The older I grow, the more I've managed to convince myself that life, everything, all of this, is one giant mystery unfolding in inexplicable ways.
And that no matter how much we try to spot a pattern to emulate or replicate, concoct a multi-step process to follow, there really is no foolproof equation, no formula that can guarantee a certain outcome.
There are too many factors at play, too many things that we aren't in control of. True, hard work and a willingness to learn and grow increases our odds of material success but they are not a guarantee of success in any way.
Conversely, the ones who succeed have put in the effort and willingness to learn and grow.
So in a mathematical equation format, or better still in the form of one of the multiple-choice responses to a GMAT question, it's a matter of A implies B but B does not necessarily imply A.
what works for others won't always work for us
Yet, even knowing that does not stop us from looking for that silver bullet or that magical solution, because all around us, everytime there is a success story, along comes the tendency to dissect that success to discern replicable patterns, perhaps because we all want to be assured that astronomical success and those rags-to-riches paths can be ours too.
And then we mistakenly believe that just because Successful Person A woke up at 4 a.m. and meditated for an hour, then worked out for another hour, then spent three straight hours at work before the meetings of the day began, we need to do the same too irrespective of the fact that we may have a child who's also an early riser or that a morning yoga session may actually make us more drowsy than alert.
Offlate there's been a shift from this one-size-fits-all approach, and instead of looking to others for their success patterns, we are encouraged to look at our own patterns instead.
And then we fall into a different but similar trap when we try to identify and define a replicable pattern of success for ourself.
heck, what works for us today may not work for us tomorrow
For a long time now, I've tried to map out how I write, when I write best (mornings or evenings), where I write better (at home or in the library). And for the life of me, I simply can't find a pattern.
But the one thing I know for certain is this: I can't seem to write when D is around. It's far too much fun being with him, and these days of his childhood are so fleeting I don't want to miss out on them.
At the same time, I don't wish to postpone my writing endeavours too, so whenever he's around I try to write either before he wakes up (which is hard because he too is an early riser) or after he falls asleep (which is also hard because I too am usually ready to fall asleep by then and it doesn't help that the evenings have gotten brighter and stay that way for longer). Also, if I go too many days without writing, it drives me mad.
So it's not an either-or choice for me when it comes to being a parent and writing, and as KrA keeps reminding me, writing is my full-time job, even though I don't behave like it on most days and that has very little to do with D and almost everything to do with me and my mindset.
For years, I've tried to find a pattern or a schedule that will work. Something that will ensure I do my work and also not lose my temper or sanity in the process.
And I've found none. Nada. Zilch. If something worked for me one day, trying to do the exact same thing the next day has almost always backfired, leaving me dumbfounded at best and annoyed at worst.
a quest for certainty
I recently learned that this quest for an answer is often a quest for a measure of certainty. A guarantee that if we were to follow steps 1 to 10 in that precise order, we'd get the expected outcome.
Sadly, such a guarantee simply does not and cannot exist in this world. Anyone who promises you otherwise is fooling you and themselves too.
I remember a Statistics professor from my MBA days mentioning that human beings have a tendency to look for and see patterns where none exists, even in a completely random series of events.
You may be wondering why I'm posing all these questions to myself now.
You see, Dean Wesley Smith has announced a challenge wherein he intends to write 1 million words – fiction and some non-fiction, including blog posts – beginning April 1st until the end of this year. Writers can sign up to compete with him on the full challenge or aim to meet half of the set target i.e., 500,000 words.
I'm tempted to sign up for the half challenge, and already the doubts are setting in. Will I find the time and discipline and focus to do this without resenting everything else that life brings – filing taxes, school pick-up, hanging out with D on holidays, summer, and whatever else life brings?
On one hand, if this is my life's work, isn't this what I should be spending my days on, irrespective of what life brings?
On the other hand, it is almost as if I don't want to sign up for the challenge unless I can be certain, one way or another, of completing it.
But then, that wouldn't be much of a challenge now, would it? If I were to have a certainty of success?
planning for success
This time around, instead of mulling over all the reasons why I wouldn't be able to pull off such a challenge, I'm going to try and think of all the reasons I want to participate and the ways I can make it work.
why do I want to do this challenge?
This challenge holds allure for me for two main reasons.
I've often lamented that lack of accountability or external pressure often causes me to sabotage my own efforts. I've always been a very disciplined worker when I was studying at school or university and even when I was working in the corporate world. Without the Damocles' sword of deadlines looming over me, it's a lot of effort some days to motivate myself to get up and get to work.
Reporting in to DWS every week, as well as having to pay up to sign up for the challenge, should hopefully keep me going. I can't say this with any amount of certainty but I've never tried something like this before, so how will I know unless I test this out? Maybe having skin in the game is the pressure I need to show up and do my best!
- consumable words
For the challenge, we can count both fiction and non-fiction writing, which means blog posts count! Yay!
DWS runs other challenges including a short story a week, a novella a month, a novel every two months and so on, and I've always hesitated to join those knowing my tendency to get bored of writing in the same format for a long period of time. I love variety in what I write - both the format as well as the genre - so this broad definition of consumable words that includes both fiction and blog posts makes me happy.
I'm thinking that on days when I make little progress on a story, I can keep up the word count by coming here instead, although I'm going to be wary of doing that too often because the reason I want to participate in this challenge in the first place is to up my fiction output!
So if I were to constantly fall back on blog posts as a way to boost my word count, I'm not doing myself any service. Still, having that option gives me much needed leeway, one that I'm certain I will not abuse to my detriment.
So now that I know what I like about this challenge and how it will benefit me, let me look at the ways I can make it work, which will also include listing undesirable past behaviour and ensuring I do not fall into those traps again.
how can I make it work for me?
- writing first thing in the morning
Even though I claim I have not seen any patterns, I know from experience that when I get my words down first thing in the morning, before life and the world start to make their demands of me, I'm a much happier person than otherwise.
So that's my plan, to get my fiction words down first thing in the morning. Everything else, including emails, Whatsapp, (no more social media, yay!), reading updates from industry experts can wait until later in the day.
If D is at home because of illness or a day off and I haven't managed an early morning writing session, I'll make it a point to head to the library for even an hour, so I can get at least a 1,000 words of fiction down.
- maintaining presence
One of the things that derails me the most when I take on a big project is that I'm constantly thinking about it, as if keeping my thoughts on it helps me make progress somehow. But that's not true. Thinking about the project does not help me make progress, especially not if I'm thinking about it when I'm with D or doing something else.
And this is one of the things that singularly ups my stress levels: being with D but thinking about the words I need to get done, or conversely, writing and feeling guilty about not having spent quality time with D. So this challenge will prove to be an intense training ground for presence, because I want to do this but not sacrifice time with family at the same time.
- showing up everyday in a healthy manner
I will not sacrifice sleep or exercise for this challenge. In fact, I will sleep well and will also go on my daily walks without fail.
There are a lot of other activities I indulge in that are simply a waste of time, for instance, having imaginary battles in my head with certain family members, or picking up a fight with KrA over something utterly trivial just so as to distract myself from how hard I'm finding it to either write or be away from the manuscript at that point in time.
If I cut these two time-wasters out alone, I'd be a whole lot more productive and happier as a person in all arenas of life.
- accepting zero-output days
Some days, life will happen and there will be nothing I can do about it.
For instance, I spent all of last week hanging out with D as he is in the midst of March break from school. He is all set to attend camp at school this week, and I had been looking forward to getting back on my writing schedule, but he's just gone to bed saying that his throat hurts.
So I'll have to see what tomorrow brings and map out my day accordingly.
I do not wish to resent these curveballs anymore. I will learn to accept them as part of life and flow with them, knowing that I can always come here in the evening to free-write and if I miss that too, I can make a fresh start the following day.
I suppose this is going to be my biggest lesson from this experience. Being able to flow with life. Being able to accept that despite my best efforts, some days will simply not be as productive as I'd have liked them to be.
The best I can do is roll with the punches and move on as fast as I can, instead of mulling over what went wrong and how something like this, a.k.a. life, can be avoided the next time; that'd be a futile endeavour, no doubt.
That's about all I can think of for now. I'm sure I'll have a lot of learning experiences along the way, including dealing with slow days and no-writing days and other setbacks, but seeing DWS and others go through this alongside will probably be the support I need to pick myself up, dust myself, and make a fresh start the following day.
That's how I'm going to approach this challenge. One day at a time. One word at a time.
Wish me luck!