Embracing pointless projects

It’s November, which means it’s National Novel Writing Month. I’m not doing it this year, but it makes me happy to see so many people taking on such a huge writing challenge.

When you get a group of writers together, though, the chatter inevitably turns to publishing. How do I get an agent? How many social media followers do I need before an agent will look at me? 10,000? 50,000? How do I get a story accepted by a literary journal? How do I make a full-time living at this? What are editors looking for? Will they accept me if I do this? How about this?

I spent many years being one of these people myself. There’s a tsunami of advice on how to “go pro,” as if there’s something wrong with being an amateur, and I bought into it. To do otherwise, to write simply for my own enjoyment (and those of a few others if I was fortunate) seemed pointless.

Then I took up guitar.

Studying guitar and intrinsic motivation

I sink a LOT of time and money into my guitar practice and even though I’ll never play professionally, I always find it worthwhile. On its face, guitar is simply another pointless time filler like my writing, but why don’t I feel that way?

Met Opera timpanist Jason Haaheim has a great post about the two questions you need to ask to determine if you’re intrinsically motivated:

  1. Regardless of my starting point, am I willing to do the work?
  2. Ten years from now, if I still haven’t “made it,” will it have been worth it?

I’ve been at this writing thing for much more than ten years. My light bulb moment: the writing part was worth it, but the trying-to-get-published part was not.

I don’t regret the time I’ve spent writing over the years. I definitely regret the time I’ve wasted on social media, conferences, networking, reading publishing industry news, researching agents and short story markets, promotion (at the urging of the two small publishers I’ve worked with–neither of them exist anymore), and all the other stuff I did to try to be a “real” writer. I should’ve invested that time into just writing more stories–it would’ve have been more productive and enjoyable.

What I’m doing now

I self-published a few short stories a while back and enjoyed the experience so much that I’ve decided to embrace self-publishing completely. No more hiding my self-published work under a different name to avoid being seen as unprofessional. No more restricting myself to one genre in the name of “building a brand.”

At this point in my life, submitting stories is like applying for a job I don’t even want. Now that I’m out of that grind, I no longer have to keep my work under wraps for months or years while waiting for responses (if they even arrive)–I can share them when I want.

So now I’m preparing a bunch of stories to self-publish. I have no goals other then getting them off my hard drive and out in public for readers to find. I haven’t felt this joyful about my writing in years, and all it took was embracing the pointlessness of it all. I have nothing to prove anymore, so now I can relax and play with words the way kids play with Legos.

Embrace your so-called “pointless” projects. If it feeds your soul, it’s worthwhile no matter what anyone else thinks.

Letting go of a sketch

This is a copy of the newsletter I sent in October. The version that went to subscribers had a photo of the sketch I talked about. If you’re interested in receiving new posts with bonus content right into your inbox, you can join the fun via the pop-up in the lower right corner of your screen.

I recently enrolled in a watercolor class through my local parks and rec program. Our first assignment was to sketch an arrangement of shoes that we would paint later. I spent way too much time on the sketch because I’m still learning how to draw.

Even though I was proud of how the sketch turned out, I had no desire to paint it or even continue with the class (it turned out to be more of a social painting group than an instructional class). So I dropped out and decided to learn how to watercolor on my own.

Watercolor paper, at least the kind the teacher told us to buy, is freaking expensive. I drew the shoe sketch on $10 worth of paper (a half sheet, about 14″ x 22″). I don’t like drawing that large and I don’t want to spend the time it’ll take to paint it when I don’t even know how to control watercolors and am unlikely to get much instruction on how to do so.

So I cut it up.

Sock knitting and creating like kids

Have you ever watched kids make things? They lose themselves in the process and then let go of the finished product, even when it’s good. That’s an attitude I try to cultivate, this focus on process and practice. I’ve learned that being too precious about my work hampers me to the point where it’s difficult to even start.

My sock knitting is a great way to keep me from being precious about what I make. A pair of socks takes around 22 hours to knit. When I finish a pair, I admire my work and then . . . promptly put them on my feet. Or give them to my mom to put on her feet. Either way, they will get stepped on, shoved in shoes, and eventually wear out because they’re socks.

The point of me knitting socks isn’t really the socks–it’s the process. But in a society obsessed with end products (and selling those end products), it’s easy to forget that 99.9% of creative work is the practice of making the thing, not the thing itself. Besides, once you finish something, the next step is to start something else.

Letting go

I’ll be using my cut-up shoe sketch as watercolor practice paper. After that, it’ll go into the recycling bin because it’s done its job.

And then I’ll open a new sketchbook and keep practicing.

Starting before I’m ready

This is a copy of a newsletter I sent in September. Although I’ve dabbled with blogs over the years, this is the first time I’ve tried a newsletter format. Writing this felt more like I was writing to friends rather than The Void. Now I’m experimenting with posting the newsletter on my blog but giving subscribers a little extra. As I mention below, it’s all a work in progress and there’s no such thing as “the one right way” to do this, especially since I’m doing it primarily for fun.

Note that the link and photo I refer to in the essay is available only to subscribers. You can sign up via the pop-up in the lower right corner of your screen.

Hey there!

Welcome to my very first newsletter ever! I agonized for way too long on what to put in a newsletter and how often to send one. Searching on the internet didn’t help much because the internet feels like one big chorus of “ur doin it rong.” It doesn’t matter what the context is, you’re always doing something wrong on the internet (and if you’re unlucky enough to do it on Twitter, people will let you know immediately).

So for no particular reason except it seems like a good idea right now, I’ll send you a newsletter once a month sharing an essay (ugh, that sounds so formal–let’s call it “something I’m thinking about” instead), a fun or interesting link, and a random pic just because. Naturally, this is all subject to change because I consider this newsletter a perpetual work-in-progress.

Do I know what I’m doing? Hell no, but I’ve found the best way to learn how to do something is to do it and be willing to suck for a (long) while. In this age of carefully crafted online personas, it’s easy to forget that we only see the finished products that people choose to display, not the messy, failure-filled path it took to get there.

Thanks for being my guinea pigs as I navigate this latest experiment. If you’ve been waiting to start something until you feel ready, don’t wait–you’ll never feel ready. Dive in!