Just Do It!

“Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

That Aristotle guy said it with more words, but he and Nike have the same idea in mind. It’s good advice.

But, being the giant procrastinator that I am, I write this post to remind myself as much as anyone, that the only way to realize your dreams is to do something about them. In my case, it means that in order to sell my writing, or to even finish something to try to sell it, first, I’ve got to write. And that means every day, I’ve got to get something out of my brain and onto the page/hard drive.

Every. Single. Day.

What’s keeping me from achieving this simple goal, you ask? How hard can it be to rattle out 1000 or so words, especially when you brag about how you can do it in something like thirty minutes? First of all, you aren’t supposed to be listening when I make such silly claims. Yes, I can do it, and sometimes I don’t have to dump those words like last month’s leftovers. Occasionally some of those words are even good. But very often they’re pure crap, but encasing a seed of an idea. The words may not be great in and of themsleves, but that little idea is there. And without the crap surrounding it, if that idea was still firmly stuck in my brain, such that it is, that tiny inspiration would never have a chance to receive the careful attention and encouragement of my friends who critique my writing and help me coax that seed into germination. The novel-length story I’ve ‘finished’ started out as nothing more than an excuse to fantasize about a certain British actor that I have had a celebrity crush on for years. Nothing more than that.

Aristotle speaks of excellence gained by repetition. It’s a common fact that any muscle, without regular use, will atrophy and lose its strength. The brain is not different, even if it’s not a muscle per se. Still, those neural pathways have to be stimulated into reinforcing old connections and making new ones. Repetition, repeated writing, thinking, reasoning, all serve to make those paths deeper, wider, more conducive to the frenzied electrical activity that our thoughts and ideas are made of.

Writing is what I do, yet I still find other things to do besides write. Hell, this blog entry is a distraction from the scene I should be writing. But it’s still writing. I’m taking my idea out of my brain and putting it where it can invade your brain and maybe shake a thought or two loose. Maybe this idea even likes what it finds in your mind and decides to stick around awhile, kick the tires, see where it can go. Take it places, show it a good time. If it inspires an idea that leads to more writing, excellent. But even if it just makes you think about it, even for just a few minutes, it has done its job.

Go forth and write, my friends. Make it a habit, show writer’s block who’s boss.

I’m going to do that right now.

Right after I check my email.

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Aristotle, who knew?

At class last night, Jill Ciment, our instructor, mentioned this idea from Aristotle (you know, that Greek philosopher guy). My philosophy classes never presented the material to me like this. NOW it makes much more sense.

We were critiquing a set of stories from my fellow students (mine’s due next week, I should get cracking!). This story was a good one, but it had some details that, if interpreted one way, would make the story a cliché. If the story went down a different path, it would be much more intriguing and powerful.

Jill told us Aristotle said (and I’m looking for the actual quote as I write this) that in a story, when we get to the end we should be surprised by the ending, and also surprised that we didn’t see it coming.

Wow.

That’s quite the balancing act. I realize we aren’t all writing mysteries with a whodunit plot, but in a way we are. We want our stories to have that certain something that makes readers want to read it, finish it, and long for the next part of the story, right? That means that it can’t be a formulaic series of events, interesting and unique events need to happen. Sure, you may want a happy ending, who doesn’t? (no snickering from the gutter-minded crowd) But you have to create a tension, conflict. Characters have to want something and want it bad, even if it’s just to live to see the sunrise.

But we can’t just jam a twist at the end without alluding to it. Don’t use deus ex machina to solve your plot woes. Otherwise the surprise is nothing more than some Greater Power (that would be us, the author) pulling the shades back from the story with one finger and declaring “THIS IS HOW IT WILL END. SO IT IS WRITTEN, SO SHALL IT BE DONE.”

Boooorrriinnngggg.

 The real art in writing (which an alarming amount of people who *don’t* do this, either by design or ignorance, still get published) is to walk that tightrope. Put your characters in awkward situations, see what they do. If you have an ending in mind, by all means, work toward that end, but don’t tell us that’s what’s going to happen. Hints, subtle and hidden within the plot, can offer hope, but don’t beat your readers over the head with it. Don’t be that puppet master with all the strings in one hand. It’s the difference between using a fishing fly or dynamite to land the big one. Sure, dynamite is effective, but it’s not necessary and tends to piss off the neighbors.
Sometimes our characters surprise us by deciding that there’s no way in hell they’re going to sit in that car and await rescue in the middle of a thunderstorm. They’re getting out and walking home, even if it is crashing with thunder and lightning, pouring rain and ten miles to the nearest sign of civilization. If your characters are like mine, they frequently thumb their nose at me and refuse to do what I tell them. Must be similar to having children.

And this Aristotle guy is full of excellent advice that applies directly to writing. Things to keep in mind:

  • Just in case you’re stuck for ideas… “All human actions have one or more of these seven causes: chance, nature, compulsions, habit, reason, passion, desire.”
  • “Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

 Advice I should follow myself. Sort of like that old joke about the guy asking for directions on a New York street. “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice, practice, practice!”

  • And, ain’t this the truth? “There was never a genius without a tincture of madness.”

Who knew Aristotle could be so relevant to my madness?