Failing upward

Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.

– Norman Vincent Peale

Norman Vincent Peale has a questionable grasp on astronomy, but he raises a good point–you can fail on a goal and still make progress.

Which is what happened to me on Camp NaNoWriMo last month. I failed miserably in my writing time goal, but I still finished a short story, my first new piece of fiction in over a year. It’s another Everyday Thieves short story, this one inspired by a scenario I read in Financial Serial Killers by Tom Ajamie and Bruce Kelly. If you’re in the metro Detroit area, you may recognize the inspiration for some of the locations.

One short story isn’t much, but after calling it quits on fiction writing a year ago, it feels great to be telling stories again.

Have you failed reaching a big goal? If so, how did you fail upward?

Rules? What rules? Making Camp NaNoWriMo work for me

A baby writer tries NaNo

My first NaNoWriMo attempt was back in 2001 (that’s not a typo). NaNoWriMo was only three years old at the time and I was in my first year of trying to write for publication. I hadn’t written fiction since high school and I’d never attempted a novel. They were huge, intimidating beasts to me and I figured I needed a big push to even try writing one.

I technically “won” that year by writing 50,000 words in November, but the words I wrote were definitely not a novel. It didn’t even have a noticeable plot. I tried again a few more times over the years, but by 2012 I was over the whole thing.

Lessons learned from more writing experience

I’ve learned two important things about my own writing process since then: (1) word count goals don’t work for me because I spend more time focusing on the word count than what the story needed and (2) I hate writing sloppy first drafts. Both of those things fly in the face of conventional NaNo advice, which encourages you to write as much and as fast as you can and fix it later. For me, later never came. I never got around to revising those drafts because I really hate rewriting. I’d rather edit as I go, write the cleanest draft I can, then move on to the next project.

But I still like the energy and the camaraderie of NaNoWriMo, and I’ve learned to take what works for me and leave the rest. That gave me the confidence to revisit their website after ten years of avoiding it.

Trying NaNo again, but on my own terms

This month, I’m doing Camp NaNoWriMo (their off-season NaNo event, which is more relaxed than the annual November frenzy), but I’m tracking my writing minutes instead of the word count. That way, I can take advantage of the things that motivate me on their site and ignore the rest.

Many writers and other creative people look for “rules” to guide them, especially at the beginning. I was no exception, but after a while we need to view those “rules” as mere suggestions instead, especially when it comes to the creative process. Every person is different, and that means we each have to cobble together something that works specifically for us.

I think I’ve found the way I work best, at least when it comes to NaNo. I have two projects (a novella and a short story) that I want to finish this month, and I hope participating in Camp NaNo will help me get there.

A year of guitar and the magic of small, consistent actions

I picked up a guitar for the first time a year ago. Because my hands are small, I followed the online advice to buy a smaller instrument and ordered a Taylor GS Mini. Even though it’s a 7/8-sized guitar, it felt like holding a coffee table in my lap.

The first few months were a struggle. Stringed instruments have always intimidated me, and the guitar was no different. It took me a few weeks just to figure out which tuning pegs went with which string and what direction to turn each peg to make the string go sharp or flat. I memorized “Eddie Ate Dynamite. Good Bye, Eddie” to tune each string, then couldn’t remember which string was the top string and which one was the bottom string.

Then came the actual playing, or “playing.” I buzzed every note, and each chord shape brought a new finger contortion. I took some online group lessons, and stretching my index and pinky fingers across four frets for the exercises was a no-go, even on the higher frets (which are closer together). I even gave myself tennis elbow from squeezing too hard on the neck. Chord changes were (and often still are) a mad scramble to get my fingers from one position to another.

Then three months later, as if I wasn’t challenged enough, I decided to focus on classical guitar. I found a local teacher and, on his recommendation, bought a full-sized classical guitar (an even bigger coffee table on my lap). I was such a newbie to all things guitar that I couldn’t start on Book 1 of the workbooks he uses–I had to start on the PRE Book 1, and even that was a struggle. Although I can read music, I had no idea where the corresponding notes are on the fretboard, so every single note required a few seconds of mental buffering. My tone was so bad my teacher joked it sounded like a trombone.

So if you told me a year ago that I would be working on this Book 3 piece a year later, I would’ve suggested maybe backing off your dispensary purchases.

Can I play it perfectly yet? No, but that’s not the point. The fact I’m working on this at all is a miracle to me. I didn’t think I’d be near this kind of music for years. My classical guitar now feels comfortable and my GS Mini feels tiny. Who knew?

I don’t practice every day, although I’m getting closer. If I take missed days into account, I average about 45 minutes of practice a day. I’m now at the point where incremental improvements are harder and require more practice time, but I’m thrilled that I got over the initial hump. Most people who attempt guitar quit within the first year, and I can understand why. Learning anything new is incredibly frustrating, and when people say you have to practice 10 hours a day to get better, it’s discouraging as well.

But improvement doesn’t require heroics, especially not at first. Even if you set lofty goals and fail, you’ll fail upward. Want to practice 2 hours and get only 15 minutes? That’s 15 minutes you didn’t have before, and my teacher tells me that even 15 minutes of practice, when done with concentrated focus, can make a big difference. Want to write 1000 words but get only 500? That’s 500 words you didn’t have before. And so on.

The key is consistency. You’ll improve faster with 30 minutes of daily practice than 3.5 hours once a week. What I’ve also found is that doing a small amount of guitar practice or writing each day makes me want to do more. A win all around.

New Year’s resolutions tend to fall apart this time of year, so I hope you go easy on yourself, reassess, and get back on the horse. Small, consistent habits aren’t glamorous, or even noteworthy, but they’re incredibly powerful.

If you want more information about building habits, James Clear has a great book called Atomic Habits and an excellent weekly newsletter (he’s much less wordy than I am, in case you’re concerned). Good luck and have fun!

Writing any I can

Confession: I’ve never had a formal, structured writing habit that’s lasted longer than a few weeks. I’ve read lots of advice on how to create one and sometimes I wonder whether that contributed to the problem.

The worst advice I’ve read

In my opinion, one of the worst pieces of creative advice I’ve heard is to make writing (or whatever your creative work is) a ritual with a specific time, place, and accoutrements like a special tea or a candle or a pen. My first thought was: what if a piece of that ritual is missing? What if you run out of your tea or lose your pen? Or worse yet, what if something wipes out your scheduled writing time? If I were that precious about my work, I’d get nothing done.

Grabbing slivers of time

When I first tried writing a novel, I was intimidated by the daily word counts people said you needed to do. I had a soul-sucking day job at the time, so writing 1000-2000+ words every day felt impossible to me. So instead, I kept an Alphasmart Neo (a low-tech electronic typewriter) in my tote bag and added a few sentences or paragraphs to my work-in-progress whenever I could grab a sliver of time.

Those slivers eventually added up to four novels and a handful of short stories and novellas, which surprised me because most of that work was written in 5-15 minute chunks and I believed I couldn’t finish even one novel that way. My “grabbing” habit taught me to be nimble, able to write anytime, anywhere, on anything. Right now, I’m typing this on my trusty Neo while standing at my kitchen island.

Using my phone for good

These days, I’m lucky enough to have a schedule that allows longer writing time blocks, but I’m also relearning how to grab those precious slivers of extra time. I love Scrivener for iOS for writing on the go because it syncs to the cloud and lets me smoothly switch between working on the phone and the computer. Yeah, I have to type with my thumbs, but it’s no different than texting. I don’t have social media, games, or an internet browser on my phone (yes, I removed the Safari icon), so if I have a few minutes and am fiddling with my phone anyway, I might as well write a few sentences. They add up!

My goal now is to increase both the quantity and the quality of my work. I want to be prolific, which is something I’ve never been, and that means trying new processes, habits, and attitudes that are outside of my comfort zone. I have nothing to lose–following conventional wisdom made writing so miserable that I quit altogether, so I might as well try something else and see if I’m more productive and happier that way.

Are you taking a new approach to an old activity? What made you decide to change things up and how has it worked out so far?

Tick, Tick…Boom! is a must-watch for anyone who does creative work

This is a movie about failure and getting back up, and his masterpiece is ahead of him. And it’s hopeful because maybe so is yours.


Lin-Manuel Miranda, director of Tick, Tick…Boom!

It’s been over six weeks since I first watched Tick, Tick…Boom! on Netflix (I reopened my Netflix subscription for one month just to watch this) and I still can’t stop thinking about it. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the movie, it’s an adaptation of a rock monologue by Jonathan Larson, who would later go on to write the smash hit Rent.

Tick, Tick…Boom is all about the “before,” when Jonathan was still working in a diner, rewriting and sweating over a futuristic dystopian musical he’d been working for 8 years with no clue whether all his efforts would be worth it. He turns 30 in eight days, his girlfriend wants to move to the Berkshires, his friends are dying from AIDS, and his best friend has given up acting to take an office job on Madison Avenue.

Far too often, the stories we read about artists are all about the successes, and we think that if we simply do what they did, then we can be successful too. This is the definition of survivorship bias. For every successful person out there, there are thousands of others who did the same things but didn’t have the same outcome. We never see hear those stories, though, and I think that’s dangerous. It makes creative success sound less like a crapshoot than it actually is.

I’ve even met writers who refuse to believe in luck, thinking that if they did all the right things, they can be the next Rowling or Patterson or King. Maybe, but that’s like saying if I buy a lottery ticket, I could win the Powerball–it’s technically correct, but it ignores how little control we have over the outcome. You can be immensely hard-working and talented and still not achieve conventional success because there are simply too many candidates for too few spots.

What I love about Tick, Tick…Boom is that it captures the strength and folly of choosing to persevere in the face of rejection and the sacrifices it requires to do so. Jonathan Larson chose to do a show revealing a vulnerable time in his life during a vulnerable time in his life (while he was working on Rent).

Sadly, he died the night before Rent‘s first off-Broadway preview performance. He was only 35 years old. He didn’t live to see how successful his work became or how he influenced a new generation of creators, including Lin-Manuel Miranda.

I’m not a genius like Jonathan Larson and my 20s are way behind me, but I still connected with his decision to just keep working despite the rejections and indifference from the powers-that-be. I’ve learned to get satisfaction from writing stories and releasing them into the world with no expectations. As Jonathan says in the song “Why,” “I’m gonna spend my time this way.”

There are SO many great videos and interviews covering Tick, Tick…Boom!, but the one that resonated with me the most is this scene where Jonathan learns that the musical he sank 8 years into won’t be picked up by a producer (and receives excellent advice from his agent):

No matter what, keep working on the next project.