Some time ago I was discussing the challenges of The Day Job with a work colleague. They were the usual things that one encounters, particularly in software development: Frustrations with finishing the current task, or really getting a sense of how much more will be required, or whether requirements will change and invalidate the hard won results of difficult hours/days/weeks. His take on the subject was this: Live in the moment.
As usual, it took me a long time to figure it out.
Part of what helped was work on my current novel. As I started to refine my workflow and reap some productivity benefits from it I started to realise that I was more and more enjoying the process of writing the novel. I was becoming increasingly less concerned with the end goal of handing over a finished copy to someone.
For me this was a Big Thing. I’m generally fairly goal oriented, and a workflow that says Finish This Book In 3 Months was historically the most appealing. When I was last writing regularly, I’d look at published authors I knew. Seeing they were generating product on a regular basis, I tried to model my own process on theirs.
Which is how I burned out.
With this project, while trying to work at the pace I had before but having taken the artificial, arbitrary (and frankly stupid) deadline out of the picture, I find I’m enjoying it. More than that too, because the product of this process feels better. Higher quality. More complete. As I analyse my writing process I start to see it as a reflection of the reader’s process.
A reader doesn’t buy a product.
I don’t know how I can say that any clearer. A reader doesn’t buy a novel to own it. They don’t buy it to be seen with it. They buy it to read; to spend many hours in the process of reading – enjoying the shared experience the author created.
For an author to write with a goal of generating product I think is dishonest to the reader but perhaps not a real breakthrough intuition. But something this morning made me wonder if it’s a reflection of our culture.
I was watching Burt Rutan’s 2006 TED speech on space exploration with the family. While talking about manned spaceflight, he briefly mentioned the US setting the goal of reaching the moon, reaching the goal, and… stopping.
It ties in well, I think: For a decade, the US had a rapid, refined process for advancing manned spaceflight. Risks were taken. Innovation happened. Then, it reached its goal and, mission accomplished, the process was discarded. With that meteoric progress and innovation in manned spaceflight now firmly in the past, Rutan’s prompted to ask a question: What lofty dreams are the kids of today going to imagine for their futures? Cellphones with more features? Has that really become the milestone of achievement we’ve evolved our culture toward?
Life is a process.
We’re living it at this moment. Reading this post, in the here and now. But when we translate it into words, tell ourselves or someone else what we’re doing, we break it down into snapshots. Images. Milestones. A three dimensional picture is far easier to represent than a four dimensional one, an abstract summary easier to relate than the infinite dimensionality of the present moment.
So, as a culture, we focus on those milestones. Events. What has happened. What we hope or fear will happen in the future.
And therein lies the danger. We convince ourselves that the representation is reality. That life really is made up of these arbitrarily defined, effectively fictional, milestones. The book we’re writing is only there to be finished. Worse, the book we’re reading is there only to be finished. The project we’re completing for work exists only to be tied with a bow and shoved out of the way – hard – so we can get to the next one.
It’s terrifying, for once we’ve ascribed our life’s meaning to milestones – events which by definition have no real duration or existence themselves – we come unstuck. Because of what we haven’t defined: The undescribed space lying between the events, the multidimensional now existing between our abstract summaries. That’s where we live, and love, and breathe. By framing our reality on events, goals and achievements, we’ve devalued the very substance of life itself, made it subservient to the fiction. Meaningless.
So my colleague’s advice was something I needed to hear. I needed to recapture the moment, to stop focusing on what happened and what’s next and discover what’s now.
It was good advice, and worth sharing.
See life differently. Be daring.
Live in the moment.