A Practical Spoon Full of Sugar
Last week I examined the idea of satisfaction and, specifically, how to identify actions that would be satisfying and lead towards a greater contentment (see I Can't Get No . . .).
I concluded that
satisfaction, or contentment, can be sought through the fulfillment of attainable, useful, and improving aspirations. By finding the things that will practically improve yourself or your life rather than obsessing about the things that might do so, or pursuing actions that themselves become obsessive you can reach towards the ideal of contentment and satisfaction.
After coming to this conclusion I began to wonder what it was I could do to properly find satisfaction in my day-to-day activities. I looked at the areas in which I have some passion and how I could leverage those to improve myself and others. One idea I came up with was to write a blog promoting African-American music to the white man, a blog with a very specific approach that would seek to explain not only why the music is worth listening to, but the historical and cultural value of the music and its influence on American society. It was an aspirational idea and for a moment excited me. I even ordered several books to help me research the first few topics I thought I would write about.
But a day later I was struck by one of the heuristics that I had overlooked in my calculations. While the idea of pursuing an aspirational blog or podcast that combined so many of my passions--writing, history, music, African-American culture--was interesting and could make a difference, it was not very practical, at least not with my current resources and time constraints.
I also realized that I have already identified one very specific area in which I can improve my situation and self. I want to get a book traditionally published.
Last week I actually finished a draft of a thriller I wrote a little over a year ago. It is a story of revenge and set in Orange County, California in the tail end of the summer of 2005. It is good, a thrilling plot and reasonably interesting characters. I had engaged a friend to edit it for me before I prepared to submit it to agents in hopes of getting a publishing contract. But as I realized that my primary aspirational goal was to get published, I began to look at the quality of the book. It was good, but was it good enough? Even with an edit by a friend, would it be good enough to convince agents to represent me and editors to publish it?
And my response was a resounding no. It was not good enough and it was certainly not as good as I could possibly make it.
Steve Martin once told an aspiring comic that the best way to make it in the business was to "be so good they can't ignore you." I was turned on to this concept by Cal Newport's book of the same name and have fancied the idea ever since. My novel was not that good, not yet. Nor was it truly the result of my best effort. If I wanted to get published I needed to do more. I reasoned that if the effort I have previously exerted has failed to reach my goal, then the same effort this time will result in the same failure. If I want something I haven't yet achieved I needed to exert more effort than I previously have.
So I decided to do another draft. Instead of simply cleaning it up or making the flow of the language read smoothly, I am doing an in-depth edit, rewriting paragraphs and making sure that every choice a character makes is consistent with my increased understanding of their motivations. I am exerting an effort in editing in excess of anything I have ever done before. This week I managed to edit the first 49 pages and already they are many multiples better than the last draft.
While this decision postpones my timeline by a couple of months, it also increases the likelihood of success because the quality of the product I am selling will be that much better. It is hard work. Several times this week I finished editing for the day and my brain felt like it had turned to mush, the gooey oatmeal variety without anything to sweeten it. But when I go back and read over a newly edited chapter the result is now a professional product, something that is truly worthy of publication at an elite level. It will only take me time to finish the full draft and be ready to submit the novel to agents.
The realization, however, was prompted by the issue of practicality. I already knew what I wanted to do to improve my life, I didn't have to come up with a new idea or concept to fill my time and achieve aspirational goals. I simply had to focus on the practical and necessary steps to achieve the goals I already set in order to identify the activities that would satisfy the criteria to reach satisfaction.
And it is satisfying. I finish editing a chapter and feel a measure of worth, of contentment in achievement. I have done something I haven't ever done before, reached a new height and accomplished growth in myself as a person and as a writer.
One temporary side effect of this newfound focus was a shrugging off of other projects. I had begun to work on the third section of a historical fiction book I am writing and briefly I concluded that my goal was to write for a living and that it didn't matter if I published historical fiction or thrillers. I needed to focus on one thing and do it well and if that's the only thing I managed to do with my life then so be it. I decided to put all my energy into the thriller and forget my historical fiction. I would be satisfied with thrillers and live the life that resulted.
Luckily, this focus broadened and I realized that though writing is my passion, writing historical fiction is the passion of my passion. If I admit to myself what I truly want to do, it is to write historical fiction for a living. Why, then, would I discard this pursuit when I have enough energy and resources to pursue both it and thrillers? I decided that I could spend some time each morning writing the first draft of my historical fiction and then edit a chapter of the thriller later in the day. I did not have to edit two or three chapters a day--as I'd done to begin my new draft--and the added time it would take to edit the book wouldn't unduly handicap my goals.
As a result, I have reached a more sublime balance, writing historical fiction to fulfill a basic part of me while at the same time putting in the effort to edit a book to a level that brings a new satisfaction in my performance. It is a fine thing, and I believe it is the best blend of practical actions that will improve my contentment and lead me to a happy journey through life. Have I completely given up on the idea of an aspirational blog? No. But it must wait until I have more time and more money to be able to afford the books and the investments necessary to properly write the articles I believe would make the endeavor worthwhile. In the meantime, I will continue to pursue practical actions towards improving myself and my life and enjoy the satisfaction that results and the contentment of a life well lived day-by-day.