Now that my almost-midyear birthday is out of the way, I’ve been taking stock of where I’m up to. Normally that would mean reviewing the goals I set for myself at the start of the year and seeing how comprehensively I’ve missed them.
Only – and this is a strange break from my usual habits – I don’t seem to have set any. Or at least, none that I declared publicly in the hopes of keeping myself accountable. I assume I just overlooked it because I was only holidays in January. Oh well.
Rest assured, if I had set up a collection of writing targets, most of them would remain unblemished by the sweaty taint of accomplishment at this point. I’m pretty great at starting new projects, but I’m a little less renowned for completing them.
The trouble arises from the fact that I’m also pretty terrible at abandoning things. My great intention to Do All the Things shifts uncomfortably from noble ambition to mounting chaos.
Picture a tragic romantic figure stricken with the curse of lycanthropy, only instead of transforming into a savage wolf beneath the silver gaze of the full moon, he becomes a pack of drunken howler monkeys in a typewriter repair shop.
For a less wild example, picture a juggler working with the standard three balls. Listen, I’m not especially dexterous, and I can juggle three balls (thanks to a weird obsessive stint in high school when I picked up a collection of skills which have since served me not at all in the long march of life). Three balls is regulation, and it doesn’t take much practice to get okay at it.
Adding a ball is pretty hard. The rhythm is different, your hands need to describe tighter circles and there’s just generally more to keep track of. It takes a bit more skill, which means more practice and more focus – but you can get there pretty quickly with dedicated effort. For a while there in high school, it mattered enough to me – for some reason – to make that effort, and so I could juggle four balls.
Now add a fifth ball. Or clubs instead of balls. Or a juggling partner. Each new variation adds complexity and new skills to master. Failure rates skyrocket. Progress grinds to a halt.
You can see where I’m going with this. I was that clownish juggler in a sitcom, frantically adding balls and clubs and the occasional chainsaw to my panicky act. Building towards the hilarious moment when everything comes crashing down, or I accidentally sever something.
This year has not been the one to break the pattern. I recently sat down and counted up all my open projects, including incomplete novels, serial stories and short stories, novel manuscripts I’ve agreed to review for other people, blog projects, contests and markets I want or have committed to writing for, and various other writing-relating obligations.
There’s 27 of them.
“Oh,” I thought when I finished the tally. “What the hell is wrong with me? Why can I never just finish something?”
Two days later, after reading an article with several writing prompts attached, I started writing a new short story – and suddenly I had my answer. To nobody’s surprise, that answer is “Near-inhumanly poor impulse control.”
Strangely, the moment gave me pause.
I had been struggling with motivation to sit down and write, as I periodically do. The sudden cold weather and a few exhausting weeks at my day job didn’t help, but I now recognise there was more to it. I had inadvertently piled so much on my own plate that I didn’t know where to start. And not knowing where to start invariably meant one of two things – either I didn’t start anywhere, or I started something new.
So for the moment my efforts have a new focus – getting some of the balls out of the air. Winding the act down to something manageable and perhaps just a little less disorderly. Soberly considering the colourful array of balls looping above my head, and working out which ones I can put down, which ones I can throw out into the audience, and which ones I just have to toss over my shoulder.
Finishing my stuff.
Finishing stuff, and trying not to think about what it would be like to throw an egg and a bowling ball into the mix.
Finishing stuff? What’s that, then? Does not compute.
“Near-inhumanly poor impulse control” — now that phrase made me laugh, because it is so perfectly true. I have heard there are writers out there who have inhumanly excellent impulse control. How, pray, do they get it? Is it genetic? Can it be bought? Does it lurk in the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow?
If I find out, I’ll let you know.
Ah, writers such as these are the stuff of folklore. Mythological, the lot of them.
Pursue not the spurious legends of “discipline” and “productivity”! These false idols are demons sent to lure the naive writer from their core traditions of procrastination and mucking about on the internet.
Heed not their improbable promises! Woe! Woe!
Oh, the relief. I can set aside my unattainable goals and binge-watch Netflix instead. Thank you, Dave, That was a close one.
Binge-watching everything you want to see on Netflix is *also* an unattainable goal!
I, too, have been having trouble finishing things, lately. I’d love to hear if you find any strategies that work. Currently, I’m relying on some writing buddies to keep me accountable.
Writing buddies and keeping a list of all my unfinished business on my work desk are almost the only things that do work on me. Guilt and self-recrimination are the cornerstones of my productivity.
(I wish I were joking)
Really, I’m terrible at it. The only way I can manage is to just ignore everything else in favour of the one thing I can’t put off any longer. As a pertinent current example, my brother’s manuscript has been languishing at the fringes of my to do list for months now.
Let the record show that I had already moved it to the front of the queue *before* I found out he was going to be in town this weekend. But now I have a hard, tangible deadline so I can’t put it off any longer, and It. Will. Get. Done.
Honestly though, I wouldn’t wish my process on my worst enemy.
Come to think of it, my process probably *is* my worst enemy.