Getting Off the Proverbial Duff!

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Photo by Austin James Photography

I AM NOT BY NATURE LAZY

As remarkable as this may seem, Yogi Berra is a writing guru who has helped me solve a thorny problem of perspective.

I’m not by nature lazy; although, I can fall prey to bouts of procrastination. The former is a potentially serious behavioral issue, the latter symptomatic of a fear or problem not yet faced. There is a difference. I think I recognize the difference between the two attitudes, and feel safe in my assertion that I am not lazy. I have been forced on occasion to do some heavy lifting on my own, and was more than capable of carrying the load, one foot in front of the other, gutting it out, doing what was necessary. Based upon these experiences I allow myself to assert that I am not lazy.

A recent change in tack, and I’m here referring to the sailing vernacular, is one in which I have endeavored to reinvent myself as a writer, a course that has produced a different kind of procrastination, a different specie of sitting on my duff, and until recently, I have not found a solution for this brand of sitting on one’s duff. I don’t mind saying I feel rather like a “duffus” – a term we used to describe ineptitude when I was young – and for falling prey to this malady.

WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW. WRITE FOR YOURSELF.

Stories are about problem solving. Stories tell us how to live our lives. Show don’t tell. Conflict – a world turned upside down. A Heroes Quest. Story arc. Character arc. Three act. Four act. The terminology is dizzying. Through it all it seems to me that what makes a story is a crack in the narrative, story plus emotion, a moment of realization, internal and external conflict. We are hardwired for rising expectations and questions. The unsolved, the unanswerable is intriguing to us. We need to know more.

Consider this: I recently watched a documentary on the Kamikaze pilots of Japan. The entire undertaking was a terrible waste of men and machine, but it did give the Alies pause, and perhaps more than anything else convinced military leadership that the atomic bomb would really save lives. It was fairly interesting, as documentaries go, until the very end, when something irresistibly powerful grabbed my imagination. Can you possibly imagine what could be that powerful…?

I suspect I have your attention!

_DSF2222Near the end of the documentary, when Japan is about to capitulate, the commander of the Kamikaze squadrons is devastated by his failure to cripple the allied aircraft carriers and thereby crack the air-superiority of the Allies, and perhaps forestalling an invasion of the homeland. The Kamikaze flights are cancelled. There is a side bar on one young pilot who was in his plane, having made his final goodbyes to wife and family night before, was sitting in his plane waiting for takeoff when the flight was cancelled. Ho-hum.

The commander of the Kamikaze’s – whose name I do not remember – asks for volunteers to accompany him on one last attack on Allied ships at Okinawa. There are approximately twenty-four volunteers. The next morning they take off for one last historic face-saving, ancestor-honoring attack on Allied ships; but, they never arrive, never attack the ships, and are never heard from again!

Wow!

I SAT STRAIGHT UP IN MY CHAIR.

 There’s a story! I watched almost ninety-minutes of this video without being really moved until this moment – a crack in the narrative – that raises more questions than were answered in the previous sixty-minutes. This is very much akin to seeing a multiple car wreck on the highway and trying to resist the need to look, to see, to know, to discover what rising action is unfolding. You can’t. That was it. That was story telling hook writ large. The only interesting narrative in the whole piece and it’s abandoned for final credits!

What does this have to do with getting off my proverbial duff?

First, I have heard the adage “Never let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” It is a most alluring trap, this need to get it exactly right, to be perfect in your telling of the most  important story ever – the one you’re writing at the moment. I have spent years, literally, working on a story that is more than a good idea, but finding the right way to tell the story has given me fits of frustration. It had to be perfect in its shape. The more perfect I attempted to shape its contours the more vapid it became – vapid is probably too harsh; but, I can say that of my work. I have put that project on the shelf on two occasions, and its not yet finished. Sometimes, an idea is just that – an idea, even a powerful idea. An idea does not a story make.

THE INTERNET IS OVERRUN WITH SELF-HELP GURUS of all stripes, some are incredibly perceptive and inspiring, others are somewhat jaundiced  in their perspective. I have watched seminars, read papers and newsletters of all brands that claim to have the silver bullet for crafting and selling your book. The DIY phenomenon is a remarkable development.

One recent seminar I listened to claimed to have the formula for writing and publishing a book in one week. This I had to hear. It’s true that one could achieve the publication of a book in that amount of time; the likelihood of creating a profitable book is something else. Still I listened to the process. His first step was to find a need that hurts, or scratch your own itch. I have been well-schooled in the philosophy of write what you know, and write for yourself. 

I DISCOVERED AN IMMEDIATE CONTRADICTION for me, one which I had not given time to consider at all. His starting point was writing for profit, that is, his principal goal is to sell books, in which case writing what you know may not be shared by a lot of people – maybe no more than 10 or 20! There’s not much profit there. Therefore, finding a need that hurts, or an itch that itches makes brilliant sense. It’s also well expressed metaphorically as a need that hurts. The remaining steps to publication were fairly standard and not especially remarkable save for the mentioned resources needed to handle this lightening speed.

I soon discovered that finding the need that hurts was also a charming trap, much like the perfect anything. Laziness is one thing; but, procrastination is quite another. Laziness might well be damning, and for many people irreversible; but, procrastination, I have learned, is symptomatic of a deeper issue, a deeper fear. There is a cure, however, and I will share that cure with you today. The cure is curtesy Yogi Berra!

That’s right. The New York Yankee Hall of Fame catcher… and sometime humorist.

THERE ARE TWO BERRA-ISMS THAT ARE PARTICULARLY TELLING.

The first is “If you don’t know where you are going, you will wind up somewhere else.” It is the somewhere else that we should remain open to and receptive to in our journey. Once again, holding on to the perfect when discovered alternatives might be light years ahead in relevance, interest, and marketability are trumpeting a sea-nymph’s call to adventure, if however slight and distant. We have to listen as writers. Or, as Yogie would say, “You can observe a lot by just watching.”

The second writing tip from Yogi is this: “Think! How the hell are you gonna think and hit at the same time?”

I have laughed at his remark on many occasions, but Yogi will have the last laugh because it’s basically very true. Think too much and you will end up in trouble. Think too much before the pitch and you’ll be frozen when it happens. Think too much after the pitch and the next will catch you off guard. Hitting is instinctual. Writing is our life turned instinctual, where connections are born on the fly and incubated over time. The impulse to create is born of a moment with attendant references and connections that are produced only by an emotional and internal confict.

MY SOLUTION TO MY MALAISE IS NOT TO THINK.

 My job is not to create a need that hurts, but to discover the need that hurts, and who am I to say what needs have a threshold of pain that reverberates across the greatest numbers of people. It’s a road trip. You have a destination in mind, but along the way you will discover the need that hurts among the greatest number of people and then mastering that discovered need after mastering who you are, connections are made across many ideas that just might develop into one remarkable story.

THAT’S WHERE I AM

I must no longer worry about that need that hurts, I’ll find it if I dig. Ben Hogan was fond of saying that he dug his game out of the ground. His practice ethic was legendary, as was the flight of his ball, the movement of his shot. I’ve read that one can not understand unless you saw it. Dig your story out of the ground. Don’t look for a specific story with laser focus, be ready to find a crack in the narrative that grabs and continues to raise questions that demand answers.

I’ve discovered this today while writing and reading. This post has been dug from the ground, and it’s only fitting that we close with another writing tip from the narrative master, Yogi Berra: “I want to thank you for making this day necessary.” — On Yogi Berra Appreciation Day in St. Louis in 1947. 

Harter here!

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