Sunday, February 14, 2021

If it Doesn't Ship

My friend Eliza emailed a couple weeks ago just to check in. Eliza is also a writer, and so after we exchanged updates we sent each other a couple short stories. She'd written a piece about the pandemic that was funny and moving and mournful, which is just about everything I want from a story. I sent her a piece I wrote early last year before the pandemic, which now feels like it was written decades ago.

She liked the story, she said, but suggested I change the last tile. I'd never heard anyone use that phrase before, but I instantly knew what she meant -- the last scene of a story, the one that snaps everything else into place.

My story did not have that snap. I had tried a trick that sometimes works when I get stuck on an ending, which is to start flipping back through the pages and hope something sparks. Is there a loop you can close, a live wire to ground, a thread you can pull to cinch up the plot? But what I landed on was weak, and way too interior. Instead of ending on a final image the reader was left with the main character's thoughts, and those thoughts basically boiled down to, "Here is this story's theme."

Not great!

I haven't figured that one out yet, so this week I set that story aside so I could finish up a couple others. One of my goals this year is to write more garbage, on the theory that this will lead to more writing I'm proud of

I hate calling this "productivity" because that word has such a strong whiff of the workplace, and workplace productivity rarely grants room for failure. In one of my first office jobs, as a wee young copywriter for a major corporation, I lived or died by two metrics: quality and productivity. But there was a catch. 

Although the Corporation believed in maximizing both, it recognized that these two metrics were in some ways opposed. If I had to produce fifty websites a week it was probably unreasonable to expect zero spelling mistakes. If I had to make zero spelling mistakes, I'd have to spend more time proofreading and less time writing.

With creative productivity, the assumptions are different. It's not that the quality metric is gone; more like it's been suspended. "Quality" is something you worry about later, as part of a revision process in which you decide what half-formed material has promise and what might need to be abandoned. 

(The nice thing about being a writer is that even the stuff you "abandon" can still be discreetly set aside for later, and at no real cost. It's not like being a sculptor where you have to clear out failed statues to make space in your studio. Why, with just a couple thumb drives I can keep my failed work with me at all times, to haunt me the rest of my life! Hooray!)

Still, this week "quality" reared its handsome head. As Seth Godin says, if it doesn't ship, it doesn't count. After I set aside the short story that wasn't working, I polished up a couple others for submission and sent them out into the world. After spending the first six weeks of 2021 writing an awful lot of awful first drafts, it felt nice to get something out.

People Watching

On Wednesday, I went out to meet up with a friend and do some writing. We met at the Athenaeum, a historic building in Indianapolis designed...