Witness Statement: Recapping My Short Story Experiment

March 16, 2015

The last five posts here on Lost Caws were delivered in the form of a serialized short story called “Witness.” If you missed it, you can check out the story starting here. This story was written completely on a whim with each section going up as I finished it. As a first draft I like it well enough, but it’s in need of editing and rewriting. Under other circumstances I might have hesitated to share it publicly. That’s okay. I knew it would be at least partially like that when I decided to post segments on the fly.

But for any flaws it has, it’s also the most important piece of writing I’ve done in 2015, and I want to share why.

On the morning of February 26th I sat facing my self-imposed Thursday blog post deadline and was, to put it mildly, not feeling it. I was about to head out of the country for a week, and I was feeling mentally checked out. I looked at my backlog of blog drafts hoping to get bailed out by an old idea that would be easy to write, but I could not bring myself to write something just for the sake of getting it done. After all, I went into this line of work to avoid that kind of thing as much as possible!

Instead of forcing it, I did something much more productive. I took a few minutes to work through my emotions and realized I was in a creative rut. I’ve been working on my novel since November and have taken almost no time to write other fiction during that time. That singular focus became wearying. What I wanted to do was write a story that had nothing to do with the novel even if I later decided I didn’t like it.

So that’s what I did. I had an idea for a short story about an agoraphobic woman living in a small apartment and just started writing. I decided I would get as far as I could into the story that day and put up at least part of it. It served double-duty as a blog post and a creative change of pace from the novel. It was the best possible decision I could make that day, one I benefitted from in a few ways that might be worthwhile for any writer (or other type of creative person).

Consider Having Multiple Projects Going at Once

Up until I started writing “Witness,” my novel was the only fiction project I was actively working on. Beginning in early February working on the novel started to be a bit of a slog. I’ve reached some difficult parts of that story as I get close to wrapping up the first draft, and I was feeling burnt out. Tackling a short story ended up being a great way to recharge. I got to work on something completely different while still exercising my creative muscles. Writing “Witness” was fulfilling on its own while also helping me regain excitement about the novel.

The lesson I took away is that in the future I will try to have perhaps 2-3 projects in varying states going on at once so I can change things up when I need to. There is risk in this if you implement it the wrong way. Though people claim to do it all the time, we are not well-designed for multitasking and attempting to do it has huge cognitive costs. What I’m talking about instead is consciously taking the time to work on different projects at different times, even down to scheduling when you’ll work on them. This will require more advance effort and planning than simply opening up the current project and getting down to work, but I anticipate an increase in engagement and satisfaction that will make it worthwhile.

Here’s my suggestion and what I’m planning to try in the short term: implement a 20% time ‘benefit’ for yourself. Made famous by Google but first implemented by 3M, the idea of “20% time” is that one day a week engineers are permitted to work on projects not directly tied to their primary jobs.  There’s debate about whether the policy still exists at Google, and former Googler and current Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer recently said it never did as such, but that doesn’t mean the concept is a bad one. In terms of creative work, my suggestion is to allot yourself some time each week to work on a secondary project. Plan it into your schedule just as you would anything else and grant yourself permission to do that other thing without feeling like it’s a distraction.

Get Better at Turning off Your Inner Editor/Critic

The nature of how I tackled this project meant that I did not outline it start to finish nor write the whole thing and then break it up later. As a result, my inner editor and inner critic were not invited to the party. Committing yourself to a creative project where you will share progress before it’s complete means you have much less time to second guess yourself, to decide that perhaps what you’re working on is not good enough for whatever reason. If you’re prone to perfectionism and have any fear of failure or worry that your work won’t be that great, this is pretty scary. That’s also what makes it worth doing.

Part of the struggle I was experiencing with the novel was that, despite my own advice on first drafts, I was and am struggling with overanalyzing plot decisions I’ve made and have yet to make. Writing “Witness” did not allow for that sort of hemming and hawing. What you get if you read this story is more a first draft than a finished product. By posting sections of the story as I completed them, it meant that the next post had to follow from those prior. I could not change plot elements even if I wanted to (and there are a couple). But who cares? The most important thing was that I finished it.

You might debate the wisdom of sharing something publicly that is not a truly finished product, of sharing a thing that could be construed to represent less than your best effort. But doing it in a relatively low stakes manner helped me overcome a little of the anxiety that comes with this line of work. There is no such thing as a perfect story. At some point, I’m going to share my novel as widely as I can, and it’s likely that there will always be things in it that I wish were better. This was a small but worthy baby step toward overcoming that fear.

Take a Small Risk, Produce More Stuff

This is an extension of the first point regarding multiple projects, but there’s a key difference. I think having more than one project cooking is helpful for creative fulfillment, but giving yourself a challenge like writing a short story as quickly as possible has the separate benefit of giving you more finished products. “Witness” is far from perfect. I feel pretty good about Part 1, and I ended up generally pleased with how the last part pulled together most of the stuff I set up in the beginning. I think it sags a bit in the middle where I was stuck with what I’d already written but not 100% sure where I was going to go. You know what can fix that? Editing and rewriting. Know what else? I now have a complete first draft that is worth fixing.

Giving yourself a challenge like this is a way to guarantee you produce something. As I saw it, that was the worst thing that could happen: I’d finish a story and then decide I didn’t like it enough to give it another look. Oh well. Move on. As it happens, I think the story has solvable problems and I now have a complete first draft where before I had nothing. This was not without some risk, but in my case that risk was small and worth it. The handful of readers it reached probably thought it was a finished product that I divided into a series after the fact rather than something I was writing and posting as I went. If this site had a bigger audience, I’d probably hesitate a little about putting it up the way I did. I’d either have written the whole thing first, edited and then published it as a series, or I would have announced that I was doing an ‘experiment’ as a sort of disclaimer if it didn’t work well.

I look forward to someday having such dilemmas, but for now I am grateful that for once I did not second guess myself. Writing “Witness” was the most fun I’ve had writing since the beginning of 2015. You may find putting something into the world in this fashion is a little too much, but there are smaller ways of doing it. Whatever your project, it does not have to go to the internet first. You can make a thing and share it with just a few people but get the same result. Don’t like how it turns out? No worries. Don’t pick it up again. But I can almost guarantee you’ll find the effort of doing it was worthwhile, and you might just end up with a project you’re excited about.

There Will Be a Next Time

The next time I find myself frustrated, burnt out or distracted with whatever I’m working on, I won’t hesitate to jump into a different project as a way of clearing my mind. Though the decision was made on a whim, writing “Witness” became a great learning opportunity and was really fun as well. I don’t have any specific plans for when, but I will do this again in some fashion. For now it’s time to get back to “The Witches of Nicollet Island,” and I’m doing so with a renewed sense of purpose and excitement about that story. If you find yourself in a similar rut, why not change it up? What’s the worst that could happen?

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