You need a chair, for example, to sit on. You need a pen or pencil and paper, or a typewriter and paper, or a computer and no paper. You usually need something a little more reliably horizontal than a lap to serve as a writing surface, a desk, a table, an ottoman, a step.
Then there’s the light that you need, natural, if it’s daytime, or artificial, if it’s not, or if it’s daytime in Portland, Oregon. You need heat sometimes, unless you are in Arizona (or my apartment) in the summer, in which case you need air conditioning (or a wet bathing suit and a series of strategically placed fans).
Depending upon who you are and what you’re like, you might also need complete quiet and privacy, plus a set of earplugs. Unless, of course, you need noise, a series of carefully crafted playlists, or streaming white noise, or, if you were someone completely unlike me, an orchestra of leaf blowers and grumpy neighbors. You might also need water, plain, coffee- or tea-flavored, and snacks. And a timer. And a distraction-free writing environment, and noise-canceling headphones to place over your earplugs. And another sweater, or perhaps a vest, or perhaps a sweater-vest. If you are a certain kind of writer, you might even need a lucky sweater-vest, and a special mug from which to drink your variously-flavored water and a special coaster to put it on, and a timer.
You will almost certainly need to have for your very own self a particular stretch of day that begins and ends at particular times, or else how the hell could you possibly get anything of any seriousness done, much less writing, for god’s sake? And you will need to be well-rested to greet this time of day, and sufficiently exercised, fed, watered, burped, pooped, scrubbed, and groomed. You will need to have ideas to write, perhaps that you have sketched out the day before in a special notebook, perhaps during one of those invigorating constitutionals, or upon index cards with a particular fineness of Sharpie, or upon coated white vertical surfaces with special erasable markers.
You will absolutely need the complete love and understanding of those closest to you, a door separating this room of your own from the rest of the household, a room somewhere entirely off the premises, preferably located close to some additional place that serves coffee- and tea-flavored beverages and provides tables and chairs to work at and wifi for breaks between the working.
You will certainly need all of these things. ALL of them, or how can you possibly be expected to produce anything of consequence? And that is all that is worth producing, right, something of consequence?
* * * * *
I am a planner. Like most of my character traits, it’s something I use to both propel myself forward and to hold myself back. (And that others have used both to praise and to diminish me.)
About a week ago, I had to give a talk rather unexpectedly, the kind of thing one cannot really prepare for.
I was part of a team of people helping out behind the scenes at a friend’s exciting new conference in Portland, and we had hit a snag: one of the scheduled speakers suddenly fell ill, he’s fine now, don’t worry, and had to cancel his talk and fly home, leaving us an empty hour to fill with content and less than 24 hours in which to do it.
Working together (which, more and more, I’m seeing is as critical to accomplishment as is working alone), we came up with an idea that would build on the message he would have delivered in his talk. The new plan became: show an excellent video of a shorter version of his talk that had been uploaded elsewhere; share a few personal stories that contained examples of the theme of his talk; coax from the entire body of attendees their own experiences with the theme of the talk; tie it all together with a magical, meta bow. Ta-da!
In theory, this was a simple, elegant solution that, while it could never replace the particular experience of having this speaker give his talk live, honored him and his work and the entire spirit of the conference in an interesting and (at least to us) inspiring way. For what greater thing is there than having your work carried forward in the work of others? None, that’s what. (Okay, sunsets, smiling babies and bunnies in cups, satisfied?)
In practice, this meant a whole lot of things lining up pretty seamlessly. I, for one, was terrified. While I only had to provide a measly two minutes of programming, and while I knew that the story of my bloody epiphany fit the theme, that really awful things can turn out to be really great, life-changing things, well enough, I had never told this story in less than five minutes. And it had taken me something like 20 hours to boil it down to that, plus another 20 or so hours of running it over and over like a madman. This time around, after dispensing with the rest of my commitments for that day and the next, I’d have roughly three hours of private time to cut the talk in less than half, and not particularly well-rested hours. Maybe someone who did this every day could do it with no problem, but I’d basically promised something I wasn’t entirely sure I could deliver. Not my favorite thing in the world.
But I had to do it, you understand. Not because anyone made me: I offered. Because I wanted to do it. Because we had to do something. Because I had to do it.
* * * * *
There have been two stretches of my life where I stopped writing: a nine-year break during my tenure as a professional ad ho and a four-year hiatus after I fried my brain and before I had my bloody epiphany.
Even during these times, I wrote privately. (Or as privately as someone who commits thoughts to paper and doesn’t destroy the evidence later can be said to write.) My writing was sporadic, dull and repetitive; I wrote to release things no one else would listen to, things so tedious they bored even me. I did it to stave off doom, not to stay sharp against a time when I might be again willing to step up to the plate and swing in front of God and everyone. Still, the fact remains that I wrote: hand moving across a page, over and over again.
* * * * *
At the same conference I ended up delivering my small, semi-improvised talk, I had an experience in one of the sessions that will change forever the way I think about my work. Almost offhandedly, before dispatching us to do one of his really useful exercises designed to help you do better work, Michael Bungay Stanier said, and I’m paraphrasing a bit, but not much, “The first time you tell your stories, they suck.” (Is it any wonder I loved Michael immediately?)
I reflected briefly on this nugget, decided to go with a known quantity, then turned to my partner…and proceeded to tell him the most boring, uneventful version of a pivotal moment in my life I have ever told.
So apparently, the fourth, seventh and ninth time you tell your stories, they can also suck.
My partner then told me his story. It was the first time he’d told it to anyone. It was long, winding and looped back on itself. I was riveted all the way through, and cried more than once.
If I had not had 10 years of acting study, I would not have understood why, but I have, and I did: he was completely present for all of his mess. He did not worry about nudging the pieces of his into some kind of tidy shape; it was his life, and it was untidy, with no clear arc, no neat lesson. But clearly, he had spent a good deal of his life really taking things in and reflecting on them, reading, being present. He had lived the kind of life my well-meaning father might have called unfortunate, the life of a person who was clearly capable, but who couldn’t get his act together, which is what a person needed in the end, to make it in this world.
My father is dead now so I cannot tell him this, but I can tell you: because of this stranger I did a five-minute exercise with, I will be able to tell a story that has thus far eluded me, and in a way that might actually land with someone else.
Also, this is as good a definition of “making it” as I think one can come up with.
* * * * *
I used to think there came a time when, if you worked long and hard, all the strands of everything you’d done and learned wove themselves together and magically transformed you into an Extraordinary Being of Knowing: kind, capable, wise, endlessly patient and a delight to be around. You, only grown up.
Now I think that if there is such a you, it is there all along, gently poking and prodding you to get on with your business. And that if you do enough business, eventually you get to meet the extraordinary person who was there all along, patiently waiting for you to stop your whining about wanting to be of service and log your miles/build up enough muscle to be of real, reliable service.
So yeah, You, Grown Up has lived longer and knows more. You, Grown Up has logged the miles and can deliver on command. But the only reason You, Grown Up is able to be of use (much less someone anyone is delighted to be around) is because You, Grown Up has managed to stay open and available, to tolerate change and mess, and to yuk it up a little instead of taking life so seriously. The things you can do right now with zero training (albeit sometimes in very small amounts, and often only when external forces back you into a corner).
The little talk I had to give turned out fine. Even if it hadn’t, though, it would have turned out fine, just not the way I’d envisioned.
Show up, show up, show up. Raise your hand when volunteers are requested. Try to remain focused on the moment and unattached to outcome.
All work is work in progress.
Image by Armosa Studios via Flickr used under a Creative Commons license. (Don’t know who did the graphic notes of Mark Silver‘s workshop, but they’re dandy.) UPDATE: The visual notes are by Cynthia Morris, who wrote about drawing them at WDS. Thanks to Melody Watson (and her extraordinary comment) for pointing it out.