When I finally read Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running a couple years ago, I hated it. As you might expect, he talks about running both as a discipline and a metaphor. He outlines his training process for marathons and triathlons and, as he plods along, he considers the relationship between running and writing. I like hearing about other people’s creative processes, and even though Norwegian Wood is the only one of his books I particularly liked (and I did really like it), I still thought I might learn something from Murakami. After slogging through 1Q84, I hoped he and I might find some common ground again in the genre of memoir. But no.
Murakami says a few things I completely disagree with, like: “Talent has a mind of its own and wells up when it wants to, and once it dries up, that’s it.” And cliché things like, “Most runners run not because they want to live longer, but because they want to live life to the fullest.” And smug things like, “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” The thing is, running marathons and triathlons is impressive—especially when you start in your late twenties and continue into your sixties. And writing a bunch of highly-acclaimed books with cultish following is also very impressive. But I have a badass friend who regularly runs ultramarathons—and once a hundred miles!—and he’s not nearly so self-satisfied.
Reading What I Talk About felt like an ongoing reminder of my lack of discipline. I thought the book could’ve been subtitled, Why I’m so good at things (and you’re probably not). The fact is, I agree with Murakami on some basic points. I believe dedication will always take you further than talent. I believe in sticking to regular routines and putting writing ahead of other obligations that sometimes seem more important. But, not only did his book not inspire me to write more or better, it actually made me feel a little embittered about the whole process.
I say all this because I want to talk about what does work for me, and how I’m hoping to keep motivated without such Herculean smug-guy self-discipline. I much prefer Alain de Botton’s idea: “Work finally begins when the fear of doing nothing exceeds the fear of doing it badly.”
When I was a kid, my main (and most loathed) chore was mowing the lawn.
As the oldest daughter of a farmer’s son, I learned to drive the tractor sometime around age nine or ten. And I mean tractor, not riding lawn mower: a big blue Ford model dragging a mowing attachment. Every Saturday morning I’d wake up, stumble downstairs, pour myself some cereal, and turn on Saved by the Bell. This moment, just as Zack Morris was about to get into some kind of harmless but entertaining mischief, was when I’d hear my dad whistle. You could hear it over the tractor motor and through the walls of the house. It meant: drop everything and put on your mowing shoes. (Yes, I had shoes reserved only for mowing.)
Saved by the Bell had real currency in my fifth grade class; it dominated the conversation at Monday lunch. But when I told my dad I wanted to mow after the show, he said I had a choice: I could mow when he called me, or he could do the mowing. And then he said, “Let your conscience be your guide.” I always mowed.
This mantra is a masterpiece of parental manipulation and it has haunted me since. Even now, part of me will always squirm when saying no or when I sense I’m falling short of who I imagine people want me to be. So I’m hoping to capitalize on this. I’m hoping that if I set a deadline and announce it publicly, my innate desire to meet expectations will take over for my mediocre self-discipline and each day I sit down to write, the fear of doing nothing will kick in hard.
So I’m saying it now (and in bold, so you know it’s serious): I will complete a second draft of my book by July 1. There it is, folks. Hold me to it.
I’m also trying one other thing, something I imagine Haruki Murakami, or anyone with such apparent unflagging faith in their own abilities, never considered: faking it.
I’m not into New Year’s resolutions. Not really. They’re all intention and little follow-through. And January feels like a fairly arbitrary time to make major life changes. (Wouldn’t we all be more motivated if we waited until spring, when the days linger and the air warms and it feels like even the sun is on our side?)
But this year I decided to spend one month faking total confidence. I picked two arenas: dating and writing. In each, I decided, I would express complete conviction that what I was doing–or feeling, or putting on the page–was absolutely valuable and worthwhile. The great relief of faking confidence is in the faking. On the inside you can be as neurotic and uninspired as you want. Maybe some astute person would notice I was faking, I thought. But I decided I’d be okay with that. And I gave myself the option to renew. If it went well, I could continue to fake it through February.
So here I am, almost two months in, hoping the fake confidence becomes so natural, so very ordinary, that one day stop I’ll noticing myself faking it. Faking it, I should point out, is not the same thing as playing it cool. Playing it cool requires working hard to maintain the pretense that you don’t care. Faking it, on the other hand, means acknowledging that you care while pretending that what other people think doesn’t affect you.
This Atlantic article, “Why Writers are the Worst Procrastinators,” points to the problem of playing it cool:
[The] fear of being unmasked as the incompetent you “really” are is so common that it actually has a clinical name: impostor syndrome. A shocking number of successful people (particularly women), believe that they haven’t really earned their spots, and are at risk of being unmasked as frauds at any moment. Many people deliberately seek out easy tests where they can shine, rather than tackling harder material that isn’t as comfortable.
I’m aiming for uncomfortable terrain. In two days I’m headed to the AWP conference in Seattle (an event that tends to attract a lot of internet snark and criticism), where I’ll be surrounded by other writers who are way more successful than me. It’ll be a real test of faking it–appearing to know that I’m someone worth talking to with a genuinely interesting book in the works–but I’m kind of excited about it. And I’m sure some good American IPAs will help.