Block Out The Noise and Make the Thing

Six months ago yesterday Denton was released into the world.

Six months ago today I had my first book launch ever, at Books of Wonder.

As always, I’m incredibly grateful for all the support and enthusiasm I’ve received over the past months from friends, readers, booksellers, librarians, fellow authors, bloggers, and festival people. (Has Festival People been the title of a horror movie yet?) (That was not a reflection on my specificfestival people, who were lovely and not horrific.) The book community is filled with kind, funny, passionate human beings, and it’s been perpetually disarming. Thank you.   

But on this particular day, I want to talk about what’s been going on behind the curtain. Because, on the internet, it’s easy for everyone’s lives to look shiny and happy and great, and I think it’s important to remember we’re all just people, hitting ups and downs, feeling anxious and inadequate, trying our best. 

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The release of my book, and the small tour that followed, was without a doubt a magical time. It was all so new. After years as a struggling actor, never coming close to doing anything even slightly resembling a promotional tour, it was surreal to be traveling around the country telling people about this thing I’d made, this tangible object I could hold in my hand.

When I found myself one May morning in a Kentucky high school library (whaddup, Oldham County!), watching students work on a writing exercise that I had assigned to them, I felt slightly out of body. By sitting in coffeeshops making up words on my computer, I’d somehow written myself to Kentucky, where random teenagers I’d never met were writing something down because I’d asked them to. (They rocked that exercise, btw. Those kids are awesome.)

The whole tour had that surreal quality, mainly in a positive way. But I was also anxious. I don’t even think I realized at the time just how anxious I was. Book events were completely uncharted territory. I wanted everything to go well. I wanted my book to do well. I wanted to seem like someone who knew what he was talking about. And I was missing my wife and then-14-month-old son. (My absence sent my wife Katie down an anxiety spiral of her own, which you should feel free to read about here.) 

My anxiety was camouflaged from me, though, thanks to both my book excitement and the necessity of staying on top of my life, focusing only on what was happening the next day, and not on the big picture of how I was feeling.  

When I got home from my last book tour event, I segued into final rewrites for the second Denton book, and once those were finished in late May…I suddenly had time to actually feel how I was feeling.

Which was: pretty lost. And very unnerved by that.

I got back to work on my third book. I struggled a lot.

I couldn’t focus on anything.

Every time writing got uncomfortable—which was approximately every 42.3 seconds—I went on the internet, hoping to find something, anything, that would make me feel like a capable person. Maybe someone new had tweeted about my book! Maybe someone new had blogged about my book! Maybe my book’s Amazon sales ranking had gone up!

(Quick note on that: brilliant feature, Amazon. This ranking—constantly changing throughout the day–was very obviously designed to exploit the weaknesses of neurotic, insecure authors. Nailed it!) 

Inevitably, I would not find that someone new had tweeted about my book but instead would learn of something amazing that had happened to some other author I follow. And yes, there is joy in others’ success, but not quite as much when you’re mid-anxiety-spiral.

In this June interview with the great Kurt Dinan, I compared the comedown after a book release to the comedown after one’s wedding. Or, really, any big event you look forward to for more than a year. I’d been thinking about the release of my debut novel since I’d sold it to Knopf almost eighteen months earlier. So once it happened, I realized I hadn’t thought much about what would happen afterward.

I mean, of course what I thought would happen is Denton would come out and instantly hit theNY Times Bestseller list. I guess rationally I knew that wouldn’t happen. But I still hoped it would.

Spoiler alert: my book has definitely not hit the NY Times bestseller list.

In fact, my book isn’t selling as well as my publishing house hoped it would. (I know this because I had a phone call with my editor and agent last week, where I learned that my book isn’t selling as well as they hoped it would.)

As a result, the second Denton book—which had a cool cover all set to go—is now getting a totally redesigned cover and possibly a title change.

Meanwhile, Denton Little’s Deathdate will get a new cover for the paperback release, and the overall marketing/publicity approach for both books will be reassessed. 

Meaning: the second Denton book will NOT be coming out in April 2016, as planned. There’s no new release date set but it’s looking like it’ll be Spring 2017.

Meaning: I am bummed. Even though I get why it’s happening and I’m glad Knopf cares about the books enough to reboot their design, I am still bummed. 

Meaning also: I will have lots of time to write really cool bonus Denton material to help the wait feel less long. Huzzah!

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This is all very standard stuff that happens when a book doesn’t reach selling expectations (as most don’t) but that doesn’t mean it feels fantastic. I can’t help but hear a voice in my head, always whispering:

You haven’t done enough.

I perpetually feel like that, like there’s more creative marketing I can be doing, more writing, more tweeting, more reaching out to other authors, more everything. Unfortunately, when I feel like that, I freeze. Seriously. I am someone with A LOT of creative resistance. When my wife gets anxious, it drives her to do things, do things, do things. I am the exact opposite of that. That’s why I didn’t write any legitimate posts on here for months after the book came out. Yes, I was busy with events, with writing my second and third books, but not that busy. I was mostly frozen.

Which I guess means I need to “Let it Go.”

(I’m sorry. You and I both know I couldn’t not say that.)

Would my blog posts and tweets have made the difference between the book selling well and not selling well? No, probably not. There’s a billion factors at play here, most of them out of my control.

But some of them are in my control. And so I’m doing my damndest to unfreeze myself. My anxiety has dissipated considerably, and here’s what’s helped the most:

Blocking out the noise and making the thing.

In July, I finally got back into a writing groove with my third book. It wasn’t easy and it was often messy, but I’ve created a huge chunk of the thing.

And my most productive days always start and end with blocking out the noise. Look, I know everyone has their own unique relationship to social media, but for me, Twitter and Facebook and Instagram can be wonderful in a couple of ways–like allowing you to connect with other humans when in reality you’re alone in a coffeeshop—but they do very little for my creative flow. Often they just remind me of all the book festivals I’m not at, of all the awards I’m not winning, of all the NYTimes bestseller lists I’m not on.

Which is why the biggest lesson I’ve taken from the past six months, which I am trying desperately to internalize more and more is:

Block out the noise and make the thing.

I’ve already decided that the next book tour I go on—which will, let’s face it, probably be in 2017–I am not going to drop my writing practice. I am going to enjoy the events, enjoy the people I meet, but I am also going to find time whenever I can to block out that noise and make the thing.

Because, at the end of the day, the creative act is THE THING that’s going to make you feel like you’re doing the work and earning the right to call yourself an artist. 

Weirdly enough, having that phone conversation last week with my editor and agent is helping me to thaw my freeze even more. It’s motivating me to write this thing you’re reading now. It’s motivating me to feel scrappy, to feel empowered, to feel all the ways I felt when I wrote my first book. Not coincidentally, that first book was written from a place of darkness; I’d just been dropped by my acting agent and manager and was feeling totally lost in the woods. I want to believe I won’t always have to rely on the fuel of failure to really get me going, but if I do, so be it.

If there’s any other wisdom I can impart from my first six months as a published author–other than telling anyone dealing with anxiety to read this, which was and continues to be very helpful–it’s that any career as an artist is not going to be a straightforward ride. One day you’re up, another you’re down, but if you keep your mind on the creating, maybe you won’t get jostled by the bumps as much.  

Really, I’m just grateful to be on the ride at all.

And with that said, please excuse me. It’s time to block out the noise and make another thing.

The Road to Awesome is Paved with Shit

             Hey! Happy Veterans’ Day! (Apparently I only post blog entries on days of national importance.) I hope you’ve found a veteran and taken him/her out for ice cream. Also, consider donating some money here.

            Last week–while the Republicans were taking control of the Senate thereby guaranteeing it near-impossible for progress to be made in the next couple years, which is unfortunate, seeing as the climate change we’ve wrought is causing the world to unravel–I wrote about Meredith Vieira and dental conventions in 2004. This week I’m switching it up and writing about my creative process; specifically, about being a perfectionist, which is one of the biggest daily obstacles in my work.

            Being a perfectionist sounds like a good thing, right? Like, that’s the answer you’re supposed to give at a job interview when they ask you to name one of your weaknesses. (Certainly better, anyway, than “I can’t help but sexually harass the people I work with.”) But trust me when I say that, when it comes to creating art, the need to make things perfect is a straight-up hindrance.

            This term perfectionism needs some clarification, though; it’s sort of a misnomer. Because, when I’m sitting down to work on something, it’s not that I’m thinking to myself, “This needs to be perfect.” I’m aware, after all, that there’s something beautiful about imperfect art. No, for me, it’s that I want to sit down and output something that is immediately awesome

            This desire for immediate awesomeness trips me up again and again. So, for our purposes, let’s call this state of being awesomeism. It’s a tricky term, maybe, because it sounds like something helpful. But fuck it, that’s just my inner awesomeist trying to poke holes in this blog post, and he needs to shut his mouth.

            He’s actually been talking the whole time I’ve been trying to write this entry. This, what you’re reading now, is my third attempt in three days at trying to write it. Two days in a row I’ve tinkered a bit, ultimately coming to the realization that, “This is too hard, I should save this entry for some later week. I don’t even know exactly what I’m going to say, and who the hell am I to write about my thoughts on being a perfectionist? The brilliant Anne Lamott has already covered this topic exceptionally well in the “Perfectionism” chapter of Bird by Bird, her indispensable book of writing advice.” (If you’re a writer/artist of any kind, you need to read this at your earliest convenience. Lamott is smart, funny, self-deprecating as hell, and so inspiring.)

            But I can’t listen to that voice, especially not when I’m in the first draft stage.

            Because if I do, I won’t make anything.

            I can name right now at least ten projects I’ve worked on over the past years, some with others, some alone, that are now decaying in the creative graveyard because there was some element of awesomeism that got in the way.

            Now’s as good a time as any to recognize that two huge intertwined components of awesomeism are Ego and Fear. These two guys team up and produce the little voice in my brain that says, “I should only work on this right now if I already know it’s going to be awesome. Otherwise, I’m just wasting time on something stupid that people will think is stupid, thereby making them think I am stupid.”       

            But two things: 1. Some people actually will think you and your work are stupid regardless of what you do. That’s their business, not yours. 2. You cannot know what the hell it is you’re making until you have a first draft.

            This second thing bears repeating, mainly so I can ram it into my own dense skull: You cannot know what the hell you’re making until you have a first draft.

            The frightened awesomeist in me wants to believe that a creative idea is only worth pursuing if you know in advance that it’s guaranteed to be awesome, and that is incredibly foolish.

            Writing a book, or a musical, or a screenplay is not, it turns out, the way I imagined it to be as a kid: that you pretty much know in your head the way the whole story is going to go and then you write it down.

            This is a ridiculous thought, but I think some part of me still wants to believe that it’s true. Because it’d be so much easier that way! I could skip the part where I’m floundering, staring at a blank screen, feeling like a failure, taking a break to search for validation on the internet, not finding any, feeling horrible and guilty and useless for being on the internet instead of working, writing some more words that feel stupid and meaningless and unconnected to the story I think I’m writing, generally feeling a TOTAL LACK OF CONTROL.

            Awesomeists want to be in control. The opposite–not being in control–is powerfully uncomfortable. And it doesn’t matter what stage of your career you’re at. When I was writing Denton Little’s Deathdate completely on spec, this feeling manifested as, “Why the fuck am I spending my time writing something no one’s even asked me to write? This isn’t even good!” And once I sold Denton, along with another book, this feeling turned into: “People are paying me to write these books, and I have no idea what the fuck I’m doing! This isn’t even good!”

            But I’m learning that the TOTAL LACK OF CONTROL is necessary. If you commit to floundering every day, to–as Anne Lamott says–writing “a shitty first draft,” you will make bizarre and exciting discoveries. It may take days of working, maybe even weeks, but you will dig up gems from within the piles of shit. The story you’re writing will surprise you, and it will be a thousand times more rewarding than knowing the route in advance.    

            So let us not be awesomeists in the early stages of a new piece of art. As we take the leap of faith that this work inevitably requires, let us be shittyists. It’ll be scary and powerfully uncomfortable and maybe even smelly sometimes, but we can lean into the fear and know that just by doing the work, we earn the right to call ourselves artists. The road to Awesome is paved with Shit. Let’s all pave together, one shit-stone at a time.

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