At first books and all things book related were my hobbies: reading, writing, lurking at libraries and bookstores, etc. You could say the general act of hoarding words like a literary dragon was my hobby.
Then I started assigning failure to my hobby. It became something that I couldn’t experiment in for fear of failure. The worlds I created to escape into became query letters that plagued me. The ghosts of manuscripts constantly clawed at the back of my mind reminding me that they were far from perfect. Rejection letters danced in my head like deranged sugar plum fairies.
My escape became what I needed to escape from. It took a while to realize this because when I was stressed or anxious or upset, I would automatically turn to writing. However, when I sat down those anxieties worsened with every passing moment. I needed something else to turn to as an escape.
Now the rambling begins…
With writing, you can scratch things out. You can backspace. You can delete. No matter what you can get back to a blank document. Even a material thing can be destroyed. In a moment of drama years ago I tossed an old handwritten manuscript into a bonfire my mother had started. She watched on perplexed as I watched words turn to ash. I always imagined the ashes fertilized the willow tree downwind.
So that is what I would do. Write a word. Delete a word. Write a paragraph. Delete a paragraph. Write a manuscript. Ignite a manuscript. I caught myself in an endless cycle of creation and destruction. That sounds far more dramatic than the actual act of sitting in front of a computer over and over again watching black letters appear and disappear. Wanton deletion is far easier to accept than your writing not being perfect.
My motto: ctrl + a + delete
There are a few hobbies that always seem to cycle back into in my life. They always related to art or music. With art there is something concrete at the end. I’ve created something for good or ill. With music, it’s far more transient. The notes float in the air around me for a moment before they disappear. Except for the instrument itself, everything seems fragile and fleeting.
Painting is final. You have to live with your mistakes when you paint. There is something cathartic about that. If you add a stripe of red across a canvas, it is there now. It exists. Even if you paint over it it adds a thickness to the canvas. You can’t get rid of it completely. You can take a knife and chip away at it but remnants will still be there and the knife will scar the canvas. Even the action of trying to get rid of it marks your time in a way that getting rid of writing does not. (You can always go my route of “cleansing by fire” but keep a fire extinguisher nearby please.)
Music is final in its own way. You cannot take back notes already played. Once that string has been strummed, that key struck, or a woodwind blown, it now is in the world if only for a moment. You could argue it stays longer in the mind of whoever heard it, but I don’t feel like getting that philosophical today. Music is final in a finite sort of way. For that moment it exists and however you played it is the way it exists.
For someone constantly writing and revising, hobbies can be a reprieve from feeling wrong. Yes, yes, I know revision is part of the process. Everyone has terrible first drafts. Yes. I know. Trust me. I know. In a lot of ways I love terrible first drafts. I love how they are like toddlers, words excitedly spilling over as they stumble across the page. Or how they are like teenagers, plot awkwardly jutting out as they figure out their place in the world. It’s wonderful to see them grow up into something clean and precise from the humble origins of a terrible, terrible first draft.
However, revising can also feel like an uphill battle in the snow wearing a swimsuit and flipflops. Halfway up you wonder why you aren’t better armored and why you left your weapon at home. It’s the point of revision where you hate everything and that’s ok. You hate your manuscript. You hate yourself for writing something so terrible. You hate the act of writing. Everything is the worst and it will never get better.
This is when I step back, take a breath, and play the harp.
I say the harp because I’ve only been learning it for a few months which means a few things. Thing one: I accept failure. Thing two: I get excited when I play even five bars in a row that make any sense. Thing three: It takes a lot of my brain power. Thing four: It can provide a truly terrible title.
Let’s break this down a bit.
Thing one: I accept failure. By this I mean that I am aware that there will be mistakes. I know that notes will be wrong and my hands might just stop working in such a strange way. I’m a woodwind by heart so this is new territory for me. It isn’t something like writing that I feel like I have some sort of handle on and should not struggle with. I can allow myself to struggle and acknowledge that is part of the process.
Thing two: I get excited when I play even five bars in a row that make any sense. The other day I figured out the intro to a Legend of Zelda song. If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time you might remember this post. I’m basically one step closer to becoming Sheik. Anyway, what I’m saying is that there are small victories in a new hobby that are easy to forget about when you’ve been doing something for years.
Thing three: It takes a lot of my brain power. When painting or drawing I will sometimes listen to audiobooks, radio plays, or musicals. Even when writing my mind will wander as writing becomes less of an act of creation and more of an act of insistence. I refuse to do anything else while playing an instrument. My mind is focused. I’m not thinking about the bills on my desk, the unedited book on my shelf, or the unfinished programs for work. I am only thinking about the instrument in my hands clearing out the rest of the fog.
Thing four: It can provide a truly terrible title. See above.
Ok. Now to bring this rambling to a point. I had a professor in college who told us to occasionally try and learn a new language. He was talking to a class full of potential English teachers when he extolled this advice. We would need to remind ourselves how learning is a struggle. Remind ourselves that mastery isn’t instantaneous. Remind ourselves that we can and will struggle.
Having other hobbies reminds me why I started writing in the first place. It jars back the memories of initial discoveries and utter failure. It reminds me that it is alright to flail a bit while doing something. It reminds me to refocus. It reminds me not to automatically delete what I’ve written because it’s ok to struggle. It reminds me terrible first drafts are all part of the process.
In summation: don’t light everything on fire.
Note: I’ve spent my week grumpily having no idea what to write about as shown by how late this is posting on a Sunday. Whoops. Luckily, I spent part of my weekend catching up on writing blogs and became inspired by Chuck Wendig’s post Writers: When in Doubt, WWYL. Go read that. It’s far more interesting than my rambles. Cheers.