Work and play

So I’ve arrived at my writing retreat. To some people, it’s a funny idea: spend a week and a not insignificant amount of money to go make yourself bash out words. It smells a lot like work and why spend all that time and money when you could be on a beach drinking pina coladas? I tend to average about 10,000 words or more in a week on my retreats. If the same task was given to most people (“write 10,000 or more words in a week”) they’d have horrific flashbacks to school assignments.

I don’t do this out of some masochistic desire, or affection for schoolwork. I like writing. I have to write. Some of it is a pain and a struggle, but I’m after those sublime moments when the words are flowing into sentences you can scarcely believe came from your own brain. When characters surprise, disgust or amuse you. When you teach yourself something or finally catch that thought that has been flitting through your head like a butterfly for so long.

It’s fun and rewarding, but like many things, it takes discipline to let go and be in your element. This week I’ll have to front up at the desk, ready to push, pull, bribe or trick that part of my consciousness into producing the things we both enjoy. Sometimes you have to get into the rhythm of it. For sportspeople this is practising the swing of a bat or feeling the weight of the ball to remind you of all those otheor times where you got it. For me, this post is part of that warmup. When I hit the desk for real tomorrow morning, I’ll be retyping bits I’ve written before, just to remind myself how it feels to have words that I like or am proud of come from these fingers.

I’m reading a book by Sir Ken Robinson called The Element. You may have seen his TED talks. If you haven’t, you should right now. Just remember to come back as I have a few things to say 🙂 The Element is all about people who find their natural aptitude and pursue it. It sounds very self-helpy, but it’s more exploration of an idea and a whole raft of examples of people being in their element. Take from it what you want.

I think I have some aptitude with writing amongst a few other things. Let’s be straight – I don’t think I’m some wunderkind genius, a Renaissance man of perfection. I have an aptitude for some things and enjoy pursuing them. Other things I’m positively terrible. I’m happy that I’ve found niches where I like to be and can at least prove some worth in me being there. I count myself lucky.

Partly I think this comes down to attitude (a belief reflected in The Element[1. Though let’s not get too proud. Selection bias does exist ;)]). It’s reflected in the way people think of my writing retreats. People expect a certain seriousness in the world as a mark of attainment. People are in “a serious relationship”, or are dealing with “serious business”. Playing about (in work or relationships) is frowned upon. They equate effort with a sense of non-flippancy. I deny this. Life should be play. You should enjoy what you do. Success in my mind is you pursuing something that you enjoy that just so happens to coincide with things other people find worthwhile (and perhaps, give you money to keep having fun). There is definitely an effort involved. I like eating pizza, but the effort required is minimal[2. Modulo becoming a behemoth and getting puffed by opening a bottle of softdrink]. Worthwhileness should be somewhat correlated with effort required. But not just effort, in my mind there needs to be some sharable value. Learning Pi to 50,000 places requires a lot of effort and discipline, but has little value for the person or anyone else.

Ironically, those who have ability in something and the passion to do it make the effort look insignificant. I don’t have a good reason for that. It’s possibly partially due to confidence allowing them to sidestep the usual self-inflicted obstacles of worry, stress and fear. The other side of the coin might be the results distract you from the effort required. Everyone sees the Mona Lisa as an effortless artifact from the master. No-one really thinks of him mixing paint at all hours of the night, of cleaning brushes, of tiny painful brush strokes to get that smile just right.

The focus of this week is for me to forget almost everything. To get lost in doing something I enjoy. To have fun and learn new things. And maybe write a novel. It’ll take a lot of effort to get into that effortless state and stay there. It’s a bizarre thing, but it’s a wondrous thing. I’d definitely choose it over pina coladas on a beach somewhere.