Notes from a Cold Bathroom Floor in South Africa
Originally posted July 14, 2011.
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.