The Peril of The Pause

pauseThe wind barreled down the concrete breezeway and slapped my bare cheek as I walked through the library doors. I held a tottering stack of books flush against my chest, their corners digging into my ribs through my sweater.

Inside the library, I had felt calm, as I usually do. The dank, dusty smell and crowded embrace of so many crackling laminate spines always infuses me with comfort and possibility in equal measure. The library, for me, is a sacred space. A temple of learning. A humane gesture toward the infinite.

Standing in the aisle, I had scanned the strings of Dewey Decimal numbers for matches to my scrawled index card. I pulled my choices quickly. One of the children I nanny—the almost four year-old—raced around me in dizzying circles, karate chopping the air while I half-heartedly begged him to be quiet.

The day’s haul was topical. How to be a Freelance Writer, The Freelancer’s Bible, Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content, and the last, a petite red hardback entitled The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the Writing Life—chosen because even I’m not foolish enough to go stomping around new territory without an ally.

But by the time we crossed the street and reached the car, my ears were ringing. A familiar, invisible vise tightened its grip on my head. Unconsciously, I was holding my breath.

I slung the books into the trunk and slammed it. I tried to focus on the way the steering wheel felt like a cool curve of skin-covered bone beneath my palms. But I could still hear the books, flinging anxious thoughts like miniature Zeusian bolts at the back of my head as I shifted the car into gear and drove away.

“Who do you think you are that you can be a writer?”

“Are you kidding—you don’t have a head for this. You’re no good at networking or promoting yourself.”

“You’ll never make enough money to survive. You’ll have to give it up and get a real job in a couple of years anyway so why bother?”

“There’s too much to learn. It’s too late. You should have decided to pursue this ten years ago. There are so many working writers out there already…how will you compete with them?”

In psychological parlance, these are known as Self-Limiting Beliefs. I label them my Inner Critic, a term I picked up from Julia Cameron’s canonical book on creativity, The Artist’s Way. There are many names for this phenomena—Steven Pressfield’s Resistance, Jung’s Animus, Freud’s Superego, the Dragon, the Demon, the Tempter.

And there’s new evidence that the engine of imagination sometimes manifests as this overthinking and worrying. In other words, the very force of imagination used to create art can be inverted to destroy the artist, as I wrote about here.

But the Inner Critic has an evolutionary purpose. Human beings are dependent on their tribe for survival and magnetized for criticism as a result. I lifted and laminated my Inner Critic’s favorite phrases in childhood. I postered my mind with them in adolescence. They helped me navigate the world, fit in enough to survive. But, over time, the phrases lost their original contexts and became so subtle I barely registered them in my conscious mind at all. They were my toxic elevator music.

And as long as my Inner Critic remained unconscious, I remained her victim. But I have made a study of my own fear over the past couple of years. I am learning the Inner Critic’s patterns. So it took less time to both recognize her presence and realize its cause.

Why was my Inner Critic waiting outside the library? I had finished the second draft of my novel about a week prior. Though I was still working on other projects, I had lived seven straight days without writing a word of my manuscript for the first time in six months. (Since the last time I experienced, and promptly forgot, this same agonizing pause after my first draft was complete.)

Every hunter knows that you shoot when the animal is still.

And the most effective way to ward off the Inner Critic is to keep working, to show up every day to my desk. That’s why the Agile Writer method hinges on the advice to “Constantly Move Forward.”

But, the pause is integral to the process. The work has to breathe. And I have to give my unconscious mind space in which to devise solutions to the lingering problems of plot and structure. I have to leave my desk and feast on the world.

What I have learned is that it is important to stay vigilant during such a pause, to protect the space you have deliberately created. Otherwise, the Inner Critic may populate it. A colony of fear may grow where you had intended only perspective, comprehension, and fresh ideas.

The temptation with that much space, with an inkling of the scope of the work, is to pass judgement on it. But, my job is not to decide if what I write is valuable. My job is to do the work as well and honestly and rigorously and thoroughly as I can and let go of the desire to control how it is received.

That is my job in the midst of writing. And that is my job in the moments of pausing.

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The Night Before Agile Writers

By James Bono

Twas the night before Thursday. Throughout Martins’ store
Rishonda was browbeating us to write more.

“Ten pages are sent every Sunday by peak
agile writers. So how was your week?”

Elevator pitches graced those who would dare,
in hopes that Saint Gregory soon would be there.

Each writer was nestled all snug in his seat
while visions of publishing contracts loomed sweet.

And Bill with his laptop, Suzan with iPad
knew what it was like, because published they had.

When out in the parking lot rose such a clatter
I sprang from my chair to see what was the matter.

Away to the window I flew like a geek,
pushed sideways the curtain and I took a peek.

The mercury vapor lights lit up the cars
all silently parked on the asphalts and tars.

When what to my wondering eyes should appear
but a miniature sleigh and a herd of friends dear.

With a little old driver as agile as myth
I knew it a moment it must be Greg Smith.

More rapid than eagles his coursers they came
and he whistled and shouted and called them by name:

“Now Sharon, now Ursula, Kevin and Ken,
On Kristen, on Lisa, on Elsie and then
There goes Larry and Anthony, Whitney and Grace,
And Jackie and Jane and old what’s-his-face.
Run Katie, run Sarah, Marlene and Michelle,
gain altitude Glory, we’ve stories to tell!
Go Catherine, go Christine, go Angel and Paul,
A great Hero’s Journey awaiteth you all!

“From the handicapped parking, to the tow-away zones
now all pay attention and silence your phones.”

While some of them entered and made for the stairs
others bought dinner to bring to their chairs.

So up to the second floor room they all flew,
with their heads full of tales of a hero or two.

And then in a twinkling I heard through the door
the sounds of their footsteps plying the floor.

As I drew in my head and was turning around
to Martins’ conference room Greg came with a bound.

He wore business casual from his head to his foot
and his pockets were places where pens he had put.

A bundle of gizmos he wore on his back,
the latest electronics thence to unpack.

His eyes how they twinkled, with intensity stared,
so not meeting their quota of pages none dared.

His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow
but the beard on his chin he refused to let grow.

Since Martins’ wi-fi did not always connect
Greg’s smart phone as hot spot was there to correct.

He spoke many a word, not a duty did shirk,
reviewing his movies and publishing work.

Then at 8 o’clock sharp the main meeting did end;
half the group he would keep, half away he would send.

But I heard him exclaim as I left to critique,
“Which of your stages did you write this week?”

MERRY CHRISTMAS TO THE AGILE WRITER FAMILY!
MAY THE NEW YEAR SEE YOU ALL PUBLISHED!

Authorpreneur

imagesConfession time. Half of this word really scares me. Also, it makes me a little angry, a little frustrated, and a little unsure about my ability to succeed as a writer.

Here’s why: I’m not so sure that the skills needed to be a successful writer can cohabitate with the skills necessary to be a great entrepreneur, brander, marketer, social media mogul and sales executive.

I’m afraid I only have the former set of skills. I like to be alone, I like psychoanalysis, probing deep questions, imagining alternative realities, crafting language, and communicating my most dearly held truths.

The following things, on the other hand, make me feel icky: self-promotion, money, too much time on the internet (especially social media), strategizing, marketing, thinking about the salability of my most dearly held truths.

Am I doomed in the new arena of writing and publishing?

I hope not.

But I worry that developing the skills to hold up the entrepreneurial end of this equation will take place at the expense of the author end. Time spent in strategizing, marketing and social media blasting is time not spent writing, after all. And I only get the same 24 hours in a day as everyone else, unfortunately.

The alternative, of course, is to hire others to do the parts of the business that I don’t have an affinity for. This upsets me for an entirely different reason. Are we kidding ourselves about the great egalitarian wild west of self-publishing on the web? If time and money must be invested now by the author, instead of by the traditional publisher, aren’t we empowering some kinds of authors (those with an abundance of time and/or money) over others even more than we were before?

This troubles me. I don’t have the answer.

But, if I may be permitted to play devil’s advocate against my own argument for a moment, I can see some of the proclaimed advantages of this new author-centric system of publishing. For one, authors have greater creative control over the final form of their work than ever before. If you don’t want to listen to a bossy editor or publisher, you don’t have to. You want to write an 800 page debut novel? Knock yourself out. “We don’t see a market for that” is no longer a full-stop for writers seeking publication.

Authors stand to take home a greater slice of their profits than ever before, too. People are not writing novels in the hope of becoming millionaires by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s nice that the time and energy vested in such a long project can be rewarded by a higher percentage (if not all) of the profits of the book’s sales.

And I do think that for some, the skills used in the writing process are transferable to the realm of entrepreneurship. After all, entrepreneurs must also be highly creative to be successful. Blogging is just more writing (a good place to put all the ideas in your brain that don’t fit into your novel!). And many writers also have a knack for the visual arts, making designing their own covers a fun challenge, rather than an overwhelming chore.

I’m still hoping to be picked up by an agent and a traditional publisher. But, in the meantime, I’m learning how to build a platform, generate blog posts, and talk about my project to any willing listeners. Dogged determination, after all, has always been a part of the writer’s toolkit.

Agile Writers, what do you think? Are you as ambivalent about the term “authorpreneur” as I am?