C? It wouldn't have been so bad if it hadn't happened during Game 4 of the NBA playoffs--one of those Lakers-Celtics years, no less. The lead computer operator stood outside my door during the entire debacle and glared at me. I cried. But then Jim stopped by, gave me the pep talk, and in the ensuing repair work, the programmer was able to make some improvements that made future recoveries as easy as the click of a button. It's the same with writing, I think. Write and make your mistakes...and then take a step back to learn from them. What you learn will, in all likelihood, make it easier the next time out.

If you can't measure it, you can't manage it.
This probably wouldn't hold true for all writers, but I'm the kind of person who needs markers along the way against which to measure my progress. I can't say, "I think I'll write for one hour per day." If I do, I'll sit down for one hour and write for twelve minutes. The other 48 minutes will be spent adjusting the chair and monitor, finding the right writing music, checking email, using the online dictionary to look for words I have no intention of using, checking voice mail--you get the picture. I need something to measure. For those purposes, I use a measly 300 words per day. It doesn't sound like much--about a page of fiction--but it's achievable on a regular basis, so I like it. I take great pleasure in writing down my daily word count, and when it goes over 300, I highlight it and put a star beside it. And if too many days go by without a star, I have to sit back and ask why. Am I distracted by outside influences? Am I just goofing off? Or am I afraid of what I'm writing? (That happens more than I'd like to admit and is something to be explored another day.) The main thing is that I think about it, and don't just let the blank page days roll by without knowing the why of it.

Don't let best get in the way of better.
Our society rewards excellence and there's nothing at all wrong with that. Excellence should be recognized and rewarded. But sometimes it seems we're so focused on Being The Best that we miss the opportunities for small victories and accomplishments along the way. Or worse, we refuse to accept these stairstep improvements as evidence of our progress simply because they're not The Best.

And that's what Corporate America has taught me about writing and life.

Writer Wrestles Alligators

I love to write. Almost as much as I love to talk and laugh. And breathe. It's exciting and terrifying and exhilarating and nauseating and life-affirming.

I had a lot of time to think about writing on a recent road trip to Chicago. On the long drive home, I turned the music off and let my mind wander (while still keeping my eye on the road, of course!) I thought about what it feels like to share my dreams and fantasies with people I don't know--an open invitation to have them trampled on or laughed at, or worse perhaps, ignored.

But I do it. I push the Send button with trembling fingers while my heart thunders in my chest and my breath quickens. And then I'm filled with joy. It doesn't even matter if my words were understood. I'm thrilled with the experience itself and the triumph of conquering a fear. Because that's what I discovered on the drive home from Chicago: writing scares me. And that that's precisely why I like it so much.

Some people drive race cars at 200 mph for a thrill. Some people jump out of airplanes with nothing more than an oversized bedsheet to protect them. They think that's "fun". Some people wrestle alligators for excitement. Me? I write.