I once tried to complete the thirty day novel challenge and failed. Nevertheless, through the experience of this failure I learned quite a bit. The thirty day novel challenge is a writing exercise where an author attempts to write a 50,000 word novel in thirty days. This requires the author to write an average of 1,667 words per day throughout this time period. In the abstract this sounds like a task that can be readily accomplished but like most long term projects requiring discipline and dedication there are forces that will work to undermine this process as it continues.
When I set out to write my 30 day novel I started out strong. For the first ten days my average word count per day remained above 1,667. After ten days the average word count dropped below that number but I figured I could make it up by writing more before the thirty days fully expired. However, as the days after Day 10 progressed I found it increasingly difficult to continue. There was a point where the story that it eventually became began to emerge from the crap that I had written. At that point I began to think about going back and editing what I had written to conform to the story as I saw it emerging. The conflict between this motivation and my motivation to continue with the word count per day all the way to day 30 became overwhelming. It was at this point that procrastination in comparison with this overwhelming feeling began to feel like a better option. Accordingly, the project petered out by day 20 or so. Eventually I did go back and rewrite the whole thing which is the finished product now available on Amazon.com. But this was well after the initial 30 days had expired without a 50,000 word finished product.
Even though I did not completely stick with the 30 day novel for the entire 30 days I did learn four important lessons that I think would be helpful for anyone attempting this challenge. These are lessons I would certainly employ if and when I take on this challenge a second time. I have not fully committed to trying the 30 day novel challenge a second time yet but it seems like something which has become more likely after writing this blog post.
- The over arching lesson is to keep writing every day. All the other lessons flow from this one. I know an easy criticism to make of me is that I did not follow this lesson when I wrote my 30 day novel. This is true and I cannot argue the point. However, I learned this lesson after I failed. As such, I am not technically being hypocritical from a chronological standpoint. You must stick with the writing despite the forces working against you attempting to complete this challenge. These forces will undoubtedly differ both in nature and power for different people depending on their personalities. But it is crucial to recognize these forces and their motivations. Treat them as the foreign entities and adversaries that they are and then ignore them. The ability to continue on in this manner is a muscle to develop by exercising it. The more you do it the easier it will become.
- The second lesson is to allow yourself to write crap. If you keep up with your writing the quality ideas will eventually materialize. But before the quality ideas begin to emerge you will probably write a mountain of crap. Recognize this fact and be forgiving of yourself. Allow to crap to flow so that the quality can also flow. Accept that this is the process. Therefore, keep writing and do not worry if what you write is good or bad. If you do give into the worry you will stop writing and not complete the challenge. You are training another muscle here which is the ability to come up with something out of nothing. This is a skill just like anything else it is just that the something will be buried in a pile of crap initially. The more you do it, however, the better able you will become to generate the quality ideas.
- The third lesson is to trust the process. As you progress, you may begin to doubt your ability to complete the challenge with a finished project that is worth reading. Your original inclination might be to think that if nothing of quality comes out initially then it must be impossible. This is an illusion. This doubt is another adversary that will attempt to derail you. Like the other adversaries, ignore it and keep writing.
- The fourth and final lesson is to save all the editing, rewriting and thoughts about crafting an intelligible story arc for Day 31. A successful attempt means that you have finished the 30 day challenge. If you are lucky then you might also have the germ of a story that has poked its head out of the pile of crap. If not then at the very least you have exercised the muscles necessary to become a serious writer.
Always remember there are two complementary dynamics at play when attempting the 30 day novel challenge. The first dynamic is to recognize and ignore the adversaries that will attempt to derail you from completing the project. The second dynamic is to recognize that you are working to develop the psychological muscles that will eventually make you a serious writer. In this respect the 30 day novel challenge is a symbolic microcosm of the challenge of writing itself. Taken one step further, the 30 day novel challenge is a symbolic microcosm of the accomplishment anything worth accomplishing. Perhaps seeing the 30 day novel challenge in this light will serve as further motivation to complete the challenge. Moreover, perhaps completing the challenge will serve as a means of better appreciating this important fact.
My ego pushes me to present a false image to the world so that other people will like me. This image is a version of me but it is not the real me. I try to make other people laugh so they will think I am funny. I try to talk about interesting subjects so they so that other people will think I am intelligent. I hide my flaws so other people will not judge me and abandon me. The motive behind these actions seems to presume that if the other people knew the real me they would not like me and they would not be forgiving.
The ego seems to have its own personality. Over the years I have observed the qualities of my ego. It is dishonest and unforgiving. It does not trust and is paranoid. It seeks self-aggrandizement. It seeks approval through self-deprecation and false modesty. It becomes angry when criticized and jealous when it sees other people succeeding. It is spiteful and critical. It ceaselessly judges other people and situations. It judges itself (myself) unmercifully.
The question arises, why does my ego need people to like me in the first place? Is it lonely? Does it fear being lonely? Does it think I need allies to protect me? Does it fear being attacked? Does it seek validation? Do it want me to be important? Does it fear being a nobody? Does it fear being labeled a failure? Does my ego want other people to like me to protect me because it assumes that other people will attack me under normal circumstances?
It seems like the ego is a protection device that has gone awry. It seems like the ego originally came into being to protect me. When I was a child other kids picked on me and adults shamed me. I created my ego to protect me from these forces or to mitigate the damage they caused but now that I am an adult those same forces do not exist in the same way. But my ego remains still performing its old function.
If I was alone in the world would I still have any of these fears? If I was alone in the world would I still have my ego? Does my ego exist because other people exist? Is it the separation between people where we cannot know each other’s minds that creates the ego? Do I need to create my own other person (i.e., my ego) so that I can anticipate what these other unpredictable people might do and thus protect myself?
So the challenge lies in dialing back my ego. I do not think it is possible to completely eradicate it. Being aware of its functions and behaviors seems to be the first step towards diminishing its power but awareness alone is not sufficient to happy. The next step is probably developing the ability to ignore or actively marginalize my ego. I must develop those qualities that are the opposite of the qualities the ego possesses. I will let you know when that happens.
There is a large gap of time between last May and this October where I did not make any blog posts. I spent a lot of that time working on a book that I intend to e-publish. The book is autobiographical and discusses the connections between shame and internet trolling. Much of the book is a synthesis of my previous blog posts. I have been in contact with a well-known blogger who has published several ebooks who has encouraged me to do this. So I finished the book a few months ago. The well-known blogger put me in touch with a guy who edits and markets ebooks. I got the book edited and since that time I have been trying to incorporate the edits he suggested. Once I finish that I can start the publishing and marketing stage. The only problem is that I cannot seem to finish the editing process.
I used to wake up every morning at 5:00am and work on the initial manuscript. Once I finished it and sent it to the editor I continued to wake up at that time and write other things. Now that I am close to actually publishing I cannot seem to finish it. I stopped waking up at 5:00am. It is now hard for me to find the time. When I do make the time I sit and stare at what I have written and hate it.
I am sure this is self sabotage. I know I have to work through it. The block is my demon trying to undermine my success but it does it indirectly and passive aggressively. It does not straight out tell me not to do it. It distracts me. It saps my energy. It makes everything else seem more interesting. I am too tired. I have too many other things to do.
Is the answer to plow through it? Is the answer to defeat the demon some other way and then be able to finish my project? I am in the middle of it so I cannot see it too clearly.
There is fear here too. I am afraid that once I publish the book people who are described in it unflatteringly will hate me for it. At the same time I fear no one will read it when I publish it. I hold these two antithetical possibilities in my mind at the same time. The demon, my shame ego, does not care about logic. It merely cares that I feel shame and remain stuck in my present situation.
The well-known blogger I spoke of told me to edit one more time, cut 30% and publish it. I think I have to start waking up at 5:00am again. It is the time of day when I am the most creative anyway. I have a marathon to run this Sunday. Part of me is saying to put this off until that is over. The same part of me (I am sure) is telling me that I am not ready for the marathon. Ha!
On Saturday I watched Notre Dame get beaten by Florida State University. I was on the edge of my seat the whole game. Both teams were undefeated going into the game. Notre Dame was the underdog playing the strongest opponent this season. If Notre Dame won they would be in a position to win a national championship (something they have not achieved since 1988). Notre Dame was ahead for most of the game. In the last quarter Florida State pulled ahead. In the last-minute of the game Notre Dame scored a touch down but a flag was thrown. Some supposed foul was committed by a Notre Dame player nullifying the touchdown and denying Notre Dame a win. I was very disappointed.
I did not go to Notre Dame. I really have not actively followed football until recently. I can claim some connection to Notre Dame because my cousin and other extended family members went there for undergraduate school. I am also Roman Catholic. I like the story of Notre Dame and all its traditions and historically prestigious football program. There is a little bit of a sense (in my mind) that I am not as entitled to root for Notre Dame as someone who actually went there to school but I realize this is mostly about me and not about anyone else.
But also, it is fun to care about something even if it ultimately does not matter. This is a life concept. We will all be dead in 100 years. The universe is infinitely (for all intents and purposes) large. There is nothing I or anyone can do in their lifetimes that really matters objectively when I think about it. So why should mattering matter when it comes to caring about anything? Ultimately, I care about the things I choose to care about. I can certainly be tricked into caring about things that ultimately do not serve my interests but caring is still a choice.
So I choose to care about whether Notre Dame wins. It is fun. I also choose to care about my family because I love them. I choose to care about my country because it is where I am from and connects me to something larger than myself. I choose to care about my religion because it connects me to the infinite, unknowable universe. I also care about all these things because I have been conditioned to do so by the society I live in and was indoctrinated by. In a sense it is easier to care about them than to not care about them but I could choose to not care about them if I was willing to endure the feelings of guilt, disconnection and disloyalty.
I guess the point I am making is that the things I care about are the things I choose to care about. It is these choices that define my sense of self and for that reason alone do they matter. They matter to myself subjectively. They do not matter, however, because they matter in some objective sense of the word.
I hate hearing other people’s eating noises at what I consider to be inappropriate times and places. I used to work with this older guy who sat in a cubicle across the aisle from me. Anytime he pulled out a cracker or a lozenge I quickly put on my head phones and blasted whatever I could in my ears so that I did not have to listen to him. To be caught off guard and actually hear him eat would trigger me so badly I would actually feel rage. Now I work from home and my desk is near the kitchen. Sometimes when I am booting up my computer in the morning my wife will walk into the kitchen and eat a granola bar. This also triggers me in the same way I get triggered when I hear other people talking in movie theaters.
On the other hand, eating noises do not annoy me when I am sitting at the dinner table unless they are over the top slurping or extra loud chewing.
The common thread to all this is shame based judgment. The idea is that other people cannot control themselves and act responsibly in social situations. They are violating the social contract and degrading civilization. As such, I sit in judgment of them in the hopes that they will feel ashamed of themselves. The idea behind this is that since feeling ashamed is unpleasant, the person will associate feeling ashamed with the irresponsible behavior and then stop doing it. Shame based law enforcement is completely passive aggressive in its methods. At this point in my life I am well aware that this energy in me also existed in my parents and was passed down from them to me by the way they brought me up.
When I am triggered, my reaction is strong. Even if I am aware that I am being triggered it is hard not to act on being triggered. This makes me understand how my parents could not control their impulses when I annoyed them by acting in a way that seemed irresponsible or disrespectful. It was their uncontrolled impulses that instilled this urge in me to enforce shame based law enforcement on other people. I try to be vigilant about not passing this heritage on to my children. When they were younger I was unaware of this dynamic so I am sure that some of the energy was passed along. I can take comfort in the knowledge that what I have passed along to my children is much less than what was passed on to me.
There really is nothing wrong with a person eating at their desk or in a kitchen. They are not actively trying to violate me or disrespect my boundaries when they do this. It is my reaction to the situation that is problematic. I do not blame myself for this reaction because it was programmed into me by my upbringing. I cannot be held responsible for that, but I am responsible for being aware of it and making an effort not to pass it on to others.
Throughout my life I have gone through periods where I have worried about societal collapse. Sometimes it would fill me with a such a feeling of dread that I found it difficult to go about my daily activities and carried this feeling around with me for weeks at a time.
Realistically, although unlikely, this sort of thing is not impossible. Societal collapsed happened in the 400s to the Western Roman Empire, so there is precedence for this. When I was younger I worried about nuclear war and swarms of killer bees. After the fall of the Soviet Union I worried about peak oil, an asteroid or commit hitting the earth, the super volcano in Yellowstone Park, the dollar collapsing and viral pandemics. All of these are possibilities and could destroy civilization as we know it causing untold death and misery to those who were fortunate enough to survive.
But I have to wonder, are these worries really an indication of something else? There have been many times that I worried that I would never be successful in life but then wondered why it mattered in the first place because the Earth could get hit by an asteroid and society would collapse and success would no longer be defined the same way under the new social order. I think this line of reasoning is more my shame ego undermining my motivation to succeed. There have been times when I felt this kind of anxiety and it turned out to be an indication that I did not feel safe in the normal functioning of my life. I know this because I expressed these anxieties to a therapist. He responded, “so you need safety?” When he said this I felt an uncontrollable wave of grief well up in me. Once I allowed myself to feel the grief in this safe un-judging environment my anxiety about societal collapse lifted. This pointed out to me that what I thought my fear was about was really a disguise.
Of course it does no good to worry about these things. They are completely outside of our control and that is why they are scary. They threaten to overturn all we cling to in life to make ourselves feel safe. But really this feeling of safety is an illusion as much as the fear is. There are no guarantees of safety in life. There are no guarantees of success. There are no guarantees of misfortune.
We cannot really avoid worrying from time to time. We can recognize this fear for what it is, however. We fear loosing these illusions that serve us by allowing us to function in the face of the intimidating, dangerous, enormity of reality. Thinking about this I really have to resign myself to the fact there is not much I can do to protect myself and must therefore try not to worry and live each day grateful for existence and the good things I experience therein. It is an adventure to live under such circumstances. That answer is not entirely satisfying but truth often is not satisfying. Why else would we cling to illusions?