Marilyn, Perfectionism, and Quitting

MarilynBy Lisa Alber

I spend last Friday night with Mom. One of our Friday movie nights. My mom is 85 years old and has dementia. She still lives at home with my sister who lives at home (not because of Mom, she just does) and two caretakers who come and go. We like to watch old movies together. Mom seems to be able to follow them, well enough anyhow.

Last Friday we watched an old Marilyn Monroe movie from before she hit sex symbol status. “Don’t Bother to Knock” (1952), a noir-ish thriller in which Monroe plays a deranged babysitter. I was fascinated by her performance. She was still herself, that Marilyn thing, but she wasn’t yet typecast or peroxide blond or shimmying rather than walking. She played dramatic quite well.

When I think about Marilyn Monroe, I think about perfectionism. It’s said that she was a perfectionist, and that this was one of her obstacles (among many) to getting to the set on time, to knowing her lines, to being prepared. She wasn’t a flake; she was crippled by the need to be perfect. It’s a low-self-esteem, all-or-nothing, kind of thing.

I know about this. I’m on that spectrum, but not extremely so. Thankfully. But just enough that I’ve had good discussions about it with my therapist. I had never considered myself a perfectionist. I mean, come on, I rarely make my bed. In person, I’m the disheveled sort. No perfectionism here!

Yeah, no. That’s not what perfectionism is, though it can look like perfectly coiffed hair and made beds. My perfectionism is more the getting-straight-As thing. The problem with perfectionism is that it is an illusion, and living in the land of illusion only causes suffering. I was thinking about all of this in March for my last post: A Confusing Lesson in Resistance and Illusion.

Perfectionism is all about trying to create your worth because your internal sense of self-worth isn’t the best ever. You think people will only like or love you if you’re perfect. You don’t have the sense that you’re worthy all on your own, just as you are. Isn’t that the sense we get from Marilyn Monroe? That she was chasing this illusion?

How exhausting. For me, like I mentioned, it’s more about getting As. I want to do well in my chosen activities. Novel writing is the activity that causes me the most suffering. Seriously. I could be as perfect as I could possibly be, write the best novel I know how to write, and get no joy — no contract or no sales or no reviews. That’s where the illusion lies: that I need all this stuff to be happy as a novelist, because then it will all be just PERFECT.

So what ends up happening? Instead of having a dream, the dream has us. It owns us. Everything is the illusion of that future place where everything is perfect, if only we could get there. So we strive, and strive, and find no satisfaction in our current place because we aren’t at that future perfect place yet. And, oh the suffering, because no matter how well we write (or do whatever it is) or fast we write, or how well we engage in social media or go on book tours that we have to pay for ourselves, we aren’t on the bestseller list — !

I’m exhausted just having written that. I’ve been in that striving place since 2001-ish. And, as I told a friend last night: “This may sound pessimistic, but I give up. I’m not going to strive anymore. I want to live my life, and I want to write novels as part of that, but I give up on being owned by the dream.”

I’ve decided to quit the dream. That’s it. And that may sound horrid, but it’s not. Because quitting the dream is quitting the illusion and the perfectionism and the unhealthy striving that goes along with all of that. In fact, “quitting” is quite possibly the healthiest thing I could do for myself right now. Quitting isn’t a bad thing even though it has a bad rap.

I’m not quitting writing — no way — and you’ll see a new novel out in August, and I’m working on something totally different right now. I’m just quitting the Marilyn Monroe.

If you’re curious about the quitting topic, check out this NPR “Freakonomics” broadcast about quitting: http://freakonomics.com/podcast/the-upside-of-quitting/

And here’s an article I found about perfectionism versus *healthy* striving, which clarified a few things for me: https://cmhc.utexas.edu/perfectionism.html

 

A Confusing Lesson in Resistance, Ego, and Illusion


By Lisa Alber

A few weeks ago, I happened on a funny little book at the New Renaissance bookshop in Portland. After scoffing at a book about how to analyze my issues by observing my dog’s behavior, my gaze stopped on a title that read, I Don’t Want To, I Don’t Feel Like ItHow Resistance Controls Your Life and What To Do About It.

If I believed in the metaphysical, I’d have said it was a sign from the book gods. I knew I had to buy the book when I opened it and read at random:

“If you recognize this trap [i.e. nasty internal voice naysayers], perhaps as a result of years of failed self-improvement plans, you’ve most likely spent a lot of time and energy trying to figure out why this is happening. “Why do I keep failing?” And, you’ve probably heard plenty of internal “advice” about what you should do differently, usually amounting to “just try harder.””

It’s as if the author wrote to me personally. Having grown up in a positive-thinking, self-improving family, I am the Queen of Failure when it comes to self-improvement plans. Sometimes I despair of myself, and I do ask myself why I keep failing, and I do have a voice that always demands that I “just” try harder.

“Just” — such an awful little word.

I’m no stranger to pondering the notion of resistance. I’ve talked about it enough in psychological terms and in terms of creativity. This little book comes at it from a Buddhist point of view. The book defines resistance as an ego-identity maintenance system. It’s all about how the “I” maintains control and its status quo.

Our egos want to survive above all, and when we set out to change the status quo, the ego brings out the nasty little internal voices that rationalize, accuse, blame, shame, taunt. So, we fall back into old patterns and feel rotten about ourselves.

OK, I can see that, but then the book talks about illusion. As in, what the ego presents to us is illusion: worries, anxieties, shoulds, coulds. All these thoughts about how our lives would be better if X. These are just stories. They aren’t real and the thoughts behind them aren’t real. It’s all illusion.

We tend to believe our thoughts, don’t we? But our thoughts are just thoughts; they’re not indicative of any kind of truth about ourselves. But we believe them and we suffer.

I know I suffer a lot. I feel like I’m always striving, trying to outdistance my voices. Try harder, try harder.

The galling part is that the more I read this book, the more I realize how ego-driven I am. MASSES of ego. Ego all over the place. Oozing ego almost every waking moment — and maybe while I’m asleep too.

Thing is, I’m reading this book and gaining insight, but I’m not sure what lessens the resistance … Awareness? I think calling out the thoughts as the unhelpful beasts they are and taking a few breaths to bring myself back to the moment could be helpful.

Of course, the most interesting thing about delving into a book about resistance is that all the while, I’m resisting my writing. So my quest to lessen resistance is itself resistance?

Hmm … Seems confusing, this Buddhist philosophical stuff. Oh wait, is that resistance again?  That is, was that a naysayer thought about reading the book, just to get me to quit reading the book?

And is this tendency of mine to overanalyze yet ANOTHER example of the ego’s resistance tactics?

Dang.

What do you do to lessen resistance?

My Writing Religion: Some Thoughts as 2016 Ends

img_6452By Lisa Alber

Last week I happened to be listening to NPR as I drove my car back from Handy Andy’s, my neighborhood repair shop, when I realized something about myself. As one does, right? In the midst of the every day, in this case as I grumbled about the gift of a split radiator during the most expensive month of the year. The week before, copious amounts of white smoke had billowed out from under the hood right before an unusual snow fall for Portland, Oregon. I managed to get the car towed back to my house, and then I was stuck for nearly a week. Have you seen the horror movie “Cabin Fever?” Yeah, just about it.

Anyhow, so maybe it was having freedom at last, mixed with grumbliness, that readied my brain for a little epiphany. This has been a rough year on so many levels — many stressors (in addition to the political toxins) — and I found myself thinking:

Why do I write anyhow? What am I getting out of it? Is writing novels worth endangering my health and dealing with constant anxiety that I’m behind where I “should” be and could be doing more, more, more? Is writing novels worth not having a life as I try to get the writing done (and promotional stuff!) while working a full-time day job?

I have a friend who’s been writing novels for decades, and she’s said about the endeavor: “It’s heartbreaking.” Meaning, you work and work, but you don’t necessarily get anywhere. Another friend said about the publishing industry, “It’s a punishing business.”

So, yes, the question I’ve been thinking about lately is: Why do I write?

Driving home last week with my new radiator, listening to NPR, Martin Scorsese spoke to Steve Innskeep about his newest film, “Silence,” a film about faith and compassion set in 17th century Japan. It centers around two Jesuits priests who infiltrate Japan to recover another priest who may have “gone native.”

Innskeep asked Scorsese whether making movies was his religion. I found this quote that summarized Scorsese’s answer:

This is what I do. If I could paint, it might be better; or if I could write, it might be better. But this is what I know and what I do. And so in a sense they [the films] are religious acts and you could, you know, ridicule that or you could take offense at it, but they are religious acts, even the profane ones. … I’m trying to find out who we are.

This struck me, and I remembered a moment maybe a decade ago when I realized that writing had become my religion. For years, I had been searching for something. I experimented with many religious and self-help practices. A few years after starting a serious fiction writing practice, I realized that I had stopped my endless search. I had found my “religion.”

I write to process the world and myself in the world. I write for connection. I write to understand, as Scorsese says, “who we are.” What is this thing we call “humanity” — the humanity within human kind?

In the car with the new radiator, I realized that I’d lost my way. In religious terms, I’d lost my faith. Faith is a funny thing. It’s just belief that you wrap a ribbon labeled “truth” around. Having faith is a process of circular reasoning, for sure, but that doesn’t lessen the comfort and purpose it provides people as they negotiate treacherous, unfair, unjust life. (Life is beautiful, too, but I’m not talking about that side of it right now.)

For me, it comes back to the practice of writing. Maybe it’s a little like prayer for people of faith. It’s the practice of prayer or any kind of meditation that brings peace and groundedness. Could writing stories be my prayer? Have I lost my prayerfulness as I try to keep up with the publishing biz and figure out how to be a marketing whiz (failing miserably, FYI)?

This is worth thinking about, and so I shall in 2017. I may have to make changes, alter course, I’m not sure. I’ve got to figure out my faith again, just like the Jesuit priests in Scorsese’s movie.

What are you thinking about as we head into 2017?

In Which I Muddle Through a “Blah” Writing Day … Week … Month …

img_6619By Lisa Alber

I don’t know what’s going on with me. I’ve written 700 words on three different topics for this blog post and nothing’s working.

  • Goddess-y neighborhood coffeehouse anecdote? Yeah … Could have been humorous or thought-provoking. Now, it’s just as dull as my thoughts.
  • Novel development process? Perhaps, but this has been a problem for the past month–whatever process I thought I had doesn’t seem to be working.
  • Novel research topics? <yawn> Feels like you gotta be here in my head to be interested in these topics, and, frankly, I’m not even enthused right this second.

This is a truly strange feeling. Normally, once I get going, I’m OK. Blog posts are *never* an issue. I can always spin a thought into 500 decent words.

So, I don’t know. Whatever it is, it’s the same thing that’s hampering my novel development process. A few days ago, on my personal blog, I was certain it was the election cycle clogging up my brain. Could be. Have you read the articles about the anxiety that this cycle is causing? Election anxiety is apparently a thing–and this thing is affecting folks in record numbers. If this is what it is with me (and I won’t know for sure until later in November when I can look back on these weeks), then, holy crap, what kind of toxic environment are we living in at the moment?

And why am I susceptible to this anxiety? (That, my friends, is probably a question for a therapist.)

You’d think I’d be able to shuck off BS and rhetoric and worry and fear … I succeed for a little while then find myself online again, sunk in articles and commentary. My brain’s been taken over by — politics. ACK.

There’s something worrisome going on that’s larger than either of the candidates–don’t you feel it? Something might have to give, to seriously give, at some point … But maybe that’s just my anxiety talking.

So how to muddle through? I’d actually rather not muddle. I’d rather just do–but if muddling is where I’m at, I figure there are a few things I can do:

  1. Show up at the computer at my regular writing times.
  2. Open Scrivener (my writing software) and the last file I was working in.
  3. Engage in one thought related to whatever’s in that file.
  4. Write something in relation to that thought.

That’s about it. Normally one thought leads to the next–but I can’t count on that at the moment, it seems.

One thought does keep going through my head: This too shall pass. I didn’t understand the simple yet sublime wisdom within these four words when I was younger; now I find them a comfort. The election cycle will pass and so will this funky headspace I’m in.

Here’s my contract with you: I just opened Scrivener, and I see that my last brainstorming thought for the next next novel (for 2018, cross fingers!) related to a character named Kevin, and his quest for answers about his birth family. So here’s what I’m going to do right now: his character sheet, which is to say his character arc and motivation for this story.

OK!

How do you muddle through when the going gets sloggy? Are you feeling any election anxiety–how are you coping?

What I Did on My Summer Vacation

img_6420By Lisa Alber

You know what’s funny? Since my last post here on ShadowSpinners, my second novel launched–woohoo!–but I’m already so far beyond the fact of it, that I’m not going to tell you about the book, WHISPERS IN THE MIST. Easy enough to get information online, if you so desire.

I spent most of my summer feeling harassed by the specter of the public life (readings, launch party, etcetera) and stressing out about promotion and publicity tasks. Plus, August was shite-meet-fan deadline time for my next novel, you know, the untitled one that’s coming out next year around this time? Yeah, that one. And, frankly, book launch was getting in my way. I wanted it done and gone and behind me, which only added to my stress.

After awhile, I imagined WHISPERS like a baby too long in the womb: Get this bloody thing out of me! A tad dramatic, true, because it’s thrilling to have a book come out, but that doesn’t change the fact that I’d practically forgotten what WHISPERS was about because I was so immersed in the next next novel.

My head at the beginning of August: I have to talk about WHISPERS now? Yeesh … Can’t I hole up with my deadline for the next novel? Really, I’m frantic about handing it off to my editor in decent shape. The manuscript needs so much work. It’s an utter tragedy, and the ENDING ISN’T RIGHT!

Plus, I have a day job (alas) with big August deadlines every year, wouldn’t you know it. Plus, for some reason everything the publisher might want and need from me (in addition to the manuscript and authorial book launch tasks) landed in the hopper in August too: flap copy, book cover discussions, proposal for next books. Yee gads.

I’m happy to announce that in the wee hours of Thursday, September 1st, I emailed my editor the manuscript for Novel #3, a.k.a next next novel. And that was it. The black-out curtains closed on Lisa the Author for a full week. I looked forward to a last summer-hurrah (but really, what summer?) Labor Day weekend full of zippity-do-da-nothing that included a marathon of “The Affair,” season two (recommended if only to see how the screenwriter plays with point of view), reading for more than ten minutes in a sitting, and sleeping.

img_6463It’s been a restful week, but the new school year has begun and I’m already behind! I probably should have started writing the next next next novel (pub date 2018–isn’t that crazy?) by now. The other night a character revelation popped into my head, so that was a good sign. I bought a new organizational notebook (Christina, you might like it!). I have my first task list in said notebook. I need new business cards and need to prepare for a reading tomorrow night and next week I’m flying to New Orleans for a huge conference and need to–what?–something …

Hold on, wait–the next next next novel! Before I know it, it’s going to be a year from now, and I’ll be freaking out all over again. Number one priority: write first draft. This will be number one priority (and home squalor be damned) for the next, oh … nine months? Do you think I can finish the first draft by June 2017?

So, let the school (writing) year begin!

What’s on your list as the school year begins?

The Art of the Overwritten First Draft

IMG_6383By Lisa Alber

I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m the master of writing bloated first drafts. I like to tell myself that it’s all for a larger cause. There’s a saying attributed to everyone from Ray Bradbury to Robert Heinlein to Elmore Leonard that it takes a million written words to become a competent writer. If this is true, then I must have hit the magic number by now.

And so …

I’m here to tell you that you, too, can become a competent writer just like me!

Want to hit your million words toward competency? Yeah? Then do what I do! Write morbidly obese first drafts. Savor all those words marching their way across the page toward your mastery. Delight in the fact that whereas other writers underwrite their first drafts, by the time you complete yours you will have so much to work with you won’t know where to begin. Imagine the thrill of deleting whole paragraphs, pages, and sometimes scenes!

It’s fun. Join me! Enjoy the thrill of puffy, self-indulgent, sometimes melodramatic drafting!
IMG_6381To help you on your quest toward the magic million, I give you my tips and tricks for overwriting your first drafts:

  1. Do it like a kindergartner: Don’t just show when you can show and tell. That’s right, go ahead and let the character expound on his plan for trapping the bad guy before you have him actually do it. Never mind that this spoils the suspense, bring it on!
  2. Don’t use one sentence to describe how a character feels when you can have her endlessly obsess about how everything bad in her life comes down to her mother. When in doubt, over-analyze!
  3. Do hit the reader over the head with the same point about your character’s traumatized past in 50 different ways, with each way more eloquent and poetic and beautiful than the last.
  4. Do add extraneous subplots that go nowhere but showcase your wondrous talent for “quiet moments.”
  5. Don’t forget long-winded metaphors triggered by weather. Ripping winds and lashing rains are especially useful for sinking into the descriptive abyss.
  6. Do use every moment in every scene to show everything. Don’t let a chance slip past when you can expand a simplIMG_6382e narrative statement into a full-blow Moment. Yes, capitalized.
  7. Don’t forget to have your characters over-react, thus inciting pages and pages of scrumptious dialog.
  8. Do use the same delicious words over and over on the same page. Words such as “scrabbled” and “molten” are fun — make them bleed on the page!
  9. Throw a party! It’s never too late to invite more characters into the story even when they don’t forward the plot. I bet they’re the ones with the wittiest one-liners!
  10. Last but not least, do it like I do and blindly feel your way through the plot, digging into those false starts and trying-to-find-themselves scenes. Munge on, my friends, munge on!

Stay tuned, next time I’ll be bringing you “Self-Tortured Revision for Dummies,” in which you too can detest everything about your so-called competency as you polish a 500-page white beast from hell into submission.

P.S. Afterthought: I forgot to mention, Do include dopey redundancies such as, “She picked up the vase with her hands …” You know, as opposed to picking it up with her feet.

My New Writing Mantra: Keep Buggering On

keep calmBy Lisa Alber

A few weeks back I found myself driving and whimpering with anxiety. I’d been struggling with the ending of my current first draft. I knew the whodunnit and the whydunnit and the howdunnit, so … why wasn’t the ending falling into place?

I realized that instead of wasting my time trying to shoehorn an ending into what I had, I needed to rethink everything before it! Great, after all these months of writing, *now* I realized I might have huge plot issues?

I decided to start the revision process. So, here I am revising without having gotten to “the end.” It’s the writing equivalent of “keep buggering on,” as Winston Churchill now famously said. I’m cutting ten percent off the top, BAM, because I overwrite my first drafts. In the process, I’m honing in on character motivations and emotions, which can only help me when I face the “the end” once again.

In fact, yesterday I had a little blip of a thought, an idea for a scene near the end. The oh-yeah feeling hit me — excitement! — so I wrote down my idea, and now I’m looking forward to getting there.

I like looking forward to things, whether they be endings, parties, travel, or holing up to read someone else’s novel. But ultimately, to get the work done, I need to return to the moment I’m in with this scene, right now.

And keep buggering on. Seems to me that this is what writing is really all about.