There’s a pile of paper propped up next to my desk. They’re multiple copies of a chapter entitled “Arnold Schwarzenegger,” and it’s about a philandering businessman stuck in traffic as his long-suffering driver tries to navigate their SUV out of Manila and into the provinces. These copies are from my classmates, from a writing class that ended about a couple of months ago. Some of the feedback, like the ones from my teacher, are line-by-line edits, complete with single-spaced, typewritten advice, and those are invaluable. Some comments from my classmates are mere scribbles in the margins, checkmarks and instances of “not clear” and “nice!” but those are okay too.
I still haven’t incorporated any of the revisions into the draft in my desktop, and that’s not okay at all. I’ve read the comments, of course, but they lie there untransmuted, unconverted into kinetic energy. I have many excuses, ready to be fished out in case I have to answer to authority: work, the need to write a more workable ending first, work, tiredness in the evenings, work, my doubts whether the manuscript is any good, work, the nagging sense that I have to exercise which I don’t do anyway, work, and so on. But the only authority figure here is me.
And none of these are legitimate excuses, according to Steven Pressfield’s Do the Work. The book — until recently a free download from Amazon.com — is a great kick in the butt, with passages I simply had to highlight and read aloud to my girlfriend. But in certain ways the book also assumes a fairly level playing field, a sentiment I don’t always agree with, and its tough motivational advice won’t be new to folks who’ve read, say, Chris Baty’s No Plot? No Problem! Pressfield’s main argument is all in the title — one has to do the work — and anything that prevents you from doing that act of creation (the book is also both New Age-y and Chaos Magick-y), anything that holds you back is the enemy. (Pressfield, who refers to the enemy in blatantly martial terms, argues it’s almost always inside you.) It’s the dark side, the Jungian shadow, the dragon that you must slay. Do the Work also argues that the only real and right reason to do this work is not because of riches or fame or that one has to prove anything to friends and family; it’s because one has no choice.
That’s the problem, though. I’m nowhere near that state of everyday exaltation, feeling words inside me yearning to erupt and flow freely, miraculous turns of phrase and plot easing, unbidden, into showers and commutes and conference calls. I used to have that compulsion to write (that started happening in the third week of NaNoWriMo), those moments when you had to drop everything and get yourself to the nearest computer (or find the nearest available scrap of paper), but that’s not true anymore. Writing is something I now do only occasionally, when I’m inspired, and waiting for inspiration, I’ve found, just isn’t enough. It’s why it’s called “work,” after all.
One of the pieces of advice I hear often is that you have to take writing as seriously as your job, that it’s a second career. If it were my primary job, though, I would have been canned ages ago, with my severance pay withheld. I have too much work as it is — I’m in front of a computer well over 8 hours a day as it is — and I don’t have the impending deadlines of a weekly writing class to spur me on, or the stringencies of a daily word count. And so Pressfield’s lessons stay unlearned, and my classmates’ comments remain, in their latent state, on pieces of paper. My chapters are static and unchanged.
I’m beginning to think my difficulties in editing and writing revolve around the difference between work and play. Coming up with my 50,000-word manuscript in 30 days was a huge blast. But it’s not as if the month-long madness that was NaNoWriMo last year wasn’t all fun. By Week Number Two, at the moment when the organizers warn you about the uphill climb, I would sit at my computer or iPad with my brows perpetually knotted, utterly determined to hit that day’s 1600-odd word count. My friends can tell you how I turned down happy hours and dinners and movies and turned into a mean antisocial hermit.
That part of the writing process was work, for sure, but the great thing about NaNoWriMo is that it gives you permission to fuck around, to play with the words with no fear of consequences. I was lucky enough to finish it, and the end result, amazingly, wasn’t the shapeless mound of crap the organizers thoughtfully warn you about. American Idols (its provisional, probably copyright-infringing title) had a shape, and it didn’t stink. I didn’t throw in zombies or blast the protagonists off to Mars in a fruitless attempt to jumpstart the narrative. It was — and I’m trying not to jinx this — an actual “manuscript,” with a beginning, a middle and an end.
But writing, in comparison to editing, was a fun stroll compared to the relative agony of deleting passages that lie flat on the page, or scenes that still seem as vivid as when you wrote them but now either set the reader up for unfulfilled expectations or throw an unwanted twist into the proceedings and therefore has to be deleted.
Revision is real work, and its sole reward at this point seems to be the need for even more revision. It kind of sucks.
It’s why I haven’t really made my revisions, but it goes hand in hand with how I’ve retreated from the world of blogging / writing in general. At some point, years ago, I probably had more of an online presence, blogging constantly and, as a good netizen, commenting on others’ blog posts (or even enthusiastically retweeting other people’s tweets) but the increasingly siloed world of Facebook and, of course, my day job on which I’m conveniently blaming everything, has stifled that. (There are other, more personal reasons; I suspect I wrote out of loneliness as well, to feel some semblance of connection to other people.)
Prior to NaNoWriMo, the last sustained bout of writing I did was a couple of months prior to that: to write 30 movie reviews in 30 days, as a practice run for NaNoWriMo. (That actually involved a lot more work, in a sense, simply because I had to actually sit down and watch the movies.) And then NaNoWriMo came, and then I brought two or three chapters to writing class, and then silence.
I’d like to say that I’ve always had a hard time with writing, and that was certainly the case for my second book (Pinoy Capital), almost a decade in the making. But my first book (Displaying Filipinos) was the effortless product of a humid summer, and occasionally I pull out that first draft in longhand (!) and wonder how the hell I came up with it.
I keep that first draft around because, quite frankly, it’s scary shit. (You know how the insane in movies are portrayed as afflicted with graphomania, filling every inch of the wall and ceiling of their garrets with paranoid scribbles? That’s what it reminds me of.) We’re talking pages and pages of indecipherable but free-flowing scrawl — hastened, to be sure, by the immutable deadline of a master’s thesis defense and fellowship money running out, but the urgency in my writing came almost wholly from within.
It reminds me that back when I was younger I was possessed with an unholy compulsion to churn out words, and damn it, I want that again. I sit and wait and listen and it’s all static on the other end. Sometimes I don’t bother even sitting; the waiting, as Tom Petty wisely once wrote, is the hardest part.
Last week I found out that I’d been accepted into my very first writing workshop — seven days of intensive learning and writing, and with a partial scholarship to boot. I’m utterly thrilled. It’s not too bad for a piece of work cranked out under enormous pressure, especially considering that (except for a short story in high school) American Idols is my very first attempt at fiction.
Overnight, American Idols — I still have a hard time calling it a manuscript, much more a novel — has gained an additional layer of… something. I’ll call it “sociality.” Now I have to represent it, introduce myself alongside it, be identified with it. I think I have to say my name and try to slip in the manuscript’s 10-second synopsis a few seconds later. I won’t be just working on the craft of writing in general, but on this specific not-so-shapeless mound of not-so-stinky crap I call a manuscript.
But this opportunity also raises the stakes. Suddenly this meant a whole new level of seriousness, a new degree of devotion to craft. I applied for the workshop in a real what-the-hell kind of mood, sending them 5000 words from American Idols, and now here I am, still wondering what the hell I’m supposed to do. I have no illusions about the quality of my work — as I wrote above, most of the time I think it’s not-so-stinky crap — but now it seems a few people other than myself like it.
I have no illusions about the workshop experience either. (Readers far more experienced than me are probably thinking, “Just chill, dude; it’s only a workshop!”) I’ve heard it can be brutal, that it doesn’t really tell you anything you didn’t know already, and that sometimes participants end up being far more confused than when they first started. But I’ve also heard about wonderful and transformative sessions, and hey, I’d take something in between, like “productive.” That would work for me. But now this sudden seriousness also comes with a glimmer of a real product at the end — something very far off, but now perhaps more realistic than it was over half a year ago when it was just the product of a 30-day experiment.
When I write, I don’t plan to lose that sense of play, of the freedom to do whatever I want with the words, to run with my ideas, but it’s now tempered by the reminder that it’s also work: that I have to be prepared for rejections, that I do the work humbly with no sense of entitlement, that I do have to hustle to get heard, and that I have to treat this like a job if I want this done.
It’s about getting serious, and luckily for me I already enjoy a good chunk of it.
The other evening, at dinner with friends, my girlfriend casually referred to herself as “dating a writer,” and I followed that up instantly with demurrals. Writer: The word doesn’t sit right with me, like the idea that I’m “working on a novel;” I think I’d have to be writing full-time and be published (okay, I’ve published two books already, but those don’t quite count) for the word “writer” to be applicable to someone simply messing around like me.
But perhaps part of “getting serious” means to be able to grudgingly but slowly claim that word, that title, for my own. I’m looking forward to this workshop, to playing with my words and characters again, and seeing if the word fits.