NaNoWriMo Dialogues: “On Doubt, Talent, Failure, And Quitting “
You: I made a terrible error.
Me: You tried to punch that coyote again.
Me: You huffed wood varnish and got lost in the mall.
You: No. Well, yes, but that’s not the mistake I’m talking about.
Me: You ate all the bacon again.
You: That’s not a mistake. That’s me fulfilling my manifest destiny.
Me: It’s a mistake because when you eat all the bacon, I turn into Bacon Hulk and I rip your puny form to Kleenex ribbons out of sheer, baconless rage.
You: I see your point. I didn’t eat all the bacon, it’s still downstairs, chillax.
Me: Nobody says “chillax” anymore. The new word is “coolquilize.”
You: JESUS GOD WHATEVER can I tell you my mistake now or what?
Me: Bleah, sure, go for it.
You: I’ve been reading other people’s work as I write.
Me: Reading is fundamental. Writers who don’t read are like screenwriters that don’t watch movies, like architects who don’t strop up sexually against elegant skyscrapers, like professional killers who do not admire the work of other professional killers from the telescoping lens of a distant hijacked drone. Writers have to read. It is an essential spice to this broth we’re brewing. Writers who don’t read are missing their souls.
You: Fine, yes, yeah, I just mean — some people have been posting their NaNoWriMo projects. Like, snippets or whole sections and, hoooo heeee unnnnh — *rocks back and forth while massaging temples* — I have discovered through this that I am not good enough.
Me: Oh, god, more of this again. Okay. Huddle up. Writing a story is in some ways an act of obstacle management and you’ve gotta manage all the obstacles accordingly — jump all the fences, hop all the ditches, elbow all your enemies right in their spongy tracheas. One of the biggest obstacles is self-doubt. Doubt is the vampire you invite into your house. Doubt is bedbugs and hobos — it fucking lingers, man, like the scent of cigarette smoke in your curtains, or the odor of cat piss in your carpets.
You: So, what do I do about doubt? It sounds like a demon. AN ACTUAL DEMON THAT REQUIRES SOME KIND OF EXORCISM IS THERE A BOOK A HOLY BOOK PLEASE HELP.
Me: The book you’re writing is the holy book.
Me: Self-doubt isn’t going to just turn to smoke or vapor. Doubt has its teeth in you. And doubt has long fangs. But you have ways of tricking it — or at least neutering it with a pair of scissors. You finish the book, that’s like finishing the exorcism. THE POWER OF WRITING COMPELS YOU. Get to the end of the book and some of that doubt will go away.
You: And during the writing of the book? I still have to get to the end, you know.
Me: You have other ways of diminishing doubt.
You: HELP ME WENDIG BEARD KENOBI YOU’RE MY ONLY –
Me: Just shut up. Okay, first, recognize that everyone gets this feeling. Everyone has doubts. Every writer you read has at one point or another felt like a stowaway on board their own careers — they’re the dirt-cheeked urchin on board the Titanic, hiding below while the deservedly rich dance above. I believe this is true of Neil Gaiman, of Margaret Atwood, of authors who write sci-fi and literary and children’s picture books and erotica and, and, and. Anybody who commits words to paper, professionally or no, feels at times like an alien in their own world.
You: But those people are all really good. Like, they have talent. Same as these other NaNo participants whose work I read — it’s like, these folks have genuine actual OH EM GEE talent.
Me: Talent is at least half-a-bag-of-horseshit.
You: Whoa, no. Talent is a real thing.
Me: No, talent is an idea somebody made up. It’s a noun, and nouns always feel real — like chair or whale – but really, it’s a noun masquerading as an adjective: talented. Talent is not a thing you can measure. I can’t dip a hot wire into a petri dish of blood and expose your monstrous talent. It has no margins. It has no parameters. We see someone who takes to something really well and we call that “talent.” The same way we think half the writers who break out are overnight successes but, in truth, that’s been a decade-long “overnight.”
You: No, I’m not buying this. I’ve known writers who are genuinely talented.
Me: I’m not saying there’s not something to the idea of talent. What I’m saying is, the word is so poorly defined, and its effects so toxic, we might as well get shut of the whole word.
You: Toxic? Like, the Britney Spears song?
Me: That’s a great song.
*both listen to various covers of ‘Toxic’ for three hours*
Me: That was fun.
You: That was. What were we talking about?
Me: I actually don’t — oh! OH. Talent as a toxic notion. I can explain that. Being told you’re talented is like being fucking cursed, man. I’ve known way too many writers who were plainly more talented than I was, and yet, every last one of them are nowhere in their respective writing careers. Hell, they don’t have careers. Talent seems like a key to a door but it isn’t any such thing, and this is one of the things I really like about NaNoWriMo — all those people who think they can hang tough with a novel because someone somewhere told them they were talented, well, now they’re getting a hard Shotokan straight punch of truth delivered right to the solar plexus: discipline and devotion and skill are a trio that overwhelms any presumed talent any day of the week. You can be as talented as you want, but you still need to sit down, learn your craft and then demonstrate it. Over and over again. If — if! — talent is a real thing, the best that it gets you is that it cuts down the time it takes for you to get to a qualified end result.
You: Fine, then. I don’t know that I have the discipline, devotion, or skill to continue.
Me: Skill comes over time, as does the instinct on how to implement it.
You: Fine okay whatever, then I don’t have the discipline and/or devotion. Still full of doubt here.
Me: More tips to cure doubt, then. Okay: I told you to care less, didn’t I?
You: Uhhh. Maybe? I fade in and out.
Me: Go for a run. Take a nap. A hot shower. Drink some tea. Gobble a hallucinogen of your choice and fight your demons inside the Thunderdome of your own tripping mind. Escape the gravity of your work for an hour, a day, clear your head of all the cobwebs in order to see yourself straight.
You: Sleep, jog, Earl Grey, peyote, okay. Got it.
Me: Talk to other writers, too. Commiserate. Cheerlead. Cry over whiskey.
You: Talk to other writers… okay, got it.
Me: Great! Then you’re good to go.
You: Yeah, I’mma still quit.
Me: Wait, what?
You: I know. I know! I know.
Me: You got this far and you’re gonna quit? You’re around or over 30,000 words now.
You: I know, I just — I can’t hang with NaNoWriMo. I’m failing at this book.
Me: Failing is fine. Quitting is crap.
You: They’re the same thing.
Me: CLOSE YOUR HERETIC MAW, because no they ain’t. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: you learn from failure. Failure is an instruction manual written in scar tissue. Failure is illuminating! School teaches us that failure is badwrongbad, but life is a constant stream of failures. Personal failures, relationship failures, business failures, creative failures. And in each one we learn something on how to move on, improve, how to flip it and switch it so that next time we get closer. We need failure! Failure is getting to the end and discovering what you did needs work. Failure is how we course correct. Quitting? Quitting is just you rolling over and showing your pink belly. It’s soft. It’s lazy. You illuminate almost nothing with quitting — it’s you taking your flashlight and throwing it against the wall.
You: You’re saying I should grow a pair of balls and get it done.
Me: Balls are actually notoriously weak, far as parts of the body go. I mean, I could catch a wiffle ball in the crotch and double over in misery. The testicles are very sensitive and about as strong as a couple of raw quail eggs rolling around in a set of fishnet stockings. You wanna be hardcore, dang, grow a vagina. Those things are built Ford tough, man. The vagina is like the Incredible Hulk of the human form. It does all the heavy lifting. You ever see a woman give birth to a child? You see that, you’re like, “That thing could lift a burning car if it had to.” If anything, the entire scope of masculine history has been an epic attempt at trying to convince the world that the vagina is tissue paper and our balls are titanium. It’s a huge and ugly ruse.
You: This is a weird conversation all of the sudden.
Me: Oh, please, it’s been weird since we mentioned “coyote punching.”
You: Fair enough. So: I learn nothing from quitting. Okay.
Me: You can learn one thing from quitting: the thing you learn — or that you express, at least — is that you don’t want to do this anymore. And if that’s really genuinely true, hey, okay, no harm, no foul. If you’re this far into the book and you’re like, “You know what? Nope nope nope, writing a novel is for somebody else and I realize now that it is absoflogginglutely not for me,” that’s a meaningful revelation. That’s when quitting has value, when it carries you away from a thing that’s just pissing all over your potential satisfaction with life. But if you think there’s any shot at all, any chance you really want to do this and see this through, then fuck it. Hunker down. Grit your teeth. Carve words into the flesh of the page. And finish your shit.
You: I think I’m going to finish. Even if it’s a failure. Even if I lose NaNoWriMo.
Me: Yes. And remember: NaNoWriMo is some made-up shit, too. It’s not a state law. You don’t actually have to finish 50,000 words by the end of November. This isn’t a game, not really. It’s a book. It’s your book. And it’s your job to finish this draft, whether that means finishing it on November 19th, or the 30th, or December 15th, or March 8th. The only way you “lose” is by giving up. And then it’s your job to take that draft and keep working on it. But we’ll talk about next steps later. Next week, probably.
You: Okay. I’m in for the long haul. Besides: IT’S GETTING LATE. TO GIVE YOU UP. I TOOK A SIP. FROM MY DEVIL’S CUP. See what I did there?
Me: Toxic. Nice.