On progress

We are an impatient breed. We want results. We want success. And, no matter that we know these things come only after time and toil, we want them now. I see all the stages of editation and read-testing and weeping and re-editing – and repeat to fade – ahead of me. I still want it done. I want it done yesterday.

This isn’t in itself a bad thing. Impatience drives us. It pushes us to do the work, to get this stage done so we can move onto the next task. But it can be counterproductive. Take my one experience with an agent: hearing the changes she advised me to make, determining to crack through them quickly in order to appear professional, and thus producing a shoddy piece of work that ultimately disappointed us both.

There’s a certain trend in writing – most notably NaNoWriMo and its spin-offs – to equate quantity with quality. ‘How to write a bad book quickly’. I’m not knocking it – NaNoWriMo is great for that feeling of accomplishment and out of the raw material a greater thing can be spun. Just don’t mistake means for ends. Get the words down, yes, but don’t expect a publisher to bite your arm off for the rights. Not until you’ve gone through the work again – slower, with different eyes, with deeper soul.

And anyway, what about the pleasure? What about the joy? If you’re putting so much pressure on yourself to produce then you’re running the risk of sucking the life out of the work. And then there’s the paradoxical truth: if your primary motivation is output then you court laziness: the lowest-hanging fruit becomes even more attractive. No point thinking deeply or undertaking a difficult section as your word-count will fall. You become a typist: an infinite monkey, not a writer.

It also means that these challenging sections – where actual thought is required – can give you feelings of failure as you produce less that session. Let me tell you now: you’re writing even if you’re not at a computer. As you stare out of a bus window you’re writing. You’re writing when you do the washing up. Whenever you’re alone and underemployed you’re writing.

Targets are great. Targets – deadlines, self-imposed or external – can drive you forwards, can force you to focus and to get those damn words down. But there will be days when you don’t meet them. There will be days when you have to live your life. Don’t beat yourself up on days like this. It all adds to the rich tapestry of existence – and, ultimately, that will make you a deeper person and give your writing a greater scope. Find the balance.

Most of all you need to enjoy what you do. Otherwise you’ll never produce anything at all.

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