Overcoming the Allure of Efficiency

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2015-05-22 The Dangers of Efficiency

In a way, it’s in my blood.  My mother was born in Switzerland, and every time she executed any task with a high level of efficiency, say carrying six bags of groceries from the car instead of the more reasonable two, my father (from what is now Serbia) would grin and say, “You’re being Swiss.”  I’m not really sure if this was a compliment or a dig, but, even now, it’s the way I tend to operate.  And it’s a problem.

Some years ago, I read about Douglas Adams rewriting the same portion of a novel over and over—each time tossing the unsuccessful pages into the trash before beginning again.  I was horrified by this.  I have always been terrified of throwing away words I have written, fearing that I might lose hold of whatever decent work I might have done, and hoping that some salvage might be made of the less than optimal parts.  I have labored over sentences, attempting to perfect them, believing they may be the only material I would ever be able to create.  “Waste not.  Want not,” I have told myself, “Time is short and words are precious.”

And yet, a few years ago, in a more inspired moment in the Long Room at Trinity College I instructed myself thusly: Write on!  It is the only path to the path—to write wantonly, wastefully, scattering letters across the page like so many seeds on the winds.  This feels true—the idea of taking it all much less seriously.  I could even have fun writing my new novel.  Make it crazy.  Make it disjointed.  Write bits and pieces, turn them upside down, chew them up and spit them out.  Just do it.  The story will find its way into being.  Just have fun with it.  Start anywhere.

That’s what my four year’s older sister told me when I was a kid and needed advice on tackling my overwhelmingly messy room. “Start anywhere,” she said.  “Don’t worry about beginning in the best place, just pick something up, put it way, and move on to the next thing..”  When I’ve gotten stuck in just about any kind of project, I have gone back to this advice.  Start anywhere.  Just get yourself going.  It may not always be the most efficient way of getting something done, but it works—and sometimes, it’s the only thing that does.

A few months ago I read Dennis Lehane’s book of short stories, Coronado.  At the end, was a Q & A with the author, in which Lehane talked about his need to write his way into a novel.  He may start with only a slender idea, so he has to figure the story out by putting pen to page (or fingers to keyboard) and letting the words come out like so much clay for him to eventually shape into a narrative.

This is my task now.  Forget about being efficient.  Forget about figuring out the best way to do it.  Just take it one sentence at a time, and don’t be afraid to throw away a thousand, a million words, because, in reality, those words are not wasted.  They are building blocks for the next generation, they are inroads into the wilderness where the whole of the story resides.

:)

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