Monday, April 15, 2013

Mind sets and noveling

As anyone who has run a long road race--or simply trained for one--knows, how tired you feel isn't only a function of your conditioning; it's also a function of your mind.  You can be dragging through the middle of a workout or a race, wondering how you'll make it through the next mile, and yet miles later you suddenly are enjoying a vigorous spring in your step, a surge of enthusiasm, a new certainty that you can polish off the race or the workout in good speed.  What's changed isn't your body--except that you've only added more mileage to it--but your attitude.  This is the subject of a really interesting article in this month's Runner's World magazine.   The author, Michelle Hamilton--who, coincidentally, runs a lot faster than I ever will--describes how her mental reactions during races and workouts were blocking her from making any real progress.  Fundamentally pessimistic in her outloook, she was constantly criticizing herself--regardless of whether she was running faster or slower than planned--as well as playing other self-defeating mind games: telling herself she was more tired than she really was, losing heart in races and essentially--albeit not literally--quitting on them when it appeared that she wouldn't reach her mile-pace goals, writing off "bad" races as failures and accusing herself of being a failure as a result of having run them.

Well, not surprisingly, Hamilton eventually decided she needed to reorient herself mentally and even hired a "mental-game coach" to help her in this effort.  In the article, Hamilton shares many of the approaches and lessons she learned from her coach.  One that really struck me was the difference between being "results-oriented" and being "process-oriented."  The former, which describes Hamilton before she started revamping her mental game, is essentially negative.  The latter is more positive.  "Mentally tough athletes are positive and process-oriented," Hamilton writes.  She quotes sports psychologist Stan Beecham: "If you focus on results, you take yourself out of the now.  And it's the now that allows for results later."  By beating herself up so badly for not reaching a certain, predetermined result, rather than seeing the "failure" as part of a process that could eventually lead to success, Hamilton kept herself from learning what the race could teach her; even more immediately, she caused the result of that specific race to be far worse than it might otherwise be, because she would buckle as soon as she ran into a performance obstacle (e.g., failure to reach a certain mid-point or three-quarter time; failure to meet the pace she wanted for her previous mile).

As soon as I read that paragraph, my head came up and I thought, That's just how it is with novelists.  Or, rather, some novelists.   I've been shocked and disheartened this semester, as I teach novel writing to a mixed group of undergraduates and graduates, at how down on themselves some of my students get.  The reason?  Their budding novels--which they drafting in one semester, for gosh sakes--strike them as being really bad.  So bad they can't stand it.  So bad they want to give up.  (Now, let me emphasize that several students feel exactly the oppositie.  They are perfectly pleased with their books.  And some of these, I'm happy to report, are students who once were beating themselves up but found a way through.)  Here, the lesson of Hamilton's article applies precisely.  If you look at the result of the most recent chapter or three in the first draft of your first ever novel, chances are you are going to find several glariing weaknesses in it.  How could anyone reasonably expect anything else?  A results-oriented thinker says to himself or herself, Well, if such is the result of this project, this project must be a failure.  So I might as well quit now.  (By their own admission, a few of my students told themselves this very thing.)  The problem with this thinking is that a draft is just that: it's part of a process.  What matters isn't what it looks like now; what matters is keeping the process of novel-writing going.  At least until one finishes the draft.  At that point, if one is a shrewd enough and intuitive enough and careful enough and patient enough rewriter, one can make something quite nice of that draft.  Perhaps something almost entirely different.  Perhaps something several dozen--or several thousand--people will want to read.  But that is the then that is only realized because one did the work of the now now.   It only happens then because one refuses to abandon the now.

This is not to say that every rough first draft eventually turns into a beautiful published novel.  Just about every successful novelist has a few manuscripts in his drawer or on his computer that finally proved unsalvageable.  But here's the rub, even those manuscripts have their value.  They might represent the first attempts at some subject matter that was better realized in a later work; and/or their weaknesses may contain vital lessons about how not to handle some specific aspect of fiction writing craft (e.g., description, characterization, back story, action); and/or maybe they might have simply enabled the writer to get something off his chest that he needed to express before he could move on to some other, more valuable type of expression.  Just like every race has something to teach its runner, every book has something to teach its author; even the books that don't turn out well.  So while some of my students might want to give up, they really shouldn't.  Even if their novels turn out to be the classic first unpublished novels that will forever be locked up in a boxes or in an attics and read by nobody (and I'm sure that will not be the case for some of them), those novels are serving crucial purposes for their authors.   They are stepping stones to whatever these young authors will write next.  But to get to the there, they have to first satisfy the now.  And that means finishing.    


  1. Hey, John. Great post.

    I once told Skip Hays up at the U of A that I'd written a short story for his workshop based on a "failed poem." He said he didn't know what that meant. I see it exactly as you describe those unsalvageable manuscripts, a draft that taught me a lot but never became a poem in itself.


  2. Yes, I think every working writer must have stories like these. Maybe several!