Something I read a while back in Kate Wilhelm’s book on the Clarion workshop, On WRITING, got me thinking about attitude. I don’t mean “Attitude” with a capital “A,” but rather a writer’s attitude toward the work. Her premise was related to Damon Knight’s concept of “Fred” as the subconscious, though she referred to hers as “SP” or Silent Partner. It’s the part of the brain this stuff (whatever this “stuff” may be) bubbles up from, and it has to be encouraged and reinforced.
Simply put, the more you use story ideas/notions the more you get story ideas/notions, because doing so is positive reinforcement for your own “Silent Partner.” The SP wants to give you what you can use, and if you use what it gives, it cheerfully gives more. Let’s leave the speculations on neural pathways and closed feedback loops for another day, but as anyone who’s been doing this a while can tell you, it just works. So how do you make it work for you?
Jay Lake has talked about his “story a week” regimen and it’s hard to argue with results. Such isn’t going to work for everyone, but I’d advise anyone searching for their footing to try it at least once. Other writers produce far less but do all right. Everyone has to sort out their own working habits, always keeping in mind that the point isn’t to test your work ethic, stamina, or virtue, but to produce better and better stories/books at a sustainable rate and so hone your craft as you’re doing it. Any regimen that allows that is a good one, but in my opinion any such regimen requires an important first step before it’s going to work.
Which (thought I’d forgot, didn’t you?) brings us back to attitude. I consider this the key that unlocks the door between you and SP/Fred/Whatever. I remember very clearly the change that came over me when I finally figured this out. It was right around the time I started selling regularly. That is not a coincidence. Before this, I was a story miser. I’m not proud of it, but it’s true. Whenever I had what I considered a really good story notion/image/premise I held onto it with a fist of iron. I worked on it very, very slowly as if I might break it. I polished and refined to the point of obsessiveness. I produced some ok stories this way, but many more that were basically flat and lifeless, with all the quirks and interest chipped away.
I don’t remember what event or cosmic flash twigged me to what I was doing and thus triggered the change in attitude or I would acknowledge and thank it. Just one day I finally realized that I wasn’t being diligent and hard-working ‑‑ I was being a coward.
Deep down I was afraid that, if I let this one story go, I might never see another. Maybe I only had so many good ideas and I couldn’t afford to waste even one. Maybe this, maybe that, maybe something else, and all of it based solely on fear. Everything changed after that. I greeted every new story gladly, did my best for it, and sent it out, not afraid that I’d never see another, but curious and eager to see what would come next. That basically kicked down the door between me and SP, and from that day to this I have never been disappointed. Sometimes the stories come slower, sometimes faster, but they always appear when their time comes around, and I’m ready.
Before that change in attitude my diligence wasn’t going to produce the results I wanted no matter how hard or often I worked at it. Hard work is required but it’s not enough. You must, as Struther Martin once famously put it, “Get your mind right” as well. Without that, you might as well be polishing rocks.