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Member Dispatch: Mastering Futility

by Drea Knufken

Drea reading at the Lit Fest participant reading.

Drea reading at the Lit Fest participant reading.

I should just give up.
Literature is too smart for me.
My destiny is to be a corporate copywriter.

When those voices win, I stop the literary nonsense. I wake up at a reasonable time, I work hard for my clients, I come home and immerse myself in Game of Thrones.

I think: I could have written that.

I get bored.

And it starts again. The literary addiction. Getting up at 5:45 a.m. to write before my day job. Fine-tuning characters at lunch. Editing and editing until I have a draft of something that I still don’t like enough.

I should just give up …

Six months ago, I finally got sick of it. Five years of this pattern, and I’d never finished a thing! Rather than mastering the craft, I’d earned a master’s degree in futility.

From Desperation Comes Coaching

When in doubt, outsource. That’s what corporate America has been doing for a decade, and I decided it was my turn. I outsourced my motivation to bodybuilder, vagabond, boxer, and former professional seaweed harvester Jonathan Starke, who also happens to run Palooka lit mag and write mean short-form literature. Oh, and coach writers like me.

Starke short-circuited the whole I should just give up … pattern. I found myself actually finishing things. Then re-finishing and re-building them as necessary. Instead of hiding my drafts in a file and dialing back my hopes, I awoke every morning, turned on an egg timer and started in on a draft.

With Starke’s guidance, I was able to finish two stories. Two. It was like finding the Holy Grail in my backpack after years of digging for it with a pickaxe and shovel.

The Lighthouse Intervention

Unfortunately, Story #3 did not follow the miracle trajectory. After 55 hours of egg-timed labor, it emerged as the literary equivalent of a disfigured Mr. Potato Head. Starke was nicer about it: “I appreciate the ambition, but I don’t think these things are connecting. I think there are 2 or 3 different stories in here.”

I should just give up.

But I couldn’t. If futility won now, I’d be tattooed not only by five years of lost efforts, but as someone who couldn’t even succeed after outsourcing her own motivation.

At the urging of Andrea Dupree—she’d been urging me for a while—I finally signed up for a Lighthouse workshop. It sounded innocent enough. Fiction Toolbox, taught by Doug Kurtz. If I’d just spent 55 hours screwing up a story, I might as well learn some new tools, right?

As it turned out, I pretty much gutted Doug’s toolbox to spin off a new story from the old three-headed one. I spent four hours drawing character- and setting webs on a piece of paper, fine-tuning the conflicts and stakes of the story. Before writing a word, I had the characters conceptualized in such detail that I could almost see them hovering in the ether.

LitFest: The Final Injection Against Futility

I was almost done with the first draft of my new story when Lit Fest came along. I put the draft through a regimen of potent teachings. Robin Black’s Revision class taught me to front-load the central conflict of each story. I went through every sentence and asked myself: what is the purpose of this? Whenever I found a character staying quiet or walking out of the room, I made them do something instead.

In the weekend intensive with David Wroblewski, in which we spent seven hours dissecting John Cheever’s “Goodbye, My Brother,” I learned how to make a first-person narrator overtly unreliable, but still likable. I inserted the viewpoint of “us” (first-person plural) to help build family consciousness, and I discovered plot not as a linear trajectory, but as a set of patterns and repetitions.

Michael Nye’s Point of View class taught me to make time constraints and historical markers clear in the first paragraph. In Gordy Hoffman’s dialogue class, I learned how to concentrate dialogue into its simplest, most distilled and most powerful form. Finally, per Gordy’s advice, I asked my characters what else needed to happen in the story.

Was It Done?

After one final edit, done at a picnic table in the Flat Tops Wilderness, when I by all rights should have been relaxing, I couldn’t look at the thing anymore. I sent it off to Starke with a disclaimer:

I have a draft for you (attached). There’s something wrong with it, but I can’t put my finger on it. Let me know what you think and thanks for taking a look.

Jonathan wrote back:

So, you want to know what’s wrong with the piece? Let’s start with what’s right — pretty much everything. Wow, right? You just clearly KNOW this story. It’s amazing because the story DOES NOT read like you mapped it out at all. It certainly FLOWS like you did, but if anything, it just seems like a woman who had a burst of writing madness and this story came forth.

Me:

Did I finally write something that turned out well right away? Wow. I kind of can’t believe it. I think I need a nap now.

Futility: It’s a Personal Thing

To sum it all up, I’m stubborn. I spent five years looping between tenacity and hopelessness because I thought I could figure everything out by myself. When I grew frustrated enough to seek help, the loop broke. The tenacity started yielding results, and the well of hopelessness grew shallow.

Because I was accustomed to failure, I paid close attention to everything I learned. I applied the teachings to see which ones worked. Eventually, something did.

I’ve come out of this experience not with a fear of failure, but with an aversion to staying there. The I should just give up … pattern is comfortable. It is familiar. But listening to it, buying into it — that is futile.

I will always learn.
I am smart enough for literature.
I do not know my destiny. 

Lighthouse members, teachers and staff, Lit Fest volunteers—all I can say is, thank you.

7 comments on “Member Dispatch: Mastering Futility

  1. mjhenry
    July 3, 2013

    Tenacity wins! Well done, Drea!

  2. cathyannelaine
    July 3, 2013

    Wow, such inspiration. Thank you!

  3. Pamela Kerr Martin
    July 4, 2013

    Drea, this was really inspiring to read. Thanks for sharing with someone else who has similar struggles.

  4. Drea
    July 8, 2013

    Thanks for your comments, everyone. I’m relieved I’m not alone in the alligator-wrestling aspect of writing. I appreciate all of your feedback.

  5. William J. Grabowski
    January 15, 2014

    Hi Drea:
    I came to this via your Elance piece–which you nailed. I’ve been getting work through them since Oct. 2012, but have been publishing since the 1980s. After reading this blog, I told myself: “She knows…” I’ve found the Elance deal a sort of feast-or-famine affair, and have entered a few dark literary alleys with less-than-empathetic clients. Outside of my other writing/editing, I’m glad Elance exists. I’ve snuck in (ghostwriting for John Kluge) the back door at Forbes.com, and been offered $5.00 to edit a pamphlet from a less $-conscious client. No kidding!

    Anyhow, I really enjoy and appreciate what you have to say, and am delighted to’ve “discovered” you. I look forward to reading (past and present) more.
    All Best,
    Bill Grabowski (William J. Grabowski)

    • Drea
      January 15, 2014

      Bill, thanks for your comment. I’m glad, if a bit surprised, to hear that the Elance article still hits the mark. I assumed things would change over the years, but I guess they haven’t. Glad you’re finding some good jobs there (and some story-worthy ones, sounds like). My turn to look you up now!

      • William J. Grabowski
        January 16, 2014

        Hi, Drea:
        Thanks so much for responding. These days, where no one seems to have time to breathe, it matters to me. As you know, the Internet too often gives clients the impression that writers don’t require sleep. Never at night, in my case–but I choose that. Your integrity and practical vision are not going unnoticed. Frankly–you rock.

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