Attempt to write enough books over enough time and you start to establish very clear patterns in your progress. While I know a number of people who can wake up every morning to write a few thousand words and then go about their day, I’ve consistently found it impossible for my ADHD brain to shut everything else out unless I’m completely cut off. It’s not writer’s block – it’s simply that I can’t focus on the work enough to get my thoughts clear and express them.
With a shorter article things tend to be a lot simpler – there’s a clear concept I’ve got in mind so I just turn off the wifi and my phone for a few hours, shut the door, and write until I’ve created something that can stand on it’s own. There’s almost a parallel with a sitcom episode here: you venture forth and explore something, maybe develop a character here and there, but at the end of the 22 minute episode things are much the same as they were at the beginning.
Trying to create a book is a completely different animal though. It’d be easy to go with the metaphor of a movie versus a sitcom episode, but in truth writing a stage show feels like a better fit for the movie metaphor – there’s more opportunity to explore themes and ideas, to have a wider and more full developed emotional range, and some room for deeper storytelling.
Comparitively, writing a book feels more like…. more like… a mosaic?
And this is the problem – you write a few paragraphs heading down one path, and you suddenly realise you’re mixing metaphors. or you’re contradicting yourself. Or that you’re rambling on about some bullshit that is completely irrelevant to your point because there are so many points you’re trying to hold in your brain at once. Not just the one in the article you’re writing, or the 4 or 5 that you can do 10 minutes on each to make up a solo show with. Fucking thousands of different points, that are all somehow supposed to fit together into some sort of coherent concept or argument so that someone can say “Oh that book? It’s about BLAH and how BLERT BLEEB overcame BURBLOO”.
The mosiac really is the best metaphor for a book though (or at least the books I try to write) because you’ve got a rough idea of what is going to go where and how the whole thing should look at the end… but you’ve got to create it using thousands of little chunks that are all slightly different and individual, and you’re supposed to glue them all together to create the final image while making the most of each and every chunk.
When I’m writing an article, I’ve usually got just one or two chunks to work with and most of the work is arranging them so their edges match up. When I’m writing a comedy show I’m working with more chunks, but most of the work is just grouping them together by colour and matching the edges together in the funniest way I can. But a book requires a third level above simple colour-matching: matching the edges, grouping the colours together, and also having those colours create the larger image as well.
THERE! That was the metaphor I was looking for. Checkmate!
The whole point of this rambling is to try to explain why I need to disappear for 2 and 3 months at a time just to write a book draft, and hopefully justify why it always seems to take two weeks on my own to really begin writing a book – the noise of humanity completely drowns out my own little voice. The one that knows what it wants to say and why it needs to be said, and gives me that underlying book structure – the outline and colours of the mosaic – that I can then start matching colours and fitting edges into.
Becoming Martian had a clear structure from the start, supposedly being broken into three sections each dealing with how humanity would change physically, psychologically, and culturally (aka body, mind & soul). I wrote the first draft of Becoming Martian in late 2014 during a 10 week housesit, but most of it was written in a single 23-day stretch where I pumped out about 50,000 words. When I came back to edit that draft in early 2017 however, I threw out about 90% of it. So for all the unhelpful folks telling me they wrote their 60,000-word autobiography in just 10 days – kindly fuck off.
Ever since the massive re-write of Becoming Martian, I’ve realised that books don’t just capture a set of ideas for me – they also capture where I am emotionally at the time I’m writing them. Which if I’m honest is why writing Cosmic Nomad has been so delayed. The 2016 stage show captured exactly where I was perfectly: wounded by a relationship, but also rediscovering my excitement for life while touring the world performing comedy, and excited about the potential of Mars One selection in the second half of that year.
Three years on though and the major setbacks with Mars One have rightly taken their toll on my enthusiasm. Each year it’s looked like things were about to suddenly change for the better, and each year the radio silence has been deafening… to the point where I stepped away from it completely at the end of last year to explore a career in teaching scuba again. Some time away from speaking about Mars One renewed my passion for space, and reminded me that while I love diving I also hate teaching entry-level open water every damn day.
For a while there I was getting all my notes together to write Cosmic Nomad so that as soon as we were given 6 months notice on the next selection round I’d be able to pour my heart and soul out into writing it – fuelled by the certainty of the selection date. It was a nice way to procrastinate, but as time went on I realised that writing a book that captures all that I’ve experienced in the last 7 years since discovering Mars One needs a lot more time and energy than the burst of enthusiasm a selection date would provide.
So I started with what I could do without isolation: the incomplete 101 Things To Do Before You Die. My 5 weeks on Flinders Island last year were enough to tune into that little voice and establish an overall structure for the whole book: a modified version of the stage show that radically expanded some parts while maintaining the vulnerability and pure glee of others. A year later, and I’m housesitting on the Mornington Peninsula – three months of solitude in my own little Thoreau cabin to fill that structure with chunks of matched colours.
Finally everything is in place to zero-in on writing, tune-out the noise of society, and do the work… and it feels like my brain is a complete and utter mess.
There is so many ideas to try and juggle at once that I’m being consistently overwhelmed at the moment, and it’s been infinitely easier to say “Oh, this is just the adjustment period!” and watch Futurama instead of sitting down and hammering out just 1,000 words each day. It should be paint by numbers at this stage, with an overall structure clearly defined and even a comedy show to review if I need guidance. But the devil is in the details: do I save a story to the end as I did in the comedy show, shift it to the middle like I’d sketched out last year on Flinders Island, or do I share it now because I’ve just realised how perfectly it connects with the section I’ve just written?
Stepping back from the book writing to write something like this provides excellent perspective… even if the frustrations from the book can bleed into an article at the start 😉 Ultimately it’s the final “image” that is really important – the overall concepts and arguments of the book and how reading it makes you feel. The colour and edge matching between chunks is important, but I think the last two weeks I’ve been bashing my head against a wall with this book draft because I couldn’t see the forest from the trees… and yes, I’m mixing metaphors deliberately now.
I’ve been so focused on using everything from those 30 pages of “chunks” that I’ve often lost sight of what part of the mosaic they’re forming in the first place. Does it really matter if I find a clever way to summarise each of the big five extinctions, when I’m really just using extinction-level events as a way to reinforce that everyone’s time on Earth is precious? Or do I just touch briefly on all the ways humanity could be wiped out and focus on how I’m making the most of my time on Earth? This isn’t a trick question: I spent about 4 hours behind the laptop yesterday and wrote a grand total of 650 words because I was tussling with this exact problem, spent way too long looking up when different extinction events happened and which species were hit hardest.
I’m happy with how the section turned out, but it was pretty clear that I was far more absorbed in the fine details than the broader perspective. I’ve also realised that while watching Futurama feels lazy, that I’m not being “productive” or “making the most of the opportunity”, I also haven’t actually stopped to appreciate that I’ve done a hell of a lot more in these last two weeks than I have in the first two weeks of any other housesit or writing retreat. It’d be great to just leap right in, but even doing a couple of hours each day of my 2nd week here has been a huge improvement over to first three weeks I completely wasted “editing” Becoming Martian in early 2017. I’ve also read more books in the last two weeks than I have at any other point in the last 3 years, exercised each afternoon, walked the doy while listening to audiobooks each morning, and practised Wim Hof breathing almost every time I wake up.
Yes, I’m immensely frustrated that my “fertile solitude” hasn’t been as productive as I’d hoped… at least so far. But I also need to remember that for me book writing is a slow burn: It’s been tough to keep turning up every morning to write, but I’m also tackling a far harder and deeply personally book than ever before, and while I wish I could do better than I am, I need to remind myself that I’m already doing far better than I ever have before.
And on that note, I’m off to cook dinner and watch Futurama.