Essays on Technology and Culture

On Beginnings, Middles, and Ends

When I tell people I’m a writer the conversation often moves to the question, “Oh, what do you write?” Since I’m working on a novel, the response to my response is often “That must be hard,” or something along the same lines. In an attempt at wit I’ll often say “Oh, starting a novel is easy. So is finishing one. It’s that middle bit that’s hard.” Of course, the truth is much more subtle.

It is well known that many people are afraid of the blank page, and see it as a detriment to even starting to write. Personally, I’ve never had that problem. Beginning is always easy. It takes no effort to start a project. I could list enough endeavors I’ve started and never finished to fill a encyclopedia, if I wrote large enough. As for ending a project, well, almost every project you can think of has a state that can be considered the end, whether that means it’s actually done, or you just have to turn it in to the person who needs it. Deadlines may be rigid or flexible, but you can only blow past them enough times before it’s just over. Then again, David Foster Wallace wrote thousands of manuscript pages over twelve years for his unfinished, final novel The Pale King and was nowhere close to an ending. DFW may not have had a problem with the middle, but we’ll never know.

For me, the middle is the tricky bit. That’s where the actual work happens—you hope. For my novel, the middle bit is where I’ve been stuck for the last five years. The words have come in fits and starts. I’ve started over, given up starting over, picked up where I left off, revised and re-revised what I already had, skipped ahead, went back to fill in what I skipped. I’ve done any other thing you can think of to either make the work or avoid it. So, the work remains, an unfinished building worked on sporadically when there’s something in the budget. Hard as it is, the only way out is through. It’s not a question of knowing what’s next in the story. The narrative is plotted out. I know how, where, and when it will and must end. I’ve written the ending. I’ve written it several times. (This is another brilliant way to avoid working on the middle.) The main events to carry the story to its conclusion are all there, in the outline, in my head, in chicken scratchings in notebooks and text files in nvALT. They’re just, for the most part, unwritten. For now.

“Write every day.” That’s the summary of 99.99% of books ever written about writing. It’s the gist of On Writing, Writing Down the Bones, The War of Art, Bird by Bird, No Plot, No Problem… and I’ve read them all. Much like Reading books on writing won’t result in you having a book of your own. Reading up on the writing habits of famous writers, like how Ernest Hemmingway sat at the typewriter every morning, revised his last five-hundred words, then wrote a new five-hundred words, won’t result in you having the same work ethic. Critiquing other people’s writing won’t result in you having writing to critique. Seeking inspiration in music, movies, nature, novels and short stories won’t result in inspired work. Changing your environment to write in coffee shops, bars, restaurants, public parks, and cabins in the woods won’t result in a change in your habits. Switching your writing medium to pen and paper, a typewriter, or a full-screen, minimalist text editor on your Mac won’t make the words appear on the page. I’ve done all of these things. All of then can help, but you have to do the work to have any results. Merlin has it right.

My writing workflow hasn’t changed a great deal since I wrote about it a year ago. The main difference is that I use Byword for iOS as my primary editor on my iPhone. I’ve looked at ways to modify my workflow, particularly when it comes to fiction writing, but—of course—fiddling with a workflow won’t result in the work getting done, either. What gets the work done is setting aside the time, making the commitment, focusing, and making the clackity noise, or whatever onomatopoeia suits your method of writing. This is hard. Steven Pressfield calls the force that prevents you from doing the work, any creative work, The Resistance, capitals intentional. Resistance comes from within and without. The majority of my Resistance is temporal. I have a twelve hour work day, social obligations to meet, chores to do, and fit in the occasional good night’s sleep. Either I fit my writing into those gaps, the very essence of my existing writing workflow, or I get nothing done. Then again, when I had more free time, I got even less done. The Resistance found new avenues of attack to keep me from writing the middle, all of which I’ve outlined above.

It’s monumentally hard, and even harder than fighting The Resistance is that this novel isn’t my only project on the burner. I have this site, my articles for Kittysneezes, and other projects all in various states of incompletion. This is the result of a terminal inability to focus on one thing for very long. Only hard deadlines, like I have for the ongoing Residents Project on Kittysneezes keep things like that from falling by the wayside. It’s a mark of personal pride that I’ve not yet done any “last minute” writing for that project, though I have done some editing and spit-shine on pieces that weren’t quite ready to go when that deadline came flying by. [1]

This essay began life in November of 2011, and—though coincidence—the day I picked it back up was the day the first episode of Systematic, a podcast hosted by the brilliant Brett Terpstra, dropped. He, and guest Mike Schramm both have their fingers in multiple projects, professionally and personally, and part of the show focused on how they choose which of their personal projects gets the attention it needs. The method, more or less, is based on need, desire, whim, and energy. This made me feel so much better to hear. When it’s time to work on their apps, they work on their apps. When it’s time to write, they write.

By necessity, this is the approach I have to take with my writing (and other) projects. As long as the work gets done, and on time, does it matter which work gets done? It’s liberating to know that I don’t need to feel guilt about choosing one thing over another. That I have to spread my attention around is something out of my control. I can’t control what flower the bumblebee of my attention lands on today, but as long as it lands on them all, in time, things will be okay. All I have do is know what has to be done, and do it, in time. All I have to do is find the time, and do the work. If I do, that middle bit will eventually be taken care of.

  1. As much as I love Douglas Adams, I can’t agree with his sentiment about deadlines. The sound they makes only leaves me guilty and frustrated.  ↩