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The Line Between Insanity and Perseverance


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29674017427_6fa253c644_c.jpg?resize=525%Lately I have been obsessed with the quote (typically wrongfully attributed to Albert Einstein) that “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” By this definition, I’m bonkers and have been for quite awhile. I suspect a significant proportion of writers would count themselves in that same category.

I write every day. Sometimes for minutes, sometimes for hours. Always with the hope that my fingers on the keyboard will produce brilliant prose that is well plotted, action-packed, full of micro-tension, and emotionally rewarding. And every day I write passages that aren’t.

That adds up to a lot of days accumulating a lot of unsatisfactory results while expecting better. And yet I keep at it.

It is significant to this struggle that the above quote is also linked to addiction therapy, which defines a repetitive behavior (even non-substance behaviors) as an addiction when it is a misuse–when the repeated actions create harmful effects. Should writing be considered an addictive behavior? If so, what is the harm in writing?

For me, the harm is that sitting at the computer and judging my words creates a sense of inadequacy, the feeling that the imperfections of my daily writing mean that I am not up to the task of making the words match the story I want to write.  The focus is on what I write, not the process.

Admittedly some days are better than others. Some days I can get just the right tone or dialogue for at least a scene or two. Other days I stare at the screen in frustration, sometimes even deleting passages. This is when that quote starts to whisper bad tidings in my ear, suggesting that what I call perseverance is really just living in a made-up land of crazy.

But every once in a while, something clicks and the characters take over and the story flows, carrying me along. Hours pass. Magical, joyous hours during which I experience the writing as if it commands me, not the reverse. Invariably, the passages I write during those moments of flow are keepers. Often they form the lens by which I learn how to take the writing I did on other days and transform it from dreck into tolerable, sometimes maybe even good prose.

I can’t control when those good days hit. Can’t schedule them in. (If I could, there would be a lot more of them). But I have noticed a pattern. They don’t happen randomly. They are influenced by daily practices. They most often happen after many many days spent beating my head and my heart against the keyboard and being frustrated that the words on the page don’t match the story in my mind. They happen after I’ve done the same thing over and over again and again, always expecting (or maybe hoping) for a different output.

This relationship—the connection between daily repetitive practice and creative inspiration–is what shortcircuits the land of crazy. It validates the expectation of different results because it changes the expectations. Instead of expecting that every day at the computer will add another fully-formed piece of a final, complete story, it’s much more supportive to expect that daily perseverance will create a messy scaffold of details and knowledge that will eventually lead to immersion in the story. That immersion will enable the words, the story, to flow. The daily goal is not necessarily just a finished product (words on ‘paper’), but the repeated action–the daily practice of writing that enables creativity.

Every day I continue to sit down to write, but now I am trying to focus not just on the written words, but on the process. Struggling through the hard work on a daily basis inevitably makes the story, the plot, the theme, the characters a little clearer.

Of course the ultimate goal is to have a final presentable story, but getting there is not about creating a brand new shining nugget of perfect writing every day. It’s about refining the existing nuggets into a new alloy. Day 1 might be getting down the rough paragraph draft, then the following days are spent taking the incomplete or imperfect paragraph and shaping it closer to what it should be.

Altering my expectations has created a better relationship between myself and my own words and writing practices. I used to joke that I didn’t like to write, I liked to have written. That was because of the pressure I was putting on myself while I was writing. Each day I measured what I had written against some abstract idea of what the complete, finished, project should be, and it didn’t measure up. Shifting the focus to the daily practice itself, celebrating each tiny positive writing step (solving a plot problem, better understanding a character), made the behavior–writing–more enjoyable. I could reach the end of the day and see what I had accomplished, not what I hadn’t.

Maybe all writers are a little bit insane, or maybe writing is a craft that defies expectations. Or both. And that is the joy of Writer Unboxed to me. We are all the same kind of crazy. Writing and persevering and hoping and expecting that it matters.

I am picking a different quote to guide me in the days ahead, one that Albert Einstein really did say:  “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.”

How about you? How does your inspiration hit? Do you write better if you are regularly at it? Does your inspiration come in bursts? Do you ever wonder when perseverance crosses the line?

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About Jeanne Kisacky

Jeanne Kisacky trained to be an architect before going back to her first love--writing. She studied the history of architecture, has written and published nonfiction, and has taught college courses. She is the author of the recently published book, Rise of the Modern Hospital: An Architectural History of Health and Healing, 1870-1940. She currently fights valiantly to keep her writing time despite the demands of a day-job, a family, and a very particular cat.

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