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Notes from a Cold Bathroom Floor in South Africa

Notes from a Cold Bathroom Floor in South Africa

Tomorrow I’ll be headed to Madagascar, the final stop of my latest trip before I begin the long process of returning home.

But at the moment, I’ve been spending the past three hours sitting on the floor of the bathroom during a brief stopover in Johannesburg.

Why the bathroom? Because it’s freezing here in Johannesburg—we’re now in the middle of the southern hemisphere winter—and the only heater in my room is located by the sink.

Unable to procure a chair from the lodge where I’ve been staying while in transit, I camped out on the floor, MacBook on lap, more than one-hundred manuscript pages for my next book strewn about the small room. I put on three shirts and two pairs of socks, yet still shiver as I type away on various edits and revisions.

My room contains only one power outlet, currently requisitioned by the heater, so every hour or so I stand up, attempt to stretch out the cramps in my legs (bathroom floors not usually being equipped with ergonomic chairs), and return to the cold bedroom to leave my laptop charging for ten minutes.

Such a glamorous life! It would all make for a fun photo shoot, with all the layers of clothes and marked-up pages around the floor.

Except… most photo shoots don’t reflect real life. For those of us attempting to build something over time, much of that time is spent working away in isolation. Compared to the hours of consistent work, the moments of fame are few and far between. Looking for shortcuts in travel hacking or academic studies is one thing; cutting corners on your legacy work is another.

While camping out and editing away, I thought about this unattributed quote I recently came across:

“There’s a word for a writer who never quits… published.”

With self-publishing being so common, these days there are plenty of good writers who aren’t published in a traditional manner. Nevertheless, I agree with the spirit of the quote: stick with it. You’ll get your photo shoot, your publication, whatever it is you’re working for in due time.

But for now, you most love the work for its own sake.

***

There are at least two theories about finishing creative work. I like them both in different ways, but they are opposing theories and should not be confused with each other.

The first theory is, essentially, “just get this thing done.” In the circles I travel in, this is sometimes known as the Steven Pressfield or Seth Godin school of “shipping.” The message is: stop waiting! The mailman is waiting… you must deliver!

I love this perspective, because I know if I wasn’t willing to get things done and move on, I’d never finish anything. I’ve been publishing this blog since February 2008, and have never missed a scheduled post. I sometimes work ahead to ensure I’ll be covered, but if I ever felt in danger of slipping, I would make a post entitled “Here is the post!” with the same words duplicated in the actual post. (Hopefully it doesn’t come to that—it’s a backup plan, something I try to avoid. The point is, there will always, always be a post.)

This theory holds that mediocre work shipped is better than work that isn’t shipped at all… and here you can see a key weakness: the danger of embracing mediocrity as an acceptable standard. You can’t write a book entitled “Here is the book!” with the same thing duplicated for 240 pages. You want to be proud of work like this, and such a thing takes time. It takes hours, hours, and more hours. When you finally finish, you look at it again with fresh eyes and realize… you need to spend more hours. Alas.

Here’s another quote I’ve been thinking of recently, taken from this compilation of great advice on writing a book:

“There’s no such thing as too many drafts.”

This quote represents the second theory of creative work—better to take your time and get it right. Craft a masterpiece. Invest your sweat and sacrifice to make something beautiful.

As much as I like the “get it out the door” theory, a big part of me is also attracted to the “don’t send it out before it’s ready” theory.

So, which is right?

I think the difference depends on the kind of work. Not every blog post I publish is brilliant or amazing, but I keep plugging along regardless. If it’s not ready when the publication time comes, too bad for me—I queue it up anyway. Done. Moving on.

But in the case of a 70,000 word book manuscript, I feel differently. There’s the addition of commercial pressure, which I feel only mildly with my blog, and the related fact that a lot of other people are working on the book from the publisher’s side. I want to be a good author for them, a good partner in producing something that is truly helpful and inspiring.

The greatest pressure, however, is internal. In my case of my book, I don’t want it to be “good enough,” “not bad,” “decent,” or “nice.” No thanks. Not everyone will like it—but I can live with that. What I can’t live with, as I look through the pages and pages of draft manuscript covered with circles and crossed-out sentences, is the idea that I gave it less than my best.

Editing your manuscript on a cold bathroom floor does not produce photo shoots, and it can even hinder your short-term goals. I’ve been behind on a number of other, important projects lately. This will likely continue for at least another month.

But as much as I hate to be behind on things, it’s a choice I make deliberately. And thus I shiver on the bathroom floor for hours, thinking of different examples, stories, paragraph breaks, and structure. Correcting as many of my plentiful mistakes as possible. Trying to write more clearly. Finding the right mix of challenging readers without going over their heads.

I already know the finished product will be far from perfect, no matter how much time I spend. But I want it to be better than good enough. This desire is what has brought me to the cold floor, where I keep the heater as close as possible, trying to finish one more page of edits before going to bed.

***

Whatever you’re up to, if you want to create something substantial, at some point you’ll have to make these choices too. I think you should get in the regular habit of shipping things out without waiting too long. Overall, this is probably a more powerful message than trying to build to a perfection you will never fully achieve.

But sometimes, I think you should take your time and do it right. Produce something you’re truly proud of. Give of yourself as much as you can, then keep giving. It’s worth it. Stick it out.

###

Image: Sidewalk

52 Comments

  • Andrew says:

    I really enjoyed this post. I have been struggling lately with finding that balance between getting things done and holding out because of perfectionism. Luckily my struggle seems to be working so far and I feel like I am producing in a decent ratio of output:quality.

    Here’s to both of us putting out more of our best stuff!

  • Kerri says:

    I like the distinction you make here.
    I’m a little tired of my habit of trying to do tiny, not terribly important tasks – perfectly. Sometimes that’s easier than hurrying.

    And it and gives me a false sense of accomplishment. And it fills my attention-to-detail tank which is just waiting for me to give it a meaty and worthy project.

    And I’m really curious – just what would you say, if you let yourself write over your readers’ heads?

    Wishing for you a big sweater and some hot cocoa.

  • Elle says:

    I love your closing lines. “Produce something you’re truly proud of. Give of yourself as much as you can, then keep giving. It’s worth it. Stick it out.” That’s incredibly inspiring.

    Have a safe trip and stay warm!

  • Agnes Brzeski says:

    Loved your thoughts on writing. The cold bathroom floor sounds pretty good from my perspective, or at least very adventurous…as you said …not the most glamorous moment …but I believe, the one which stays in our memory…Your comments about delivering promised piece of work/ writing are what I needed at this moment…so thank you…I just write “for myself” …in the middle of my personal challenge … writing for 365 days 2011…because…I chose to…There are days when …what I write doesn’t fully reflect who I am…but at least …I post it …and other …when it flows more freely… Thanks for inspiration to continue… Glad to find you…

  • Tom Ewer says:

    Hm…interesting thoughts. The fine line between quantity and quality is almost invisible in the world of blogging. For my blogs, I set myself a non-negotiable editorial calendar, much like you. So I have to deliver, come hell or high water…

    Some articles will always be better than others. That’s a fact of life.

    Songwriting is a great analogy for this. You should write as many songs as possible. Don’t worry about whether they are good or bad, just get them out of your head and onto paper (or recorded). Come back to tweak them later, or dump them if they are poor. But when it comes to your album…only the cream of the crop should make it. I think blogging/bookwriting is a similar relationship.

  • Nate says:

    Dude, this is exactly what I’m doing this very second. I too have had the same internal debate over the two theories, and come out pretty much where you do.

    Rock on, bro.

  • Kjersten says:

    You’ve captured an artist’s struggle in words so poignantly. I plan on printing this out and putting it in my journal to save. One of my favorite posts you’ve ever put up, Chris. Thank you for sharing this part of your journey.

  • As always, brilliant, inspiring, and timely. I am constantly struggling to balance between quality and getting the dang post up. Some days quality wins, others, oh well.

    I love reading what you write, and have yet to read something of yours where I think, “Huh, not his best work.” :)

  • Natasha says:

    I Chris, I’m a subscriber and I’ve been reading your blog from South Korea for the last year.. and now you are in my hometown (Johannesburg)! You do get around.. I’m sorry you were so cold in your room – our country isn’t usually that freezing, probably why there was only one heater! Thank you for your smart, and always useful and relevant content.

  • Aaron says:

    I’d have to echo Andrew’s comment about finding the balance. Listening to a lot of Seth has bent me toward shipping too soon with some big projects that I am not revisiting, revising and restarting. Hopefully the room service keeps those floors clean. Hot water? Maybe you could fill the tub with hot water and soak your feet as you write.

    Stay warm and have a good flight,

    Aaron

  • GutsyLiving says:

    Just what I needed to hear after receiving agent rejections and stupidly assuming this one publisher would still want my manuscript after two years of following me. Depressed last week, I now know I can make it, I’m more determined than ever to get my travel/family memoir published, and hearing that my story is very commercial, I shall work n it some more,and then done, done, done.

  • I can so identify with the struggle between getting it out the door and doing my best. I finished an important project today…..and after chastising myself for “too many drafts”, I realized it was worth every draft in my overflowing wastebasket. It is such a satisfying feeling to have produced my very best. However, just before I submitted, I found a tiny typo. At first I thought “let it go, no one will notice” — and then I realized I owe it to myself to fix that little bugger so I can enjoy the satisfaction of job very well done. Thanks, Chris, for reminding me that life is about balance….and about choices….and sometimes about typos.

  • Christy says:

    It used to drive me nuts that my ex would never put his creative work out into the world because he never felt it was ready. He spent years working on something and always wanted to keep tweaking it. Now, years later, I have been working on a project for about 6 months and I keep putting it off because I don’t feel like I’m ready. Only now do I understand why it was so hard for him to stop obsessing and just put his work out there. When you feel strongly about a project, it makes it that much harder to “just get this thing done.”

  • Really enjoyed this post.
    One other thing to keep in mind, I think (and something which probably falls on the side of the ‘ship it’ philosophy), is that everything is a work in progress. Always. Even when you’ve got what you think is the final product, in my experience it’s simply another contribution to the debate and to one’s ideas on a specific subject.
    When you look back on the collective work of many authors, you realise that their work over time simply continued to follow up (even if indirectly) on themes and ideas initiated in earlier books.
    So even though a product such as a published book seems more finite than a blog post, the reality is that it too is temporary and of the moment.

  • Gayle says:

    I tend to believe in quality over getting it out when it comes to anything of creative value. Afterall, I’m thinking there’s more than enough crap to go around (from people) who just got it out.

  • suzanne says:

    I think you’ve got it right. With blog posts, I just want get them written. With my novel, I dont mind that it’s my Xth revision, because the book is part of my legacy. Great term, btw.

  • Viviann says:

    You need an ergonomically designed sleeping bag with insulation!! Wow, I’d love to hear about Madagascar too.
    I think finding a compromise is a good decision. It takes some of the pressure off the writer, and truly, under certain circumstances, if you can just get the material out, that is an accomplishment too.
    (I think you should have taken a photo from your bathroom. That would have been interesting.)
    Take care, and happy travels.

  • Great post Chris. It’s so true about the 2 quotes and I think a balance between the two is a good place to be. Shipping is great but if the work isn’t very good, it aint gonna get noticed anyways. I do think its important in the start to get things done to build up the experience and confidence for further projects.

    Although the bathroom sounds terrible, it reminds me of the ups and downs of travel. I can’t wait to visit Africa. Hope your having fun.

    Matt

  • Kathryne says:

    Thanks for this. Another mantra to add to the list for those moments when it all seems so… hopeless. A reminder that it is, instead, hopeful.

  • I just finished blogging some 60 posts on an incredible trip to Iran, April 23-May 14. I had to reach some balance between the two things you’re talking about: getting it posted and really creating a wonderful piece. It’s a fine line and one I try to balance a lot. Good enough or working to make it better. One of the good things about the Iran blog is that I can always go back in and make the corrections or addition or whatever. Turning it into a book is another matter. But I haven’t had to face that yet. Thanks so much for your thoughts.

  • Carolyn says:

    It’s amazing that we all can drive ourselves nuts over meeting our own internal standards. I too am only in the beginnings of establishing my blog, and am working at bringing content that I love to others. Not to mention trying to become an established writer while trying to figure out how to start the cause that I want to pursue from now on.

    After so many years of producing to timelines and other people’s demands, it’s good to actual pay more attention to the details that I find important (although the pressure still remains the same). You always seem to post things just when we need to hear them. Thanks as always! Stay warm and safe!

  • chris zydel says:

    I love the distinction that you make between these two approaches. When I was in graduate school getting my masters in clinical counseling, my motto was ” The only good research paper is a done research paper” which is the same shipping mentality I bring to my blog posts. And it really works. It gets stuff done and out the door.

    But I also know that feeling of lovingly laboring over something that you want to be as good as it can possibly be. To take your time. Do the million drafts. And have it be something that you can feel really proud of once you send it out the door.

  • Heather says:

    As others have said, this balance is so important. For myself, I do professional writing and editing which is very much on deadline and often rushed – though I sometimes feel that the mindset there is “There’s always enough time to fix it, but never enough time to do it right to start with.” Anyway, to balance that, I *need* my personal artwork (collage), which for me is slow and painstaking. That careful, thorough, non-commercial mindset is a good antidote for the rush rush of business – where I had to learn to let it go. Both are good. I just wish professionally people would be realistic about which they want from you to start with!

    P.S. As a professional editor, I’d *love* to work with an author who wanted to do their best for me, as well as for themselves. It so often isn’t a collaboration, but it should be.

  • Chea says:

    I love your point about the difference between quantity and quality. Some of us are at a place where we need quantity and the requisite letting go of perfectionism. Others need to concentrate on quality.

    Having worked as an illustrator and fine artist for many years (a current occupation along with my other, more unusual job), one of the things learned was that in the beginning it’s better to pump out the work, that quantity will lead to better craft. Once you get to a certain point, however, you need to hone that craft and that is where the quality part comes in. All depends on where one is on the creative journey.

    I need to ask, tho’, why were you doing that work while in Johannesburg? The book is important, but what about taking the time to explore the different place you’re in? Can’t imagine going all the way to So. Africa and not spending as many hours as possible exploring and meeting new people even if I’d been there before. Having followed your blog for some time, I understand your mission and challenge to yourself, but don’t lose the opportunity to really BE where you are, too. The other thought was – Is torturing yourself really necessary to complete your work?

  • David White says:

    Like you all, I share the same dilemma. One question that helps me decide whether something is ready to ship or must be worked on more is, “Will it make things better or worse, if I send this out now?”

    Eg posting an article that says “Here is the post!” could be a good thing, speaking to you keeping your promise to post weekly. But posting that same thing for 3 weeks is a different thing.

    Love your work, Chris. You make things better ;)

  • Jean Burman says:

    I’d rather have quality than quantity. I see no point in publishing work that’s only just near enough… and not nearly good enough.

    Same with painting. Why burden the world with [yet another] hastily knocked out barn?

    The creative life is a solitary one. It has to be.

    But thank God for the clatter of coffee shops to escape into… [or the deep freeze of a bathroom floor somewhere on the African sub continent] It’s the stuff of life. The creative life. And art. Good on you Chris :-)

  • So great to read this! It definately a fine line, I take it you don’t have a deadline for your manuscript? Or do you?!

    I find that sometimes I love my work and other times I will go off it, sometimes the same bits. A deadline does make all the difference, my rhythm for blogs is more like 10 days – and I do feel the pinch after 7! I applaud your consistency with your weekly posts – especially because each one is so worth reading!

  • Melissa says:

    I read this at exactly the right time. While procrastinating from writing, I checked my email. Your message of inspiration resonates. The next window I open will be my story. Thanks!

  • Erna says:

    I’ve tried to avoid sending my supervisor drafts of my dissertation because I want it to be perfect before he reads it… but I’ll make a point of “shipping out without waiting too long.” Thanks for that!
    Also, I hope you got out of the country in time, because the petrol strike is bringing everything to a halt.

  • Billie Jo says:

    I totally identify! I have the tendency to get all perfectionist on things and never get them done. Having to work on my blog (which is, in theory a DAILY blog, though I’m still struggling with that a bit) is helping me commit to working on something and carry it through to fruition. So, it’s really helping with both of the things you mentioned. I hope by the end of a year of this, I’ll be used to getting the work out the door each day, efficiently, but with enough care to make it the quality of work that I am proud to have done as well. Thanks for this post, Chris!

  • Amber says:

    Good Morning,

    I have attempted to start my own business a few times but became paralyzed with the ‘draft’ stage and action would grind to a halt.

    Changing my perspective so that I didnt need to know all the answers before moving forward has helped me actually move forward!

    Enjoy the lemurs!

  • Molly says:

    I think we producers/creatives always struggle with balancing what I think of as process versus product. Some days you just have to show up and do the work trusting that the “magic” will show up when it’s time. I often think of this when I’m running. Some days my runs suck, but I show up and do the work because on this day, the discipline is more important than the performance – but it contributes to the performance that counts(race day). Writing is very much the same. You have to show up and do it knowing that some days it will be crap, but your sticking with it means you can write as many drafts as it takes to get to the goal.

  • Grant Dixon says:

    You’ve done a great job contrasting the why and when of the “Just Ship It” type project, against the concept of taking more time to finesse and perfect a project. Thanks. I really enjoy your blog and your thoughts.

  • Jeremy says:

    Wow it seems there is always a struggle between quality and quantity. The aspect of getting more out there so more will see or getting a better one that fewer will see but will be better and might have more people interested. Plus your personal actions of wanting to do your best. Thanks for helping focus these issues.

  • Jay says:

    Well observed, Chris! Thank you. I’ve definitely transitioned from all flow and no hustle, to being guided by these two great quotes:

    “The Perfect is the enemy of the Good” – Voltaire

    “We need body rockin’ not perfection
    Let me get some action from the back section” – The Beastie Boys

    It’s been good for me. But I definitely want what I create to be worthy of the word “creative.”

  • This is exactly what I went through writing my novel – wanting to give it my best, wanting to finish the damn thing, wanting to enjoy the process at least a little bit.

    I wasn’t huddled on a cold floor in a foreign land to finish this draft. I was ensconced in my apartment in Denver all winter, using virtual blinders to shut out other things I love while committing to this book.

    It’s done now, and each day I still feel the satisfaction of the good, hard work of writing. I feel the pleasure of knowing it is a good book and that I cared enough to make it so.

    The future of Chasing Sylvia Beach isn’t known now, and while I sort out publishing it, I’ll continue to relish the joy I’ve earned.

    Thanks for sharing this – your blogging just gets better and better, and I can’t wait to read your book.

    Bon voyage home!

  • Don Sahli says:

    Your post reminds me of a quote from Mark Twain – “Do what is right, it will please some people and astonish the rest.” This supports both theories. It is a question of what is right for the moment. And having both theories in your arsenal gives you options. And I like that.

    We all know there are times when getting it done is the priority, and other times when going for better than good is the goal. The important point here is making a conscience decision about the direction to be taken.

  • Maggie Dodson says:

    This is a timely reminder of the difference between two types of writing. Provided you’ve set a schedule then you should honour it and be RELIABLE so ‘just get this thing done’. You probably could write another yet another draft or even re-design it but you should do that with your legacy work where you’re aspiring to be as BRILLIANT as you possibly can be for posterity.

    Voila! I’ve just spent time translating what you said, Chris, into – yes, English! Ha ha!!!

    That’s ok though because it CLARIFIED something for me. Thank you.

  • Jackie says:

    I’m in the “just get this thing done” camp — followed by “now make it better”, particularly for big things. Getting it done to begin with is 4/5 of the battle.

  • Delores says:

    Brilliant post. You’ve touched on some very real things. In life there aren’t always exact answers but many things to be considered. I’m honored to be a reader.

  • Jerrie Hurd says:

    Excellent thoughts and the cold bathroom bit added to the word-imagery. Enjoyed.

  • Rhonda says:

    Really needed to read this today. Thanks again for a great and super useful post. The quote about there not being too many drafts and the just get it out one are effective in the same post, because it’s true that we all need a balance between those two. I’ve been working on a memoir for several years now, and taken some waiting periods to let it get a fresh look later. Now gaining momentum for another go-around. I wholeheartedly want to never send out something that I think is just good enough. So I will work, alone, cold, whatever it takes, until done. Cheers to you! Your chosen path and your attitude, inspires so many.

  • Richard says:

    I’m not sure what is more interesting, your adventures or your perspective on those adventures. Whichever it is, I know that I enjoy both and draw inspiration from them.

  • In other words … when do you hang on … and when do you let go?

    For me, the answer is different every day.

  • Luinae says:

    Real life is decidedly un-glamorous. I tell people I work as a dancer and you know they think it’s all fun and games and roses on opening night, not bleeding feet and dancing injured and practicing until 2AM on a school night.

  • This was what I needed to read today. It’s time for me to step out into the world again, after a long incubation period of clarifying what it is that I’m doing (and creating a family). While the time has been great for my art and all kinds of creative blocks are a thing of the past, it’s time to start making a living and stop standing on the break. Waaaah. Thanks for this post.

  • Can relate to this post at the moment, Chris. Have spent six months getting a self-pub work in shape. And there’s nothing quite like proofing a novel 3 million times and having other people read it and still finding things that could be changed! I was going through my second proof copy recently and found a random full stop in the middle of the page and for a moment I considered reediting and reloading and blah blah blah and then decided I could live with it. The world would not end because of one dot. Better to send it out into the world for people to read and enjoy. If that one dot puts them off, then so be it! Time to ship!

    Hope Madagascar is warmer!

  • “Compared to the hours of consistent work, the moments of fame are few and far between.”

    Haha! This made me laugh out loud, as this is very much my own experience as well. My husband and I are independent musicians. We are somewhat known in certain circles but not famous by any means. So right now we are out on the road, expanding our reach into new territories. Last night we enjoyed the height of luxury sleeping in a motel 6, as opposed to sleeping on an air mattress in an open cargo trailer in Southern Missouri amidst a sweltering heat wave and more bugs per square inch that I’ve ever encountered. Long hours on the road, eating out of gas stations, gigs where 4 people show up. It’s not all like that – sometimes we get posh accommodations. Sometimes we get a full house. But you never know for sure. And that is part of the adventure. I wouldn’t trade this life for anything.

  • The most important writing lesson that I have ever learned is this: finish. The spit and polish come only after I have committed that first draft to paper. If I let that red cartoon devil hang out on my shoulder and whisper criticism into my ear, then I write either very slowly or not at all. The key has been giving myself permission to write really, really badly: “What if I sit down and write the most wooden, forced dialogue that has ever been written?!!” Something about not having to be excellent the first time around has freed me to write more, more often, and with better results. In other words, worry about the feng shui in each room only after the house is built.

  • Serena says:

    Such a delightful peek into your reality. I’m grateful for your honesty. Helps me understand myself a bit better.

  • Jonathan Levitt says:

    i was in south africa in july also and it was freezing at night. our first day in cape town i was told there is no such thing as central heating in that country. particularly in johannesburg it was really cold and the only heaters they have are these things attatched to the wall that are like a piece of wood that gets really hot, but if you move your finger just an inch from it you cant really feel any heat. and i was in joburg about 2 weeks after you chris! enjoy your travels

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