Friction, dread, and arriving “having had”

hand-painted sign

I’ve been in Portland for a week now. It’s a beautiful time of year here, cool and damp, studded with the usual rare bits of sunshine, but everything is in bloom, and people seem even happier than usual when the sun does come out.

As I did last year, I’m staying in a wonderful little house in a highly walkable neighborhood. So much so that while I have a car at my disposal, thus far I have chosen to walk1, to the grocery store, the world’s greatest bookstore, to meet with friends. Oh, yeah, I apparently have friends here, and we do stuff. A lot. Eating, mostly, but all the walking means I can eat with impunity. I’ve walked more miles and done more stuff and seen more people here in a week than I’ll do in L.A. in a month. All in all, it’s been a pretty excellent so far.

Yet if you had climbed inside my head for the two or three weeks before coming up to this place, this place I like so much that I’ve transplanted myself here for 2-4 weeks every year for the past four, you’d have been certain that I planned these trips up north as some kind of punishment. The nearer my departure date drew, the more my anxiety level rose. I had too much going on in L.A. to leave right now. I had no good reason to go, except that I’d promised; I’d sound like an idiot when people ask me why I’m here, just like I do when they ask me what I do. I’d be missing things: my colorist appointment; my own business mixer; my stuff. (It’s always about me and my hair and my stuff.)

Never mind those previous trips that I’d dreaded had turned out to be delightful learning and growing experiences. This one would suck. I’d be lonely. I’d be adrift. It would be a disaster.

* * * * *

You might write off this anxiety as a fear of failure, and trust me, that’s there in spades, but my anxiety and resistance extends far further than that. Sometimes it seems like I approach anything that presents any potential friction with a level of dread.

There are the tedium-based frictions: brushing my teeth; cooking vegetables; washing my hair.

There are the rejection/failure-based frictions: returning phone calls. Actually starting projects I am contracted to do. Following up with people who have expressed interest in doing new projects.

And there are the reminders-of-my-own-incompetence-based frictions: practicing guitar, doing my Nei Kung exercises, drawing, small-talk-socializing.

But the King Daddy of them all is writing. Writing is tedious. You are never guaranteed success. Even when you get good at it, you suck at it. There is little I dread more than sitting down to write.

As luck would have it, however, there is nothing I want more than to be a really good writer. And until you can go to the Really Good Writing Store and load up on that shit, you’re sort of stuck with plain old practicing. Which means writing, and plenty of it, and with serious, focused intent on improvement.

* * * * *

Success doesn’t help much to alleviate this mindset, by the way. As they say when you invest, past performance is not indicative of future results. If you’re looking for guarantees, the universe and your broker are fresh out.

On the other hand, success is not entirely useless. It’s proof that you managed to finish something once before. And it can keep other people momentarily occupied while you get on with the business of doing the next thing.

* * * * *

There are several things I do to keep myself writing. One of them is writing here, on the blog. It’s much easier writing privately, in morning pages or in the Google Wave with Daveâ„¢, but hanging my own ass out to dry in public helps focus my energies and inspires me to bring my “A” game in a way that cracking open a spiral notebook does not. (Although I still do the other, private kinds of writing. Because really, if you want to be a writer? Just writewritewritewrite. Like a motherfucker, as Sugar says.)

For this same reason of using the public to keep me honest and on schedule, I write a monthly newsletter. It’s a different flavor of focus: less “self-help”-y, if you will, but no less helpful.2 Ditto, the monthly column for actors: it’s useful in an entirely different way to write about what you know for different kinds of audiences.3 You can take classes. You can buddy up and swap stories. But outward-facing writing with accountability is just a sensible and grownup way of working at the thing you want to get better at.

Does it mean any of this writing is easy to do? No. Well, sometimes, for stretches. But not as much as you’d think.

There’s always some level of dread involved. There is dread because there is friction. There is friction because there are stakes. No stakes, no dread.

Once you’re really in, there is always some level of dread. Ergo, there must always be some form of dread management.

* * * * *

There is a wonderful term in the film & television industry, “show up having had.” As in, show up on set for your call time tomorrow having had some damned thing or another to eat, because there won’t be any there when you arrive, sucka, nor time to eat it, neither.

You can, of course, opt not to eat beforehand. But you’ve been forewarned: food won’t be coming for a while, and you’ll be expected to work in the meantime. Without stopping to shove a sandwich in your face. And, if you’re “talent”, certainly without doing anything that will hamper Hair & Makeup or Wardrobe as they try to do their jobs. Can you work without food in your stomach?

I never thought much about “having had” while I was working as an actor, except perhaps that the production company was a cheap bastard. Which may or may not have been true, money had started getting tight by the time I got out. Really though, productions have always been expensive, because it’s always going to cost a lot to get 150 people together in the same place for a limited time to get one thing done. “Having had” was but one way of keeping the production running smoothly. All kinds of contingencies are planned for with a shoot: how we’ll rearrange the shots in case of weather, in case the baby doesn’t cry on cue, in case there’s a truck jackknifed on the I-5. Producers are professional dreaders; they worry in advance, to head as many worries as they can off at the pass.

Commercials (and movies, and TV shows) may suck when they’re done, but thanks to the professional dreaders, they get done.

* * * * *

If you have ever done improv, watched improv, or heard about improv, chances are you know about the foundation of improv: “Yes, and….” No matter how implausible the scenario you are confronted with, you embrace it and build on it.4

Yes, your hair is on fire, and fortunately, I have brought a bucket of water in my gigantic rubber purse. Yes, we’re at the top of K-2 in disco pants, and look: there’s John Travolta! Yes, and so on.

This is (mostly) how I handle my nutty little fears and phobias. Yes, I don’t want to brush my teeth, and I’m going to just fire up the Braun and see what happens, anyway. On particularly fraught days, I’ll play additional games with myself: I’ll just go in the bathroom. I’ll just pull the toothbrush out of the holder. Etcetera. You hear runners talk about this sometimes, that just getting the shoes on and stepping outside is often enough to get them over the hump, off and running.

I seek out ways to reduce friction nowadays. Sometimes it’s washing, peeling and prepping my veggies as soon as I get them home.5 Sometimes it’s placing multiple reminders in the calendar about shopping for Girl Drag before a big event (I resist my Girl Drag more and more). DVDs help get Mt. Laundry folded and put away. Arriving at conferences a day before the madness begins helps me ramp up to the crush.

With writing, it basically boils down to keeping my ass in shape, then parking it in a chair from a certain hour to another hour so my hands can make the clackity noise. The pile of supposably good writing grows incrementally, day by day, week by week. I wish I could tell you otherwise, but that’s been my experience so far. By all means, reduce friction where you can here, too. Make sure you are fed and watered (not too much). Get a good night’s rest. Have your public-facing stuff, your accountability groups, your coaches and classes, your blah blah blah. Then sit down and write.

No matter what you do, the writing will probably hurt a little. There’s only so much friction to be removed.

Dread, and write. Get slowed to a crawl, and write. Write write write. (And please, feel free to substitute “parent” or “paint” or “calculate” or what you will for “write”.)

The dread makes sense. But it alone can’t make you stop.

xxx
c

1Or take the bus. Portland also has an outstanding public transit system, possibly the best feature of which is that they refer to those 65+ plus as “honored citizens.” Something to consider when planning one’s retirement.

2Two points here. First, re: the “self-help” moniker, I wrestle with this all the time, as some of my friends know. In fact, I had a long discussion here in Portland this weekend with a writer whom I greatly admire about how conflicted one feels, being labeled as a self-help writer. On the one hand, it’s the thing you hope for most, that your writing “lands” and actually helps someone in the process. On the other, well, come on. The genre is neck-in-neck with fantasy sci-fi and business for crap writing.

Second, writing the newsletter is just as helpful to me as a writer as writing the blog is these days. It forces me to organize my thoughts differently, and that’s always good, to be able to organize your thoughts in different ways. But the newsletter itself is arguably more helpful to readers, or more readers, anyway, than this blog is. It’s more straightforward in the way it serves up tips and ideas; the blog is more elliptical. So if you’re looking to be a better communicator and you don’t want to dick around with “self-help”-y stuff, by all means, quit reading this silly blog and subscribe to the newsletter.

3Recently I also began blogging for my wonderful friends and clients at the ASMP. Only a couple of posts so far, but writing for photographers, like writing for actors or designers, is a different game and keeps me sharp. Highly recommended, writer-types.

4Nothing beats a real, live class for learning the value of improv, but Patricia Ryan Madson’s Improv Wisdom runs a close second, and is a delightful read, to boot.

4I’ve done this off and on for most of my adult life, but reading this post on barriers by Ramit Sethi really helped me recommit to this simple but effective practice. Bonus: it may help you recommit to improving your finances as well.

11 comments

  1. LOVE YOU for mentioning the book again. Somehow these posts are what is keeping the book alive. I thank you for remembering it and sharing your enthusiasm. And I’m sure you know that great writing never happens in the first drafts. It comes after lots of editing and thinking and trying and fixing and editing. It starts as an improv but doesn’t end there. BTW: have you seen Steve Pressfield’s new book: DO THE WORK. I recommend it.
    Cheers,
    Patricia

  2. I sooo needed to read this today. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I was just about to give up forever on the novel I’ve been working on for eons now because of all the friction and dread. You’ve reminded me that it’s all part of the process and that I need to keep showing up having had.

    Have a great time in Portland. I live in Seattle but love Portland more!

  3. I’ve been so fucking resistant to the “just sit down and write” mentality, but it’s been cropping up all over the place for me the last two weeks that I can’t really ignore it anymore. This morning, I filled out Pace and Kyeli’s survey about what keeps me from writing, and I answered that I feel like I can’t reach my vocabulary for those deep places to make them front-facing. After reading this, it seems like the universe is giving me my answer. “Write it anyway.”

  4. this is EXCELLENT writing and so, so helpful to me. you always express my thoughts Coleen, even when I couldn’t articulate them or didn’t know know I had them until I read your essay.

    PLEASE do not ever think that your work and writing aren’t helping the world. Indeed it has helped a lot and articles like this are like gems that someone (you) spent a lifetime getting to… the wisdom from experience, plus the skill to communicate it.

    Your blog is a blessing, as are you…

  5. I got through my morning by muttering, “cut down on the friction” (and then going for my walk, brushing my teeth, doing my breakfast dishes, and sitting down to work). Thank you, as always, for your wise perspective.

  6. I have had this post cached in my browser since you wrote it. I knew I needed to comment, but didn’t know what to say. So I think it’s just that I note, now, the importance of the concept of “dread,” in my life and my approach to existence. Now I need to figure out just what it means. Thank you.

  7. Well said, as always. With writing (and running), although past performance is not an indication of future performance, what it helps me is to remember that while future writing (and running) may look like hell, I now know that I can write 50,000 words in 50 days and I know I can run 6 miles in a day. It may look gnarly at any given time, but it can be done, and sometimes that’s all that matters.

    Another thing that helps sometimes is to move, which I learned practicing photography. Mostly I like to write and run in the same place and in exactly the same way; it’s that scary. Especially running. Even changing direction around the track scares the living hmmmhmmmhaw out of me. But I’ve learned from photography that sometimes you’re not getting the right picture because you are standing in the wrong place. And sometimes that really helps with writing too. Different time of day, different approach, different location, different medium (handwriting instead of computer or vice versa).

    Whatever works, keep doing it. I mean that as a personal comment to you and also to everyone else who is making a go at a practice. Keep doing it and share your best efforts with everyone, no matter what they are. And thanks. It makes my life a lot better, and I really appreciate it.

  8. Thank you so much for this post.

    Wise, funny and true, just like you! (The little I know you, I’ve just discovered your blog. Thank you for all you do.)

  9. “There is a wonderful term in the film & television industry—”show up having had.” As in, show up on set for your call time tomorrow having had some damned thing or another to eat, because there won’t be any there when you arrive, sucka, nor time to eat it, neither.”

    I can see how this applies to writing. Once you start the work, there isn’t time to check email or facetwitterbook or eat or run laps. The writing is what matters, and fighting that lion of resistance or dread can’t stop you. Dread can’t take our pride, resistance can’t hold us down. Oh no, we got to keep on moving. (a shout out to Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five). Thanks for reminding us self-care is a great way to manage dread.

  10. Ace, as usual. Thank you.
    Friction – resistance – to even simple things like getting up to go to bed on time (naahh, I’ll just log onto the ‘pooter instead), eating a healthy lunch, eating some broccoli with dinner… and the list goes on.

    Thanks for sharing the tedium and the mountain tops.

    Best

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