My mind went on a diet a while ago and already it’s lost nearly 1800 words. It started by eliminating all those empty adjectives and adverbs that just pile bulk on the body of my work without any real nutrition. Then it tossed out the interjections (pure comfort words – WOW! huh?). You’re allowed substitutions on this diet, and so next went a bunch of nouns, replaced by less rich pronouns. I feel much better now. I have more energy and I can think non-stop without running out of imagination. My inner, slimmer brain that was buried under layers of useless prose has been liberated!
Call it the thinking man’s diet. Throwing away something you’ve slaved long and hard over may seem counterintuitive, but sometimes you get addition by subtraction that way. More and more I find myself inclined to focus energy on eliminating the bad in order to clear the way for the good. It used to feel wrong to do that. When I threw my hard work away, I thought I had lost something. All that time, effort, and most of all hope, seemed like too much of an investment to walk away from. But then I realized that the reason it wasn’t going anywhere was because it was finished. That approach had gone as far as it could, and it wasn’t going to get any better. To keep trying to patch it into perfection was like making a joke of it and of myself. So it wasn’t a blasphemy to move on; on the contrary, it was a blasphemy to stay mired in something fundamentally flawed. I was agonizing over a limitation I had outgrown.
But beyond that, I got better at understanding what perfection would look like. Now, complete perfection isn’t going to happen to the likes of me. Nor would I want it to, because then I’d stop growing. There is, however, a basic threshold of potential you have to have if you’re reaching for your best. You have to have the right idea, the right vision for moving that idea, and all the necessary elements on hand to see it through. And sometimes you don’t discover those things until you choose the wrong things first. By making some wrong choices, you come to recognize what isn’t a mistake. Then what you need is simply the courage to start over. That’s the personal part I had to learn. Maybe it was just pride in what I had already begun that was holding me back, maybe it was part ego, part vanity, but in any case I had to recognize the dead end and shift my motivation toward a better result. You might never fully attain the perfection you want, but you can start with those undiluted and uncompromised three things: idea, vision, and the essential elements on hand to pull it off.
You might use different words for those labels I’ve chosen. Some other words for idea are: inspiration, catalyst, stimulation, ideal and model. By vision I mean the inner certainty you have gained through life that you can make the right judgments as you act on your idea (hint: if the idea is inspiring enough, the judgments will be easier). Essential elements are the specific material you have to work with: plot, characters, setting. The quality of what you start with has everything to do with where you end up. Whatever terms you use, there is no greater feeling than being on a journey toward something really good. To hold the essential clay of perfection in your hand and know you have a chance to shape it to your ideal — that’s electrifying. Respect that above all! It justifies who you are. It can motivate you and balance out the flawed things that eat up the rest of your life.
But first you have to slim down your brain.
If I hadn’t been afraid of making mistakes, I think I would have gotten on the right track a lot sooner. I wasted vital years hanging onto efforts that were exhausted. Something cowed me into submission. Maybe it was fear of failure, maybe it was too much pride in what I thought I had going for me. It just seemed like my words were too bad to keep and too good to throw away. When I started to see them as finished, I was able to clear the palate and escape what was holding me back.
Hang on, this is about to turn into one of my Cannibal Essays. You may remember the format from the column http://storytellersunplugged.com/thomassullivan/2006/09/16/thomas-sullivan-ky-jelly-the-headless-squirrel/ . The idea was to try to inspire people, writers or not, to see the stories and the lessons in their lives. For me that often happens in nature. The point about not being afraid to make mistakes came to me as I was hiking in a 5600-acre nature preserve named Elm Creek the other day. After crossing a quaint old wooden bridge in a remote section, I came upon an ear-splitting chorus of croakers in a pond so weedy and turbulent it looked like boiling rhubarb. Every frog that Kermit ever knew was having shameless sex. Which is sort of like tag-team wrestling. All right, it was an orgy. Under and over the weeds they struggled in randy pursuit, ambushing each other with triumphant leaps that ended in bronco-busting tussles. It soon became apparent that the missionary position wasn’t going to work well for frogs. And it also became clear that the little green critters weren’t all that accurate at telling male from female. But that didn’t stop them from trying all of the above. Equate sex with creativity (oh, man, do I want to go there) and you’ve got it. The creative drive can’t max out if you don’t explore the right avenue. Whether it is procreation or just creation, you are shooting blanks when you stick with a dead end. Nature isn’t afraid to make mistakes and then to move on. That’s how things get better in the whole scheme of evolution and successful survival, and that’s what I’m talking about here in the growth and success of a writer.
I never did get whether all that amphibian sex was connected with another phenomenon when I was exploring Elm Creek that day, but it did give me a second metaphor for writers. A half dozen tiny birds were going crazy nearby. They were popping off some overhanging branches and performing whigged-out stunts like acrobats on meth. They had to be scoffing down insects in mid-air, but I couldn’t see the blue plate special. According to a book in my library the black-feathered phenoms with pale orange decals on their fuselages and tails are American redstarts and this time of year the no-seeums are hatching out. Anyway, it struck me that writers aren’t a whole lot different in their mental gyrations. We work in a vacuum. And like those birds staring into seemingly empty air to see what only they can see and performing acrobatic leaps and loops from their vantage points to find food one insect at a time, we stare at empty screens and snatch nourishment for the soul out of thin air one word at a time. We get to play God a little more than the average person. Yes, all people define their lives, all people become self-fulfilling prophecies. But more than most, writers can use their imaginations to shape their lives. If we tend to be mavericks, it’s at least in part because of that mental power. We do not live behind the same façades as everyone else, sanctioned and endorsed and even defined by the expectations around us. We invent what’s right. We might get it wrong at the start, but we work at it with will and imagination until our passion becomes reality. And that just kicks down the door to possibilities. Making mistakes is part of the process. And maybe mistake isn’t the right word for what I’m trying to describe. Maybe I mean aiming too low, or underestimating what you need, or starting with an idea, vision and elements that can’t go the distance. But it’s a definite mistake to not recognize when you do. And it’s a colossal mistake to hang onto the debris of the wrong choice. Put your mind on a diet. You deserve to like the person in the mirror. It’s one thing to reach for your star, it’s quite another to aim for mediocrity.
There is another nature story to this piece, if you are interested. It involved an act of courage and trust that inspired me to address this topic. I put it in my newsletter, which comes out simultaneously with this column each month. Some photos of the frog sex pond and bird-launching area are also included there, along with the notorious Dr. Foto’s latest blasphemy, and some photos from a spectacular weekend I just spent up at Cross Lake, Minnesota. As I wrote in the newsletter this month, for many years I’ve enjoyed an extraordinary friendship with an extraordinary man and his extraordinary family. Glenn Frey of the Eagles has more facets than the Hope diamond, and when he invited me up to Cross Lake, I knew it was going to be a hoot with philosophical overtones. Adding to the warmth and meaningfulness we always share was the fact that his wife Cindy and two sons, Deacon and Otis Lincoln Douglas (you got that right — and this six-year-old has the pz-zazz to back that handle up!), and father-in-law Jerry, who can barbecue his way into Hell’s Kitchen, were all there. Deacon stole the limelight at the outdoor concert with his rockin’ guitar and vocals on some of his old man’s hits like “Hotel California.” Not to mention that Otis made his bid to insert “Tambourine Man” on the playlist. Three days of beautiful vistas on the lake, exquisite people, great food, a million laughs and pranks, music to tame the masses, and scintillating conversation. Having the privilege of looking over someone’s shoulder at the high end of another creative art form has afforded me more than a few relevant insights, and the Cross Lake happening was no exception. I’m going to try and write about that next month. Count on it.
Meanwhile, past newsletters are being archived at the website below (and usually go up sometime during the day that this column comes out), but I’ll be glad to send you one once a month if you e-mail me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Your thoughts are welcome, your attention valued. If you’d like to see more of my work, please check out a free sample chapter from THE WATER WOLF on my website.
Thomas “Sully” Sullivan