A Deluge of Nothing

When I still lived at home, I naturally spent most of my time in the basement, far away from human eyes. In order to give the place a personal touch, I put a plethora of video game posters on the walls. For the benefit of my occasional guests, I also installed a crappy, $5 analog clock on the wally by the window. I never checked it because I always wore a digital watch.

The clock tended to be fast by at least 5 minutes (or maybe 15), even a few days after setting it. After a while, the battery started to die, so it got further and further off, until one day, it stopped keeping time altogether. The second hand had started twitching instead of making a complete rotation. It would move from the 43 second mark to the 44 second mark and immediately drop back down, over and over again. I thought it was far more interesting than a regular clock, so I just let it tick endlessly. I called it The Futility Clock.

Right now, I’m having a hard time telling whether or not I’m making progress or just twitching in place. I have a million different potential opportunities, but whenever I take a tentative step in a given direction, nothing changes. When I decided to write the novel, it was because I needed to focus my effort on one thing. Now I have to focus a little on everything to find out what works out and what fails. I’m trying sci-fi conventions, opinion letters, political essays, blog posts, short stories, children’s stories, poems, twitter and facebook updates, reddit discussions, and of course, dozens of emails.

I used to send emails to people all the time. Amazingly enough, they’d reply! My brother and I played correspondence chess via email. I even won a game once. Now, email has become the incarcerated uncle of the internet. It came from a different time and has a lot of flaws, but it’s still part of the family and everyone has to visit it once in a while. I’ve given out a lot of business cards, but I never get any phone calls. I was convinced that I had to be missing some important phone calls, so I exchanged my 4-year-old flip phone for a brand-new flip phone to be sure. It made no difference.

When you start out as a writer, your biggest concern is whether or not you’re good enough. It’s a meaningless concern, because those who lack confidence will always have some doubt, and those who are overconfident will never have any doubt. Ideally, writers should strike a balance: confident enough to sell themselves but modest enough to accept and utilize criticism. I’m always trying to find the balance, and whenever I receive a critical response, I try to make the best of it. I’m always prepared for responses, but at this point, my concerns are less about insecurity and more about ontology. Am I real enough to warrant a response? Do I even exist? Time will tell.

My goal as a writer is to communicate ideas, so nothing is more discouraging than shouting into a silent void. All I get back is a deluge of nothing. How long can my voice hold up? How many different things can I shout? I rarely quote Jesus, but here I go: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and answers the door, I will come in.”

One day, I looked up and saw that The Futility Clock was running normally again. The time was still way off, so I knew no one had changed the battery, but the second hand was going all the way around.

4 thoughts on “A Deluge of Nothing

  1. I have faced some very similar challenges trying to start a software business. One thing I read that really helped clarify things was “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield. A brilliant examination of the writing process itself is in “On Writing” by Stephen King. (You are in good company with all of these Ste(v|ph)en writers.)

    Some specific things you may try doing:

    1) You say that “My goal as a writer is to communicate ideas” but I would challenge you to clarify that in a way which lets you stay motivated during all of the rejections required to make it as a writer. Instead, make it your goal to write 500 words every day while becoming a better writer. You don’t have much control over whether people read or understand your work, you can only control the work itself, so focus above all on that.

    2) It’s good to try lots of different things to sell your work, but you should make sure you know when things are working and even more important, when they are failing. When you say “I’ve given out a lot of business cards, but I never get any phone calls.”, I suspect you are not being as strategic as you can be in this regard. If someone wants a business card, be sure you get their card as well, and then follow up with them a few days later via phone. Ignoring you means they’re probably going to say “no” in some fashion, but following up with them lets you understand why they are saying no. It also makes you more confident because you see how rejection isn’t really that scary.

    3) Focus on the writing you really care about to the exclusion of all other kinds. I’m sure you have some talent in each of “opinion letters, political essays, blog posts, short stories, children’s stories, poems” but you already know in your heart which type of writing gets you out of bed in the morning, so focus on that one. Becoming good at writing, developing a voice, and finding an audience all take a very long time, say 5-10 years of full time practice. It’s impossible to get there if you start over in a new medium every few months. Once you have readers in one medium, it will be much easier to expand to others.

    Hope this helps.
    –Ben

    • Oddly enough, I don’t have one particular kind of writing that gets me out of bed. (Maybe it’s the ADD.) I have big ideas and little ideas, and I try to find a balance between writing short pieces with a lot of energy and longer pieces that are more subdued. My satisfaction in writing comes from how well I encapsulate the ideas and how people interpret and enjoy them.

      One reason I do political/blog stuff is that it comes to me fairly easily. I’m opinionated and motivated about a lot of issues, so it doesn’t take a whole lot of effort to express my views. I also tend to get a quicker response from readers. On the other hand, I tend to be more proud of my fiction writing, but it takes much more time.

      One reason I’m trying a lot of things right now is that my current fiction projects require a lot of finesse. I think there’s value in exploring, but my long-term goals are fairly clear.I’m still in the “figuring out what works and what fails” stage, so when I’m further along with that, I’ll start culling the crappy ideas in favor of the better ones.

      I’m trying to dial back on my sense of urgency. A little bit will help you keep going, but too much will freeze you up. They say it’s because the brain has a harder time being creative under pressure, sort of like a “fight or flight or write” response. Anyway, I am now trying to think of myself as an entrepreneur instead of just an artist. Most businesses don’t make money right away, so it’s not unreasonable to spend a couple of years just establishing things.

      • It sounds like your fiction writing is what you’re most proud of and also what challenges you (“requires a lot of finesse”). So it probably doesn’t get you out of bed, because only adderall can do that, but it does seem like maybe that’s your focus. I only point this out because it seemed in your original post like you felt that you were spinning your wheels and not getting anywhere, if that’s the case then it’s sometimes helpful to narrow your options and focus on the one thing that’s most important to you.

        There is value in experimenting with different types of writing, and I would encourage you to continue doing that. However, something I’ve found with myself is that sometimes I get stuck and so look to “false productivity” in the form of excess planning, or writing code I don’t need to, or working on stuff that doesn’t really matter but is easy to do and gives me a fast kick. I’m not saying you’re doing this, because I can’t see inside your brain, but it’s something to look out for.

        Your point about dialing back urgency is perfect because writing is a long-term activity. That’s why so many writers advocate writing a set amount every day and trying to focus exclusively on the writing. If what motivates you is whether people enjoy your work, then some day someone will hate your work and you’ll lose motivation. If what motivates you is feeling like you’ve got something to say then some day fear and self-doubt will surface and you’ll lose motivation. The only way to make it in the long term is to write for yourself every day, whether you want to or not. This doesn’t mean you hide your writing from others of course, because everyone needs editors, just that you aren’t doing it for them.

  2. I find the process of creativity so interesting. You seem to be following the advise given by Edwin Hoover in ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ (played by Alan Arkin). If he was talking about writing, he’d say, “Write a lot of stuff about a lot of things and do it in a lot of different ways. And don’t forget to have some fun while your at it.” I think that’s good advise.

    I love your writing. I especially like your short stories. I’m still working on “Favor” but I’ve had a lot of interruptions and I’m not the fastest reader. I follow your blog but not all the time. I like hearing about your thoughts on writing and your ups and downs. It is all so universal. Much the same process that I go through and have gone through for a very long time. I’m inspired by your courage to share your process. Something I have a hard time with. Keep up the good work! Dixie

    PS: I recently put some drawings on Tumblr: http://dx-c.tumblr.com/
    I have a website but I haven’t updated it in a while. http://dixiedamron.com/home.html

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