Hey. This is a post about writing things. If you’re reading this, there’s a pretty good chance you are some kind of person who does things or make things. Those things probably involve music, or maybe something else awesome like movies or paintings or restoring old helicopters or something. Whatever it is, way to go. I’m glad you make stuff. If that’s the case, chances are you have trouble finishing some of those things that you try to make, because most people do. I certainly do. Last summer I had to finish something, and it was the hardest thing I ever had to do. I managed to finish it. Along the way I learned some things about how to finish things. I’m writing this post because I think maybe some of those things I learned might be useful to other people. So this is about that.
WARNING: This is not a post about punk music, or even just music. But it could be. That’s why I’m writing it.
This past summer I had to finish something I’d been putting off for a long time. It’s something that should have taken me about two years at the most, but had already taken me more than five. And what’s worse, if I didn’t finish it by the end of the summer, it was going to mean that I had failed - finally and irrevocably - to achieve a goal I’d set for myself 13 years ago, at age 25. This failure wasn’t going to ruin my life, not exactly anyway, but it was going to mean that a lot of things I’d wanted to do in the future were going to be permanently out of reach, and a lot of things I planned to do that were already going to be difficult no matter what were now going to be REALLY difficult. And then of course there was the thought of having to tell people I care about that I had failed, and having to see the look of disappointment in their eyes.
And to make matters even worse than that, I had been almost completely stalled on this thing since 2010. Failure seemed not only possible, but maybe even imminent.
The thing I had to finish writing was a doctoral dissertation. If you’re not totally clear on what that’s about, just think of it as a book: an awkward, boring, repetitive book that barely anyone reads, with a style and structure left over from the nineteenth century, but a book nonetheless. Books are hard to write. Lots of people intend to write a book, and quite a few of them start. Not many of them finish. The reason books are hard to write is because they are long. Mine ended up being around 60,000 words, and a little over 200 pages. When the summer started I had probably written around 20,000 of those words, and around 80 pages. I had no idea how I was going to write enough in such a concentrated period of time to actually finish by August, given my previous track record. But here’s what I did know:
1. I had to to try write something everyday.
2. I had to block out a significant portion of the day for writing. (I’m lucky that I have a job where I don’t have to work in the summer if I don’t want. I get that this is not the case for most people.) And I had to stop going out in the evenings on weekdays. Sometimes having a fun night planned means that the writing day just turns into counting down the hours until fun time starts.
3. I had to focus on each day as it was happening. Thinking about everything that had to happen for the whole summer, well, that way lay catatonic depression.
4. There needed to be some kind of accountability. I needed to report to someone other than just myself, or I was just going to end up making rules for myself and promptly breaking them. Some people have an inner cop that tells them to exercise or eat a kale salad or only have one beer. I do not. Or I do, but I can just totally tune that little bastard out like it’s no big deal.
5. I love screwing around on the internet and I especially love communicating with people via social media. I love sharing ideas, opinions and dumb jokes. I love seeing other people’s ideas, opinions and dumb jokes. I love just throwing something out there and seeing what people do with it. And unfortunately. over the last five years, a lot of this has happened when I was supposed to be writing my stupid dissertation.
All of the above were important realizations, but Number 5 was probably the most important, because I realized that this whole time I had been fighting the wrong battle. Instead of telling myself to stop screwing around on the internet and get back to work, I needed to make screwing around on the internet into part of the work. Furthermore, because I, like all humans, want validation, and the internet is where I typically turn for validation (look at this blog, I mean…damn), I decided to combine Number 5 and Number 4 by making social media the place where I would fight my daily battle with words, and air the results.
On a practical level, what this meant was that at the beginning of each day, I took note of the word count and the page number I was starting on for the chapter I was working on at the time. Then, over the course of the next six to twelve hours, as I paced, stared into space, cursed, threw myself down on the bed, ate peanut butter out of the jar using a fork and, finally, when all other options were exhausted, wrote something, I had a clear sense of where I’d started. At the end of the day, when I came to what seemed like a logical stopping point, I’d look at the word count and the page number, and carefully note on an index card with a sharpie how many words I’d written that day, and what page I’d stopped on. Then I’d tape it to the wall, photograph it along with the previous days’ cards, and post it to Instagram and Facebook.
People would see it. Sometimes they’d ignore it. Sometimes they’d “like” it. Sometimes they’d post an encouraging comment. Sometimes they’d say something weird, or even unhelpful. but the point is that they saw it.
And more than that, the point is that I let everyone into the daily struggle. And they came to expect it. And - and this is the critical part - on bad days, when 2 pm rolled around and despite having sat in front of the computer for five hours I hadn’t written a word, I would think of the index cards and be like “Fuck. I don’t wanna have to post that I wrote 12 words today or, worse, none at all.” And in nearly every instance, that would be enough to push me back to the page. I’d start thinking about whatever idea I was stuck on in a different way, from a different angle and slowly, laboriously, the words would come.
That ended up being the difference between last summer and previous summers. in previous summers, when I hit that point of total frustration and self-loathing, I’d just go lie down on the sofa and watch like eight episodes in a row of The Big Bang Theory. This summer, it was that sense of being answerable to other people’s expectations, however fleeting and, perhaps, imaginary, that would push me to keep going.
I set goals, and the goals, in retrospect, were ludicrous. Two thousand words a day? Crazy. I learned that 1200 was the outer limits of what I was capable of. Writing seven days a week also turned out to be a little far-fetched. But by setting the bar so high, I insured that when I failed, I would fail high. I ended up averaging about five days a week of measurable progress, which would have been science fiction in previous summers.
The cards became fetish objects, kind of. I became obsessive about the (completely arbitrary) format and would rewrite the same card three times to get it right. I color coded by chapter, and caught myself obsessing over what color to use for what chapter. As the day was winding down I would get excited in an almost childlike way about the ritual of writing, placing, photographing and posting the card. It became a reward in itself.
I would get excited about the reactions too. In retrospect, these ended up being helpful in a very concrete way. People who had been through the process or, just as often, had a partner who had been through the process, would respond by offering advice, and the advice was often quite pragmatic and helpful. And their reassurance meant a lot, because they knew what a shitshow this all is. And, most importantly, I came to hate the idea of having to explain to them why I didn’t write anything that day. That was the clincher.
And the way the cards built up over the summer. Into this multicolored rectangle of positivity and productivity and hard-won optimism. It was beautiful. I felt like I was building a skyscraper.
In the end, I completed a draft shortly before Labor Day. It ended up being the most productive summer of my life. I finished writing a fucking book, for fucksake. And on balance my time was managed so much better than in the past that I still had time left over to travel around the country playing loud music a little bit. It ruled. After work got busy again I still managed to do all the revisions and all the paperwork, and on November 15 I successfully defended the whole pig. And now it’s done. This thing that hung like an anchor around my neck since 2007 is done. And it happened, in large part, the same way that everything else positive in my life has happened: I brought it to the community and said “Hey, everybody. What about this?”
It’s a weird plan, admittedly. You can call it narcissistic, you can call it OCD, you can call it trivial and annoying. i won’t disagree with you. But, if you’ve ever had a good or maybe even great idea and felt like you were slowly suffocating under the weight of your inability to execute it, I urge you to try it this way. Bring it to your people at the end of every day. They’ll know what to do. And you won’t want to disappoint them.
Special thanks to Heidi Saman, Melody Kramer, Sarah Watkins and Josh Brown.