Sunday, February 07, 2010

Discipline, Dreams and the Benefits of Failure

Perhaps, as faithful readers, you may recall a post from about this time last year—a post in which I declared my intent to write a book. First, I’d like to thank all of you for not asking how it’s going. Seriously.

Writing actually went reasonably well through the spring, although I would not say I was exactly flying through the pages. Then summer hit, and just when you’d think a teacher would have plenty of time for things like writing, it all seemed to disappear. (Time, that is.) Then, in August, my computer crashed, and all of my characters and plots and themes remained incarcerated inside a broken hard drive until just last week.

While they’re all celebrating the reappearance of their freedom in my new laptop, I have suddenly found myself without excuse for my continued shunning of their existence. There’s no reason not to keep writing now. Uh oh.

One of the things I have done during the last year, in an attempt to learn exactly how one does go about writing a novel, is to explore the world of author and writing blogs. I discovered that there are endless blogs out there about writing and publishing, and many of them are quite excellent. I adore reading these blogs! I have wondered in fact, if I don’t like reading about writing better than the actual act of writing itself.

One of the blogs I frequent is by author Alan Gratz, and I was recently quite taken with his post about “Goals, Discipline and Dr. Who.” Goals are something I can dwell on for endless hours, and discipline is a trait that I sorely lack but constantly strive to develop. (I know nothing at all about Dr. Who, but that turned out to be fairly inconsequential in terms of grasping the meat of the blog post.)

The biggest point I got from Alan’s post was something with which I closely identify. I have so many goals and plans for my life, that I have a hard time sticking to just a few and seeing them through. I am the queen of a million unfinished projects. Whether it’s knitting projects, new guitar songs, plans for the house, or the half-written writing pieces littering the folders on my computer, I think I have adult-onset ADD.

Alan shared his tips for narrowing his own goals, then having the discipline to stick with them. When he does school visits, he tells the kids to just “finish something.” And that, my friends, is exactly what I struggle with: finishing.

You may think this is silly. You may think I am this terribly disciplined ultrarunner. I’ll tell you a secret though: I am a lazy, undisciplined ultrarunner. I never run more than 65 miles a week, and I don’t even reach that distance for very many weeks in a row. I have no compunction about changing, or even cutting, a workout if need be. (I like to think of myself as “flexible,” but I'm pretty sure my high school guidance counselor termed it “undisciplined.”) Still, running is the one area where I feel relatively satisfied with the goals I set and achieve. It’s the rest of my life where I tend to run an inch deep and a mile wide.

Alan went on to share his actual goals for the next five years. I am not nearly so brave, but I will tell you that after reading his post, I do have big plans to finish something. I know that perhaps some things have to give, if I want to have real success at anything. The hard part will be deciding what exactly has to give, and then letting it go. (I’m thinking laundry and dishes should be first. I can totally let those go.)

It was shortly after these revelations that I came upon Andrew in our living room, watching a video online of an attractive woman with a British accent.

“Ooh,” my eyes widened, “J.K. Rowling!” I immediately snuggled in next to him on the sofa to watch.

She was giving the commencement address to the graduating class of 2008 at Harvard University. I wonder if it was perhaps my state-of-mind at that particular moment, but I felt quite certain that she was not, in fact, speaking to several hundred bright, well-educated 21-year-olds, but rather that she was looking out through the computer screen and speaking directly to me. From me, her words evoked both tears and laughter while I sat mesmerized, listening. And this seems to be typical of our relationship. She reaffirmed my faith in her total brilliance.

The title of her speech was “The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination.” If you watch the video below (which I strongly encourage you to do—it’s 20 minutes, but so worth your time!) you’ll see exactly how her words relate to my own thoughts here. In case you don’t have time to watch it, here is a quote from her speech that discusses one of its two central themes:

"So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had already been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default."

Jo Rowling found the discipline to focus on her life’s work after everything else had been stripped away. It gave her the clarity to see who she truly was.

I certainly hope that I will not have to experience her level of failure in order to achieve my goals in life, although, I don’t actually aspire to achieve her level of success either. I have to agree though, that living too cautiously is failure by default.

J.K. Rowling Speaks at Harvard Commencement from Harvard Magazine on Vimeo.

When I sat down last week, for the first time in six months, to read through the progress of my novel to date, I experienced a small surprise: It wasn't the complete and utter tripe I had recalled it to be! Of course, it was far from good, and I am still at the beginning, but there's potential there. Actual potential.

I am truly struggling with the idea of letting some dreams go so that I can focus on, and perhaps achieve, others--how to stop pretending to myself that I am something other than what I truly am. We'll see how this all plays out.

What about you? Do you have a few, focused goals, or a wide array? How do you discipline yourself to achieve the ones that are most important?


  1. I can relate. On paper I probably look really disciplined too, but my life is filled with unfinished or not begun projects. Kind of hard for a virgo to live like that but I find tunnel vision helps. So no real answers here!

    I agree that if you haven't experienced failure you aren't trying hard enough.

  2. What makes you think it's adult onset?

    You never live too cautiously.

    You are a delightful girl. Don't give up anything that contributes to who you are!

  3. Sarah - I like the tunnel vision idea though. Sometimes you just gotta put those blinders on!

    Mom - Yeah, I was kind of wondering that about the "adult onset" aspect actually. Oh well.
    And, thanks! (You're a delightful mom!) Okay, I won't give up anything. ;)

  4. Hi Gretchen,
    Nice post! I'm in the middle of writing a book as well--always a lot more work than you think...

    What has helped me tremendously in the process is the (super-simple) Pomodoro Technique. Give it a try. In fact, even my kids are using it to do their homework--it really works.
    The free manual is here:

  5. There is no try...only do.

    It is better to finish or fail trying than to never try!

  6. Peter - Pomodoro sounds like an interesting idea. 25 minutes? What if you're in the writing groove when the timer goes off? But I do love the concept of breaking big tasks into manageable chunks--sort of like running an ultra, right? I think I'll definitely test it out. Thanks!

    Stuart - Perhaps I could write my book while simultaneously standing on my hands and raising an X-wing fighter from the bottom of a swamp if only I had a Jedi master there to show me the ways. Are you busy these days? Want to take on a new apprentice?

  7. I was going to comment on this earlier, but then I started doing something else, and then it got pushed aside for a while, and ... you get the idea.

    What you described doesn't sound too far removed from my own situation as well. Too many interests, too few hours in the day to pursue them all.

    LOVED the JK Rowling speech - I remember watching it online a couple of years ago. You should also read the transcript from Conan O'Brien's Harvard address from 10 years ago - it has a similar topic, even more timely in light of everything that went down at NBC this year:

    Good luck juggling it all, Chica. And remember to enjoy the journey.

  8. Donald - This sounds familiar to you? Really? Somehow, I thought you were the master of getting things done. I feel better now.

    And JK, yes, could she be any more awesome. Too bad there's no audio on the Conan speech. It's good, but you know it's a thousand times better with his delivery.

  9. My 50000 word novel in a month was a children's book about ultramarathons: "See Steve run. Run, Steve, Run! Run very, very (50000 more very's) far. Take a nap, Steve."

  10. Steve - Dude, you totally won Nanowrimo! Congrats! ;)

  11. I think this has been mentioned a couple of times, but I think your discipline in training for and completing ultras will come in handy as you're working on your book project.

    Keep us updated!

    Oh, while we're on the topic of commencement speeches, here is my favorite (it's my favorite even though it's from across the Bay!)

  12. Gretchen! Your little face came up on facebook and I clicked on it and then found your blog and GIRL YOU ARE AMAZING. The running alone is incredible, but the writing and teaching and everything. well it's all awesome. Now I'm going to have my tea and listen to JK.

  13. Dave - you're totally right about the running keeping the rest of my life in line. If it weren't for that structure, I might never have learned how to set and follow goals!

    Susie - Hey! Thanks for stopping by! Hope you're doing well, and that you enjoyed JK. She's so inspirational.

  14. I know you echoed this on my blog, but damn, we are a LOT alike. So weird.

    BTW, when you finish that first draft, you will feel a sensation not unlike finishing an ultra. For me, it was that, "PHEW! FINALLY!...wait, it's over?"

  15. Russ - Kinda weird, yeah. But, I'll take that as a big compliment. :) And I only hope that one day I get to experience that sensation you describe.

  16. Hi Gretchen. I just found your blog and I love it. We seem to be on similar paths. I'm an ultrarunning, homeschooling mom also trying to be a writer when I grow up. I pushed myself into a fixed schedule a few years ago: up at 4, write then run. Not for everyone, but I had to choose: early in the morning or late at night. This was a no-brainer, as my head shuts down after 3 in the afternoon. Even still, it's so hard to write. So much more enjoyable to read!

    Anyway, keep writing! You're a natural.....

  17. Hey Gretchen -

    Great post! And thanks for the shout-out.

    I love your take on focusing on *who we are.* I often let my mind wander to other versions of me--the one where I write for TV, the one where I write comics, the one where I'm a fashion designer on Project Runway--and while I MIGHT have a chance at some of these if I gave them time (the writing ones, mainly) I cannot be ALL of them. I have to be ONE THING, and be good at that one thing. (Professionally, at least.)

    Finding the discipline to go after that one thing, to the exclusion of all else, is one of the most difficult challenges any of us will ever face. It's not easy--but it is DEFINITELY rewarding!

    Best of luck to you on your writing!

  18. Pam - Yes, we are totally on the same path. Well, except that you have 3 kids, and therefore about 10,000 times more demands on your time. I totally admire you! I agree though, that sometimes early in the morning can be the only time for yourself. (And, thus, writing.) Thanks for reading, and good luck!

    Alan - Thanks for the comment, and for stopping by my blog! I hear what you are saying about "other versions of me." Thanks for the encouragement, and for the blogging. I totally love hearing about your process!