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On Juggling Time and Ports of Call

The following is a guest blog post from W.R. Parrish, whose horror short story, "The Man in Christopher's Closet," took home the grand prize in WD's 9th Annual Popular Fiction Competition. You can read more about Parrish in the May/June 2014 issue of Writer's Digest and in an exclusive extended interview with him online. In this post, Parrish describes the frustrating call of being a writer, his own struggles with procrastination, and potential solutions and safeguards to set up to avoid getting too far off the writing track.

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There is no middle ground to being a writer. You either are or you aren't. No in-between.

I talked a good game. A mediocre game, maybe. For the longest time, I was working on this novel about X or this short story about Y, and it was coming along, always coming along. My stories existed in this pregatory, not matured enough to reach a paper, though not far enough back to be a kernel either. They were ripening, and I was happy with that, thinking an idea was a step up from no idea. Which it isn't.

See, priorities are a funny thing because they can always feel right. Properly sequenced. By doing one thing, you're saying it's more important than this other thing, even if you know it isn't, deep-deep down. In the moment, watching a movie is judged important, more so than writing or painting or dancing or whatever your passion of choice may be. Because it just is. Yes you feel guilty, and yes you'd rather be writing or painting or dancing or whatever else, but like the Cinnabun you can't seem to shy away from, you do it still, shelving passion for instant gratification. Or complacency. Or both. Don't misunderstand me: there's nothing wrong with a little R&R. Whoever said find something you love and you'll never work a day in your life is a liar. Because passions are work, and often with little reward. And I'm just as culpable. To plagiarize Mitch: I used to procrastinate. I still do, but I used to too. Procrastination is one of life's greatest double-edged swords. Like naps. Or that Cinnabun. Trouble is, pushing off what you really want can become a crutch. A nasty one. Over time, the “tomorrow” becomes “tomorrow” becomes “tomorrow” and suddenly the fire you once had is weeks-months-years old, and now only embers at best. I went to college to write. To learn how to write more good, I guess. It was wonderful. In that environment, I was surrounded by people I was accountable to, even if the accountability was surface-deep. An assumption, but there it is. My desire to produce was amplified as a result, my desire to create and share and prove an intangible something. Fire started and stoked. So I tried.

Then I didn't.

Life gets in the way. Graduation. “Real People” jobs. In my case, “Kinda Real People” jobs. The freedom of actually being an adult who doesn't know how to be an adult. A decade later and Loon, the novel I'd spent the better part of my academic career fostering, was embers. But it was coming along. Always coming along. Ten years of believing myself a writer, and I had nothing to show for it.

My wife said that to me. The last part there. She has the ability to take a sentence, remove the words until it becomes a honed arrow of intent, and fire that thing right where it needs firing. Imagine, maybe, a poet who can snap boards in half with their words. That's her. The worst thing about her telling me was I already knew. Deep-deep down. I'd put writing off so long, I'd forgotten how good it felt to be writing. Hunger goes away over time. Starvation by procrastination.

With the small exception of coffee in the morning, I am not a person of routine. Though my mind desperately needs to know how my day is going to unfold and where it's going to unfold, I dislike the rote. Perhaps this is why I've yet to find myself in a cubicle, in spite of trying. The ability to ride a river and let it to take you where it will is a wonderful thing, but sometimes, sometimes, you need a destination. And not the dream of a destination either. That doesn't count. That's an in-between. A real, honest, point of port. Mine was ritual. Some semblance of structure, which I'll talk about (briefly) below. And a novel. That too. I was able to use baby steps to help ease into the process again, to dust off my fingers and keyboard (and kernels) and get to work.

One Day October was the result.

I remembered what it felt like to write again. To create again. How both awful and wonderful it could be. The largest hurdle I found was simply finishing something, just one single something, and when I did, the gates opened. Just like that. In the end, it didn't so much matter to me it be good, only that it was, and not fragments of lost phrases written on a napkin somewhere. Since publishing October, I've finished my second novel, and am floating (awfully, wonderfully) in the deep end of my third.

This isn't meant to be a cat-on-the-wall poster, or even a means of working through self-deprecation. In the same way it took someone I love to wake me up, perhaps too it might take someone you don't know to do the same. And like I said: it's work. Always will be. That doesn't go away. But by drafting ports in the storm you can navigate those waves more easily.

Here are some of mine.

1. Juggle. Not that kind of juggling with the chainsaws. Fake juggling. Idea juggling. My dreams are vivid, and from them I get a fair amount of material. The Man in Christopher's Closet was the result of sleep, as was another of my published shorts, The Family Buried. They come as snapshots, quick pictures like comic panels I want to walk through. Since writing is a carrot and a stick experience, always there and dangling and rarely within reach, I never feel as though I'm progressing and, after spending time with the same characters in the same world for weeks on repeat, I need a change of scenery. Of company. Those snapshots become my chainsaw, juggling one snapshot for the next until I've walked those new halls and am ready to return to places familiar. Putting one story aside for another helps with the routine, in spite of being a routine itself, I suppose, and keeps me interested.

2. Pawn. Find someone and make them read what you've written. If this person's advice revolves around the phrase or is similar to the phrase “This is really great,” this person is terrible, and you should move on. Seek criticism. Seek praise, unless it's the above, then seek praise with bite in the form of specific examples. Seek to understand why this worked and why that didn't work and why you really need a person who understands grammar. As writers (and humans), we are a collection of missing parts. Surround yourself with people who understand what you lack.

3. Be. My wife knows how to exist in the moment. I know how to occupy a moment where my mind is elsewhere, wandering-wandering. Where she can hear/feel/sense the wind, I am often concerned with what the wind brings. In this way I fuss and I fidget. I can write a sentence over and again without ever being satisfied with the result, and in doing so, I struggle in arriving where I hope to go. There is a time and a place for editing. For me, it's when the work is done. Then I can play perfectionist. Anything else is distraction.

4. Procrastinate. I know. I know. This goes counter to my entire first half, but look: if you're staring at a blank page, and you can't seem to fill it, walk away. Read a book. Watch a movie. Take that nap. Some writers begin and end their day the same, time every time, like punching a card. I've tried, and I only end up hateful. If I feel like I have to write, I can't. When it's a job, what's the point? It's already work. I write because there's this odd tickle, and my only therapy is a keyboard. Others do yoga. Discover what makes you want to write—need to write—and then, if your chakra isn't aligned, do that thing.

5. Read. There's a reason this is always mentioned by other writers. It doesn't matter what you're reading, as long as you are.

There you go. My ports. Take them or leave them. Take some and leave the rest. There are no rules.

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