NaNoWriMo Week 4: In praise of devotion to Saint Selfish

How's your word count this week? If you're on track, you're at about 34,000 words. Get in extra this weekend to allow for padding over Thanksgiving (if you're American) because you deserve a day with family, food, and gratitude.

If you're behind, I still urge you not to despair. You are learning about yourself, and about your story, and you are writing more than you were before November, right? We are stepping on the right path. Work as hard as you are able for the month, and then it will be time for appraisal and consideration.

But today, the topic is selfishness.

The worst thing we can do in life is only think of ourselves. The worst thing we can do for our writing is to think of others. Writing is a form of constrained selfishness — when you set about to do the work, the only person in your direct and peripheral vision should be yourself. You should be going inward, and outside distractions and attentions are antithetical to that. This means writers must do something that is generally unacceptable in polite society: we need to give ourselves permission to be selfish.

People in your life will complain to you about this, at some point. What they want more than anything is your attention. The reason it is notable when partners and friends are called out for being supportive is because it is unusual. The reason spouses and children are thanked in books is because they sacrificed a part of their mutual life with the writer for the work to happen. Maybe this is the price of loving a writer as opposed to loving the idea of a writer. But however bad we feel, if we want to write, we must be selfish.

Some people say they support you and your art, and then suspiciously find ways to insert themselves into your writing time. When that happens — and it happens to every writer — you have to make a choice. At times, writing must be put aside. For emergencies, for children in more-than-casual need, for partners who are suffering. But this must be the rare exception, and a hopefully radical one. What you must do with these people is politely explain that they are not welcome in that room of your own. That it is important to you that you have that time to yourself. If, after assuring you that they understand, they continue inserting themselves passive-aggressively into your private time, then you need to decide what is more important: your writing, or them in your life. Perhaps they are curious what it is like inside the room when are you there. The irony is that they will destroy the room by entering it. It is a catch-22. The only way they can find out is to become a writer themselves and be selfish.

Like most things in our modern world, this is gendered. It is absolutely harder for women to carve this space out then it is for men. Even for the most progressive families, women do the bulk of the work at home, and the bulk of the child rearing. The default expectation is that a woman's attention belongs to everybody but herself. It's not only mothers who face this. Societal conditioning towards non-confrontation and niceness, and the pressure that you are to set other people in front of yourself, set a stage where a Greek chorus is always singing in your ear. If you want to write, you must learn to make a place where those voices are summarily dismissed. You absolutely must be selfish about this, and it is appropriate and good that you are. If you need permission, it is granted. Not by any authority I have, but by your recognition of this need, and every writer you have read and admired who has done the same thing I am saying you should do; by the very nature of you holding her book, she has done this, and you should appreciate her sacrifice and echo it in your own work.

Sometimes we force ourselves outside of our attention by looking for people that we can help. As horrible as they are, a person correcting you on social media probably thinks they are helping you. They are giving you, they think, the truth, and the truth will enlighten you (it is an ignorant view, but a common one). They are driven by that same instinct as you are to help your friends. But just like that person not realizing that they are annoying and pedantic, so too do we not realize that sometimes our help, although appreciated, is not always needed.

But alone with ourselves, we feel that lack of connection with other people, and we open Twitter or Facebook, or we check our email to make sure that thing or this thing is done or responded to. This is the same for those who have tens of thousands of items in their inbox, and those who clear every message the moment it comes in.

Being selfish means allowance to be bored, at times, and frustrated, as we work through the story at hand. We must be selfish with other people, and we must be selfish with ourselves. We must put ourselves in quiet spaces uncluttered with outside or internal intention aside from writing, and there, and only there, can we truly apply ourselves to the page.

Try not to talk about your story with friends too much. Imagine your story is like a balloon. Every time you talk about your story, you are letting air out of the balloon. Every time you work on your story — not by thinking about it or talking about it, but by writing words on (real or virtual) paper, you are filling the balloon.

In computer programming there is a term called "rubber duck debugging." When a developer is facing a particularly baffling problem, instead of talking to somebody else about it, she can turn to a rubber duck and explain the code line-by-line until the problem becomes self-evident. Colloquially, it also refers to the phenomenon of turning to a colleague when particularly frustrated and blocked only to find that in explaining the problem, she has solved it without the colleague saying a word. "You might have well as been talking to a rubber duck," they might say.

Because you will face problems — plot issues, dead ends, murderers who couldn't have done it and innocents who too neatly look like they did, propulsion systems that are inartfully explained, bodices too well stitched to rip, small towns too bleak even for empathy — you will need to reason out some things. Because you shouldn't talk to other people about it until your story is set and your balloon is close to popping, try the rubber duck technique.

But who should the writer use instead of the rubber duck? You should use Saint Selfish, the secular saint of writers. She has your face. It is a little like praying to yourself, when you look at her, and we must overcome how uncomfortable that feels. We must embrace it.

It could be that your schedule is such that you have hours and hours each day to worship in her presence. It could be that your schedule is such that you only have twenty minutes. Whatever your window is, this is your time. Turn off the internet. Turn your cell phones on quiet mode, so that they won't buzz or beep or call to you. In fact, put them far enough away that you would need to walk over to them, so as to stop that automatic lifting of the screen without conscious intention.

Then, when you are in the dream of your story, this quiet and this focus manifests like a sucking sound rushing past your ears, and light becoming a pinprick as your world condenses, the aperture squeezes shut and your vision becomes crystalline. You have entered that dream of your story, and you trust — because you have done this work beforehand — that there is none that can remove you from it until you are ready. It is this state of flow that is the dream of the creative person, and although not every writing session will inspire it, those that do will make the rest worth it. And the only way to achieve it is to be absolutely selfish and make sure you will not be interrupted. This is the state where deeply wrought, complex, and communicative art is made.

She is waiting for you; it is high time you demonstrated your devotion to Saint Selfish. Put that icon where she can oversee that you are manifesting proper respect. Close off the world; tell everybody that they can harangue you again when you emerge and not a moment before. Your devotion to Saint Selfish takes effort, but it pays in poems, and stories, and novels. It pays in creation. She is the artist maker, and when you look on her statue, gaze upon the words inscribed at her feet, for they are directed at you and only you. They read: "It is time to write." Do not disappoint her.