Perspiration vs Preparation

🦊 #68 — To do challenging work, you need to be emotionally ready

Hey friends,

I’m relieved — I just won a battle in the war of editing my book. It wasn’t an easy victory, and the experience taught me a lot about what’s most important when taking on challenging, deep work.

The War of Editing

Over the past week, I kept trying to edit one of my book’s stories, without much success. Every time I’d have a few hours to spare, I’d try to jam some editing into the time slot. But there were a couple of problems:

  • I was distracted. My mind was riddled with thoughts about work from earlier in the day. I struggled to switch into editing mode.

  • I needed to go deep, but kept hovering at the surface. This story needed some major revisions, not just minor edits.

I wasn’t prepared for the task at hand.

I kept hoping to power through it little by little. While this approach works for some things (e.g. drafting the story), it didn’t work for editing. I needed a larger block of time, but I also needed to prepare myself mentally.

Emotional Preparation

I picked a day during the week, and blocked out the entire day to work on editing the story. From morning till evening, I had no goals except to edit. In particular, I made sure I didn’t have calls waiting for me in the afternoon. I find it harder to focus when I have meetings coming up — I end up thinking about them, trying to predict what the conversation might be, and so on.

When I woke up that morning, my mind was still muddled from all the projects I’ve been juggling lately. So I decided to clear my mind by sitting down for a long meditation (I ended up sitting for almost an hour).

After meditating, I felt much calmer, and finally ready to take on this deep work.

I spent the next 4-5 hours editing my story. I reoriented the narrative to have a much cleaner arc. I shifted some stuff around, added some layers, but more than anything, I cut a lot of stuff. I cut prose that I really liked. I cut entire sections, vignettes, and characters that I loved. They call this process “killing your darlings,” and it’s about as brutal as it sounds.

It was hard, but the parts weren’t serving the story, so they had to go. It felt like the story was a bunch of tasty ingredients, but they didn’t quite fit together. I want my stories to taste like a satisfying meal, not a bowl of assorted candy. By the end of the day, finally got it to a stage that the structure made a ton more sense. Pleased with my progress, I shipped it off to my editor.

In retrospect, the real challenge was emotionally preparing myself for the brutal act of cutting pieces I loved in my story. Having emotional bandwidth just as crucial, if not more, than blocking out time to do the work. I think the meditation session played a crucial role in my preparation, as did creating space in my day, which created space in my mind. Once I got into the flow of it, and it became like pruning a tree. Snip, snip, snip to a rhythm.

“Editing” might sound like something you do to simply polish or tweak a story. The reality is that it’s an opportunity to revisit the entire story, possibly even to rewrite it entirely. These are the choices we must make to push our work to its potential.

I want to write great stories. I know it won’t be easy, but I’m willing to invest the time and energy to bring out the best version of each tale.

“Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty…” —Ted Roosevelt

P.S. A few related resources that might be of interest:

  • If you’re looking to start practicing meditation, you might enjoy my YouTube playlist on Getting Started with Meditation.

  • Another key factor in preparing for challenging work is curating the right energy. If we don’t do the kind of work that energizes us, it can be difficult to keep going. We have to manage our personal energy reserves, like liquid in a bottle. For more on energy management, check out my YouTube video on Managing Your Energy vs Managing Your Time.

Flash Night

I had an absolute blast last week doing a live reading of my story, The Boat of Stillness, which was selected for a Flash Night event at Orinda Bookstore hosted by Diablo Writers’ Workshop.

So far, almost all interactions I’ve had related to my writing have been online. It was thrilling to finally engage with writers and readers in person. I’m eager and excited for more opportunities like this in the future!

P.S. You can watch a Zoom livestream of the event here. (If you’re looking for my reading, it’s at the very end — I had the honor of closing out the show!)

Writing & Illustrating

I love this article by Edward Carey, Drawing Inspiration, where he shares his own journey as a writer who also illustrates:

“I can’t imagine working any other way. I don’t draw at first to create a work of art — I’m drawing to see and think about the people I’m creating.”

Edward goes on to talk about a number of artists who inspire him through their own practices of writing and illustrating. After reading the piece, I felt a little less alone in my writing and drawing adventures. It’s a struggle to write and illustrate — it takes enough energy just to write. But I share Edward’s sentiment that drawing is a foundational part of the creative process.

As I’ve been writing my book of fables, I’ve been illustrating scenes along the way. Often, I’ll imagine a scene so vividly that I have to draw it. Sometimes, drawing captures what words cannot. Drawings help me see the nature of a character, nuances of a scene, or even twists of a story.

Another example of how I mix writing with drawing can be found in the comics I draw alongside my blog posts and newsletters. In fact, the opening section of this newsletter edition is a perfect example! I started by sharing a few loose thoughts with a friend about my editing struggles. Then, I wrote some bullets in my notes about it. Later, the idea for the comic popped into my head, and I did a full sketch + illustration of it in a few hours. That helped me crystallize what I really wanted to talk about — perspiration (powering through) vs preparation (curating mindset). Finally, I wrote out my thoughts in more detail for the newsletter.

Sometimes, drawing elevates words. Other times, drawing elicits words.

I’ll leave you with some sketches from Edward’s new book, A Year in Plagues & Pencils, which catalogues his journey in quarantine doing a drawing every single day.