Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Necessity of Cognitive Dissonance

I've been working very diligently on finishing up the novel so I can meet my February 16th deadline. Yesterday was a phenomenal day with 20 pages written. It was also a weird day because I had to do something very strange - write the ending scenes before I got there.

It's the benefit of working on a second draft. I know where I'm going, I know what my ending is, I have the ending already written and it just needed tweeking to make everything line up with the changes in the draft. And...I wasn't going to do what I did with the first draft which was get to the point where it had to be done so I just cut and paste what's already written and call it done. The ending has pretty much stayed the same since Altar was a short story called "Choice." Most of the action has stayed the same, though the subtext has changed radically. So I wrote out the ending, knowing what I know now about the characters and the dynamics.

One of the reasons I did this was because the novel was meandering and threatening to go off on strange tangents - and I simply don't have the time to do this. I could feel the tangents gathering, but I think they were largely being built out of fear and a slightly sick need to self-sabotage when things are going well. So I wrote the ending to remind the novel where it's supposed to end up. Anything that doesn't get me there is not necessary to the novel right now. My task over the next couple of days is to write the scenes that link this final section to the part I was writing before. Fingers crossed, it will work.

As I write, I've been thinking about cognitive dissonance, the ability of a person to usefully lie to themselves in order to get something done. I think I read it in Jonah Lehrer, but I can't remember if it was on his blog, The Frontal Cortex, or in his book, Proust Was A Neuroscientist. And I may have completely scewed the meaning in my head, but the theory I'm thinking about says that having the ability to lie to oneself about one's abilities is apparently partly responsible for the success of athletes and artists. You lie to yourself, or distance yourself, from thinking about how difficult or impossible your task is. If you're a runner, stopping to think about how difficult it will be for you to beat 25 other people to win a race basically ensures defeat. Instead, athletes practice visualization, they train hard, they get themselves into a state where they are convinced they are the fastest or the strongest or in the best shape.

The same is true about being an artist. I have to put aside the thought that this novel, which has totally consumed me for the past couple of months and on which I have spent thousands of hours over the past decade since its inception, will never have a wider audience than my immediate family, friends, and thesis reader. At times, when the writing is going well, it's easy to do. But right now I'm stuck in what a friend of mine calls the Eeyore Place of a novel under construction. It happens to just about everyone even after they've got several books published and are doing very well for themselves.

(I refer you here to Neil Gaiman's pep talk for NaNoWriMo writers:
The last novel I wrote, when I got three-quarters of the way through I called my agent. I told her how stupid I felt writing something no-one would ever want to read, how thin the characters were, how pointless the plot. I strongly suggested that I was ready to abandon this book and write something else instead, or perhaps I could take up a new life as a landscape gardener, bank-robber, short-order cook or marine biologist. And instead of sympathising or agreeing with me, or blasting me forward with a wave of enthusiasm---or even arguing with me---she simply said, suspiciously cheerfully, "Oh, you're at that part of the book, are you?"

I was shocked. "You mean I've done this before?"

"You don't remember?"

"Not really."

"Oh yes," she said. "You do this every time you write a novel. But so do all my other clients."

I didn't even get to feel unique in my despair.

So I put down the phone and drove down to the coffee house in which I was writing the book, filled my pen and carried on writing.

One word after another

It happens to the best of us.

I don't have an answer about the best way to get through this Eeyore Place, just that it involves a lot of cups of tea and an almost inhuman ability to lie to myself about how good the book is even though I feel like it's total crap.

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