Friday Fluff: Yay for Simplicity

So, inspired by all the NaNoWriMo folks, I decided that this month, I would recommit myself to finishing my never-ending friggin’ novel. Not finishing it this month, mind you — I’m not made of NaNoWriMo stuff. But, since I’ve been working on various iterations of the same novel for, literally, years now, and I still don’t have a full first draft, I decided it was time to change my approach.

Operating on Anne Lamott’s “anyone can write a shitty first draft” principle, I’ve decided to devote an hour a day to writing new pages. Just churning out new stuff, not concerning myself with how bad it is or even whether it will stay in the final version. That’s something I’ve never been any good at — when I’m writing fiction, I edit compulsively as I go along. That works well for stories under 20 pages, but for anything longer, it just leads to me burning out and giving up. So far, my novel-writing process has gone like this: I have a burst of inspiration and energy, write 20 or 30 pages, polish them to near-perfection, and then don’t look at the novel again for 6 months. At which point, I’m not necessarily sure those near-perfect 20 or 30 pages still belong there anyway, so I start over.

And that, my friends, is how one spends years working on a novel without ever finishing a draft.

On the strength of my experience in the book publishing industry and my M.F.A. in fiction, I can say with some certainty that all novels ever published have one important thing in common: they were finished. Mine, years later, is not.

Now, I’ve dieted enough that the phrase “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you always got” still eats away at my brain, even if I’m no longer counting calories. So I finally accepted that my “writing process,” however mystical and woo-woo and sacred it may once have seemed to me, is just not getting the fucking job done. And so I decided to be more methodical in my approach: one hour a day, every day, until I’ve got me a shitty first draft. Period.

So far, it’s going shockingly well, in part because I bought myself a Neo, which allows me to write without the distraction of the internet in the same little box where the writing happens — and which, because it only shows a maximum of 6 lines on the screen at a given time, makes rereading and editing as I go along a huge pain in the ass. So I don’t do it. I just write. If I actually keep at this every day, I will have a shitty first draft in less than a year. And since my greatest strength as a writer is in the revising, once I’ve got that shitty first draft, the real magic can begin. I hope. Keep your fingers crossed for me.

Now, on to the Shapeling Participation element of the Fluff — which actually has potential to be unfluffy, but you can take it as seriously or not seriously as you like. We talk a lot around here about how oversimplifying complicated things — like, say, the laws of thermodynamics — is bad news. We make fun of people who can’t grasp complexity, and they bloody well deserve it. But sometimes, as with my writing process, stripping away the complications makes something better. The $200 Neo is a much better novel-writing tool for me than my $1500 computer, precisely because it doesn’t do nearly as much. Go figure.

So, Shapelings, tell us about a time in your life when making something less complicated led to good things. Go!

28 thoughts on “Friday Fluff: Yay for Simplicity

  1. I have no idea what compelled me to think I could do full-time graduate school, while working full-time as a reporter. I’ve always both worked and gone to school full-time during my undergrad years, plus the school offered me a tempting scholarship on the condition I be a full-time student. But grad school is vastly harder than undergrad, and I’m finding that I am overstressed and overwhelmed much of the time, and it is also spilling over into my work performance.

    When I get really, really stressed, I have to munch on something in order to fully concentrate. The best way I can describe it is that I have to keep one part of my brain distracted so that the other part can focus. This is due in large part to ADD, but my eating disordered history influences the choice of food as a means of distraction. I try to nibble on healthy foods, but the fact that I can’t seem to control the urge to munch mindlessly when reading or working on a big paper really bothers me.

    So, I’ve accepted I can’t fully control the urges. What I can control is the amount of stress in my life that contributes to the urges. I’m dropping down to part-time classes next quarter, although it means losing $9k a year in scholarship money. But hey, what price can you put on peace of mind?

  2. After years of fast paced, high stress life, I realized that fancy electronic gadgets did not help me keep my schedule.

    I went from a palm pilot to a normal date/appt book, and haven’t looked back since.

  3. I used to use AlphaSmarts in my classroom. They were great tools for exactly what you are doing. Writing. Especially helpful for the anal retentive (can’t see enough to constantly correct) and for the ADD/ADHD/distractible.

    Good luck!

    Closing my door is the only low-tech thing I do to help myself concentrate. Even if I am the only one in the office or at home. The symbolism of it is what is most helpful. Stay in here and do what you’re trying to do.

  4. My hubby and I travel a lot for pleasure. At first, I would try to pack for any eventuality – going to a cold climate, I’d take a bathing suit “just in case”; or I’d bring crackers/oatmeal/instant coffee for when we were hungry and nothing was available; or I’d load up on extra deodorant/toothpaste/shampoo in case we ran out. The over-preparation would drive me crazy the days before we left, stressing me out completely.

    I finally figured out all I *really* needed was my passport and credit card.

    That realization stopped my obsessive/compulsive packing, because anything I lost/ran out of/forgot we could replace for not that much money. Now, we usually just bring backpacks (no suitcases) and I don’t stress quite as much. Plus, our packs fit in the overhead, so nothing to check (or the airlines to lose)! It’s win/win!

  5. I used to live in Atlanta, and drove 25 miles out of the city for work. I spent roughly four hours a day sitting in standstill traffic over most of those 25 miles, even after shifting my hours to something ungodly early, and generally working too late every night. There were times I thought I was going to rip the steering wheel right off my car.

    On top of that, my crappy insurance-industry salary was barely enough to cover living expenses, and then the kind of vehicle maintenance required on a used eight-year-old car that makes it through two rush hours a day in Hotlanta parking lots, er, I mean highways.

    When I moved to Chicago, I gave my car away. Totally best decision I ever made in my life. Not only does my commute now take less than half the time, it consists of a little nap and a nice walk. And I can afford to buy more guitars!

  6. Mine is kind of silly in comparison, but I’ve saved at least five minutes of my life daily since realizing that I couldn’t tell the difference between coffee made with beans ground just before brewing and beans ground when I buy them at the grocery store.

    No more cleaning a grinder or, worse, a coffee maker with a built-in grinder that had to be scrupulously washed and dried daily to ensure proper operation. And now my husband will put the coffee on on weekends (he wouldn’t touch the grinder), giving me an extra 5 minutes in bed!

  7. I stopped carrying a handbag. I’m not sure it’ll work forever, but I just bring money, ID, phone, and keys, and when I can’t put it in my coat pocket I put it in an unwitting friend’s handbag. Of course, as a student I need to carry books, but that’s what backpacks are for. When I go out, I’m free.

  8. Add me to the “no car” brigade. I lived in Boys Town in Chicago for almost 13 years and always had a car. Chicagoans will know that finding parking in that particular area of the world is akin to finding a diamond in a bucket of dirt. Plus, the city sticker price is massive, insurance, all that stuff. It got to a point where I wouldn’t move my car for two or three weeks at a time because I didn’t want to lose a decent parking space. (I took the el to work.)

    Then, one morning I went out to my car to put the night baseball parking permit in my window and my entire car (a ’94 Hyundai Excel) had been keyed from stem to stern and the back window (it was a hatchback) had been broken out. My insurance company totaled it and I’ve been car-free for four years. I now live in the northwest suburbs, still don’t have a car, still take the bus/train to work. I live with my parents and could easily afford a car payment, but I just don’t want the hassle. Though I do pine a bit when I get to drive my godfather’s car–it’s a sweet ride, with satellite radio…mercy, it’s festive.

  9. Okay this is going to sound really bad:

    I’m a grad student. I finished classes in the spring and am now working on thesis credits. The best thing I did for simplicity was leave the state my grad school is in, move home with my fiance, bought a brand new spiffed out iMac for the dissertation and the 1 terrabyte of data I’m using *mutters under my breath* and just started working.

    Leaving the drama of a department with everyone at everyone else’s throats because it’s just not my problem and concentrating on what I need to do to get things done has been amazing. The simplicity of learning how to walk away rather than to get sucked in has been quite nice.

  10. This will probably sound incredibly anti-feminist of me, but I breathed such a sigh of relief when I moved in with my then-boyfriend and now-husband. My husband handles all the administrative household things, like paying the house payment and other bills. We maintain separate bank accounts, but I put most everything on our Discover card and then just write most of my check over to him to cover expenses, excluding what I put in my own savings account. Like I mentioned, I have ADD and keeping track of bank accounts and bill-paying is not my forte, but he’s great at it. It’s been such a relief not having this constant worry in my life.

  11. I don’t know who Sophie Monk is, but you can’t tell that someone has an eating disorder simply by looking at them, even if they are very thin. Do you know for sure she has anorexia? Has she admitted to it? I hate for people to cast aspersions on celebrities and label them as eating disordered simply because they look thin. Anorexia is so much more than body weight. To me, it just somehow minimalizes the disease when we casually toss out accusations of such based on superficial criteria.

    Though, I am with you on the disdain for Peta’s marketing tactics. I just wrote about the contradictions in Peta promoting a vegan lifestyle while simultaneously portraying women as pieces of meat.

  12. I learned that a Relationship is a lot easier and less stressful (so far) than a “well he’s kind of my boyfriend but not really because he’s not comfortable with the label and…” THING.

    I’ve also learned that sometimes it’s a lot easier to just say you’re sorry than to try and prove a point. I’m a little stubborn.

  13. Hah, I go you one better! I print my creative writing by hand, on paper! I can write on toilet paper if I have to! (Although I have never been able to figure out how you do that without it bleeding into or scratching up the next layer on the sheet).

    No, seriously, good for you if an electro-gadget is something you find useful. I tried those (a Cross Pad — remember those? I couldn’t get it to recognize my damn handwriting!) and then a Palm Pilot (kept forgetting to sync it and kept losing all my data). I just keep notebooks frigging everywhere, and then collect the pages in folders if there’s a specific project I’m writing for. The second draft is when I start typing everything up.

    I also have this really cool notebook called a Gelly Roll Journal that I use for song lyrics and idea generating, which they stopped making refills for (boo hiss!). It has both black and white pages and gel pens. I like it so much, I make my own refill pages by having the stationery store cut pages for it and then punch holes in the pages to fit. But damn it, I wish someone would make refills for it.

    I’m with you in that I sit at the computer too much already, and I even do it for blogging and recording music. I need me some no-screen time to do any serious writing.

  14. The second best thing we ever did was get rid of our car. The best thing we did to simplify our lives was sell our house. We moved to a condo half a block from an El stop. DH found a job downtown after working in the far suburbs for years. I take my bike to work.

    Without the house, I have less housework and I don’t have to worry about fixing up my fixer-upper. For less money, I was able to trade in my fixitupper house with disgusting scummy bathroom and disgusting scummy kitchen and dozens of other things that needed to be done for a really nice condo. Plus, there’s no yard work, no trips to home depot, no horrible hedge belonging to the neighbors that impinges on my property having to be trimmed every single farking week lest it block my front walk (it wasn’t so much a hedge as an assemblage of fast growing trees).

    Life is so much better than it was at this time last year.

    Kate- unlike you, my problem is I’m not good at editing. Over the years, I’ve completed five no bloody good first drafts. But I keep looking at them and can’t figure out how to make them better. It’s almost been enough to put me off the writing thing.

  15. At first I was thinking “hm, that’s a conundrum… is it better to have five shitty first drafts [my mom calls them that too, didn't know it came from Lamott!] and not know how to improve them, or have zero drafts at all.” But honestly… you can get someone ELSE to fix them! You can’t get someone else to write ‘em in the first place, which is my problem as well as Kate’s.

  16. You can’t get someone else to write ‘em in the first place, which is my problem as well as Kate’s.

    Actually, you can, which is why I’ve always preferred to be an editor rather than a writer! :-)

  17. You can’t get someone else to write ‘em in the first place, which is my problem as well as Kate’s.

    Actually, you can, which is why I’ve always preferred to be an editor rather than a writer! :-)

    GOOD POINT

  18. I used to be hung up on cooking fresh, healthy, from-scratch meals every day, even when I came home late from a meeting. Now I make huge vats of stew, chili, spaghetti sauce, and soup and freeze everything in individual-serving containers. If I have the time to make a salad or a side vegetable, great. If not, I don’t much care.

  19. It’s that perfectionism that gets us. I am struggling with the same thing right now and it’s always good to hear other people have the same problems.

  20. Packing my computer components away and using only the laptop greatly simplified my life. I realize that’s still technology, but it is so much simpler and neater, plus I don’t have to go back and forth between systems looking for files – I’ll never buy a big PC again, just laptops.

    Cancelling my cable was also a boon. Without it, where I live, we only get two local channels, so I never turn on the TV anymore! I get so much other stuff done now….

    Also, using a French press to make coffee. No filters, no need to find a plug in, takes up very little space, and the whole thing can go in the sink with the dishes.

    And I’m also totally down with the “old-fashioned” dayplanner that you write things in with a pen.

    Decluttering my apartment and letting go of stuff I no longer truly need, want, and/or use – regardless of who gave it to me or what “meaning” an item has – has been great, too. I’m not finished yet, but it looks tidy now and it’s way easier to find stuff!

    Wow, I wasn’t sure if I had anything to write down on this one, but I do!

  21. Good luck!

    I’m a proud National Novel Writing Month failure, three years in a row. This year, I’m not even going to bother trying to fail. I’ve come to the sad conclusion that university + job + novel writing is not a good combination.

    Finishing my nutrition degree will make things less complicated, and hopefully all the space that creative writing takes up in my brain won’t have been colonized by diagrams of glycolysis and the citric acid cycle.

  22. Hi Tari and Rachel and Kate any anyone else who was at the think tank!

    I decided to stop making dinner. I just buy sandwich stuff or frozen entrees, and also the only ten foods my six year old twins will eat. We eat separately when we are hungry. We have 30-60 minutes of family time at bedtime, depending on how sleepy the kids are. With my muscle deterioration it is SO much easier. I also simplified shopping by giving up the struggle and using the scooter carts. I still don’t know what’s wrong with my body, but I can only fight it so much.

    Speaking of food, after catching up on my blogs and reading last Friday’s comfort food discusion, I totally made creamed peas and ate about two cups in one nostalgic sitting. :)

  23. It occurs to me that I am doing this with wedding planning. I know people drive themselves utterly spare over finding the right place, food, cake, linens, chairs, chair covers, centerpieces, flowers, dress, ring… Since I value both my sanity and my friends’ regard, though, I’m keeping everything as simple as possible. I just don’t see the point of going crazy over it, of going to a hundred locations and meeting a hundred photographers and trying on a hundred dresses and tasting the offerings of a hundred caterers and bakers. As my dad says, “the best is the enemy of the good.”

  24. Simplicity won out (sort of) in the Thanksgiving meal my husband and I are cooking for our parents. Originally, the thought was to make an apple pie and a blueberry/cranberry pie and a pumpkin pie and a chocolate pecan pie, oh my!

    After giving each pie a trial run, we realized that not only is a pumpkin pie about a thousand times easier than any of the others, we CAN’T STOP EATING IT. For all the pride we had when we made a good Dutch apple pie, nothing can beat the simple, elegant yum of a pumpkin pie, so pumpkin it is.

  25. I have to give you props for making yourself finally do it. Like my dissertation supervisor liked to say to me-a good dissertation is a done dissertation! I have certainly simplified my life by finishing said dissertation. At some point perfectionism is just not worth it.

    I also have to concur with a previous commenter that walking away from grad school drama simplified my life immeasurably! I moved away from the city in which my university was located to go on my clinical internship and suddenly a few months later I noticed that I wasn’t as stressed. It was because the day to day BS of department/university politics were out of my head! Yippee!

    I fully support simplifying your life and only worrying about things over which you have some control. Anything else is just crazymaking!

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